VERMONT VOICES: Q&A with Bennington College President, Laura Walker

INTERVIEW BY

JOSHUA SHERMAN, MD.

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY

LAURA WALKER

Walker is the President of Bennington College, the former CEO and President of New York Public Radio (NYPR), and the former Vice President of Development at Sesame Workshop. A visionary leader, Walker oversaw NYPR’s transformation from two small radio stations to the nation’s largest nonprofit radio station group. Walker was named by Crain’s as one of New York City’s 50 Most Powerful Women in 2009 and 2017. She is a firm believer in the transformative power of education, and she is now using her leadership experience to further elevate Bennington College’s innovative academic programs.


Sherman: Welcome, Laura! It’s wonderful to be speaking with you.


Walker: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Sherman: Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born?

Walker: I was born in New York City. I was brought up for the most part in Tarrytown, New York.

Sherman: What did your parents do for work?

Walker: My dad was a music major at Columbia. He was the first in his family to go to college. He had been in the Army and had been in the Army band, and he was a jazz musician. He worked his way through Columbia playing gigs and working for the President of Columbia, President Eisenhower, who was Dwight Eisenhower’s brother. My dad did not go into music. He went into advertising. He was a “Mad Man.” My mom, who came from a long line of Lutheran ministers, was a social worker. She worked until she was 80 years old. We always teased her

that her work was taking care of the elderly—and many of her clients were younger than she was!


Sherman: You recently were the keynote speaker at the “Women in Leadership” Luncheon, here in Southern Vermont, where you shared some of your mother’s advice from your early years. Can you share some of the lessons that you learned from her?

Walker: From my mom, I learned how to balance being a working mother and having a career. She was a real inspiration to me in so many ways. When she had gone back to work full time, I was about 16. I picked her up at work in the car, she got in, and she didn’t say hello, she just said, “Laura, I have some advice for you: If you’re going to work full time, you better really like the people you work for. You’re going to see them more than you’re going to see your family. And you better love what you do, because this is such an important part of your whole person.” She said it as if she had found a purpose and a community of people who she really just enjoyed being with. As I was picking a career, I thought a lot about picking something that I was passionate about and could make a difference in.

Laura stands between her mother and father

Sherman: That is very good advice. What Did you learn from your dad?

Walker: My dad was creative. He was a musician, and he listened to jazz all the time. I grew up listening to jazz with him every morning on WRVR. It was a fabulous jazz station that was broadcast from our church, Riverside Church. I grew to love jazz and classical music. When I was in my teens, the church that owned the station began conversations about whether to sell that radio station to get some money. In the end, my father was the only holdout on the church council. He did not want to sell the station. He thought that it was too important for the church. He also thought that jazz was too important to the cultural life of New York City, and that they could make more money later if they held onto it. They sold it for a million dollars, and it probably was worth about $80 million or $100 million at one point in the last ten years or so. That stuck with me very much, because when I went to WNYC, I was hired by a board that was buying the station to preserve it, to make it better, and to deepen the traditions and the connection to the city— and not turn it into what WRVR became, which was a commercial station. I learned from him the tenacity to fight for what is right, and I learned from both of my parents the importance of social justice.

Laura (on the right) with her sister Emily.

Sherman: Some people know what they want to do very early on. With others, it takes time. As a child, did you know what you wanted to do?


Walker: I don’t know that I always thought about it as a career, but I did want to be a journalist. I wrote for the newspaper in high school, and I was a photographer. I was really interested in telling stories. It was during college that I really realized that I wanted to be a journalist. I went to Wesleyan and got a degree in history, but I also did something that’s very “Bennington.” I took a semester off and did an internship. I went to WGBH in Boston, and that was where my love of public radio started. From that moment on, that’s what I wanted to do. It was a really transformative internship, because I went in, and they asked me, “What do you want to do? I said, “I don’t know what I’m more interested in: music or journalism.” They said, “Why don’t you split it into two, half and half.” The first story I got assigned at WGBH was a story about the Boston City Jail. The incarcerated individuals were protesting the conditions, which were terrible. My editor said, “Okay. I want you to do a story on this. Come back and pitch me an idea.” I came back with reports from The Boston Globe about the protests, about the condition of the jail, and about the fact that it had been condemned. I came in, and I said, “Here’s what I suggest: I think we should talk to the mayor and the police commissioner.” My editor stopped and said, “What do you REALLY want to know?” I said, “Well, I really want to know what’s going on there.” She responded with, “Who do you really want to talk to?” I said, “I want to talk to the people who are organizing this protest.” She said, “Go do it.” I went to the jail, I met with the two people who were heading the protests, and I heard the story of why they were protesting. I also talked to some of the guards there. I think that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten, because it made me think of what the REAL story was, who I wanted to hear from, what the unheard voices were, and how I could lift them up. That’s what radio is about: the power of a story to change minds.

Laura as the Tin man on Halloween circa 1968

Sherman: What happened after you graduated from Wesleyan?

Walker: When I left Wesleyan, I had one goal in mind: I wanted to get a job at National Public Radio (NPR). I loved public radio. The person who eventually hired me at NPR said, “This is like graduate school. Everyone’s in their 20s and early 30s.” There were these amazing women journalists: Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Susan Stamberg, and Cokie Roberts. Those women were such an inspiration for me. I loved it. I was a producer, I was a reporter, and I actually directed a show that won the Peabody. It was a five-hour live show called, The Sunday Show, and I was filling in as the director for the show. I also had a great experience producing a series called, NPR Recital Hall. It was submissions from all around the country from amateur musicians. One of the things that I loved producing was a recital by a young man named Bert Wells who was a harpist. About eight years later, I met Bert Wells in person—and he is now my husband!

Sherman: That’s a wonderful story! Let’s talk about your time at Yale Business School. Can you tell me about your experience there?


Walker: I was propelled to go to business school, because I wanted to be thinking about strategy and creativity from that perspective. I applied only to Yale. At the time, it was a new business school. The degree actually was a Master’s of Public and Private Management. I had been out in the world for six years and working, and I loved it, but also loved going back to school and spending two years with an incredible group of people, many of whom are very close friends. It really pushed me to think analytically and think about individual behavior and group behavior strategy.

Sherman: Mentorship is so critical. Who were some of your early mentors?


Walker: The editor at WGBH was an early mentor. There was also a guy at WGBH who was on the music side. Three weeks into my internship, he got mono. He called me into his office and said, “Laura, I want you to take my job for the next three months.” He really believed in me and was a huge mentor. Joan Ganz Cooney at Sesame Workshop was also a real mentor of mine. She had asked me to create a development department. I had never raised money before, and I said, “Joan— you’re kidding me! I have never asked anyone for money before, and you want me to run the development department for this multimillion-dollar organization?” She said, “Yeah.” I watched her like a hawk, and I learned a lot from her in terms of the way she asked for money, and also from her belief that it takes passion in a product and a sense of mission to raise money. She was an incredible mentor.


Sherman: Can you tell me: How’d you get…how’d you get to Sesame Street? (Sesame Workshop, to be exact)


Walker: I had done consulting between my first and second year at Yale at Boston Consulting Group, because I wanted to do something totally different. I really wanted to learn all about the corporate world. I got offers from other consulting firms, and I almost did that, but what I really loved was the intersection and connection between strategy, mission, and creativity. That was what Sesame Workshop offered. Some people thought I was crazy, because I was the only woman who had gotten all those offers from consulting firms. I felt like, on some level, I was letting people down, but I followed my heart, and half of my friends applauded me. I remember that when I was deciding what to do, it was around the time when I was being introduced to Vermont. One of my close friends at business school had a family friend who had a house here, and we used to come up to Londonderry to get away. We did that for years, both in graduate school and then afterwards. I remember thinking about that MAJOR decision in Londonderry, Vermont.

Laura at one.

Sherman: There’s no better place or time to make a big decision than when you’re relaxing in Vermont! I’d love to ask a bit more about Sesame Workshop. Did you get a chance to know Jim Henson?

Walker: I knew Jim a little, and I will always remember that I saw him in the office a week before he died. I will also always remember his funeral, which was at St. John’s Cathedral in New York. We all had green lights, and everyone sang, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” It was the most moving, incredible moment, because all of the Muppets were there. He was a huge creative force and a lovely man. I knew him from afar as part of the creative team, but he always had this wonderful smile on his face. He was able to connect education and incredible writing and create something new.

Laura at her wedding

Sherman: Do you have any fond memories of hanging out with Oscar the Grouch or Snuffleupagus?


Walker: I have a memory that I can share. One day, Joan Ganz Cooney said, “You’re going to go down and testify in front of a Senate subcommittee on education.” I thought, “Oh my gosh, really? I better figure out what I’m going to say.” It turned out that I was going with Big Bird. So Big Bird (Carroll Spinney) was in first class and Big Bird had his own seat. And before leaving, my boss said to me, “You can say something brilliant or you can say something stupid—it doesn’t matter at all. Everyone’s just going to be looking at Big Bird, and everyone’s going to want to have their picture taken. That’s why we’re doing this.” That was really fun. And, in fact, no one cared an iota about what I said, but every single Senator wanted their picture taken with Big Bird.

Sherman: What happened next in your career after Sesame Workshop?


Walker: I got a call that Mayor Giuliani had decided to sell WNYC. There was a board of a foundation that was associated with the station, mostly people who had been appointed by mayors. That board stood up to Giuliani and said, “You cannot sell this station to the highest bidder. You have to sell it to us.” When they hired me, they were looking for someone who wouldn’t be reporting to the mayor, but would be reporting to them. This was about saving a station, like my dad had always wanted to save WRVR. And it was about journalism. It combined everything, and it was fabulous.


Sherman: Your time at NYPR was characterized by exponential growth, with monthly audiences growing from 1 million to 26 million, and annual revenues increasing from $8 million to $95 million. Can you walk us through that remarkable growth and the processes that were put in place in order to make it happen?

Walker: The big moment came on 9/11. Every single one of our reporters was out covering one of the polling places, because it was also the primary day for a mayoral election. I was in Brooklyn when the planes hit. I took the last subway car from Brooklyn to Manhattan, came into the station, and we rallied the troops. We were reporting for so much of New York and for the country, because we were the eyes and ears for NPR. The TV stations went down, so there was very little news. Our FM antenna was on top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, but we had the AM station. It was one of the very few sources of New York news on that day, and in the weeks and months to follow. We doubled down our commitment to New York journalism. We understood deeply what it meant to have not just the facts, but a community of people who needed each other and needed information. We built out an investigative unit, and we built out the radio units that were reporting for all the shows, and for the top-of-the-hour news. The other big thing was that we started creating some national programs. We started asking, “What are the stories we want to tell from New York?” We had a mission statement that was, “To make the mind more curious, the heart more open, and the soul more joyful through excellent audio programming that is deeply rooted in New York.” We launched Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, we started Radio Rookies, because we wanted to tell the stories of teenagers in New York, and Alec Baldwin came up with an idea for a show called, Here’s The Thing. It was all about building a culture of innovation and putting really smart people together.

Laura at camp in 1971.

Sherman: Let’s talk about Bennington College. On June 1, 2020, you were announced as the 11th President of Bennington College. How did your experiences at NYPR and Sesame Workshop inform your approach at this new position in higher education?


Walker: I was so honored to be selected as Bennington’s 11th President. I fell in love with Bennington the moment I came on campus. What I bring to Bennington, I think, is a love of the mission that is very similar—in my view— to NYPR and Sesame Workshop. It’s about education. It’s about making the mind more curious. It’s about seeing education as transformative, changing lives and changing the world. What I bring as a leader is the experience of having shaped, led, and helped grow important organizations that are in the field of education. I bring a passion for the mission and for Bennington’s approach to education. There is no other school like Bennington. Its approach is to look at education not just as a kind of intellectual exercise, but as an aesthetic one and a creative one, and to center education around students’ own interests and put arts at the center of the curriculum. To quote our commencement statement, which is read twice a year at Bennington, “Bennington regards education as an essential and ethical, no less than intellectual process. It seeks to liberate and nurture the individuality, the creative intelligence, and the ethical and aesthetic sensibility of its students to the end that their richly-varied natural endowments will be directed toward self-fulfillment and toward constructive social purposes.” That’s what the founders defined Bennington as, and that’s what we still do. And we do it in a way that gives students the agency and creativity to follow their own interests and to create their own narrative and their own lives. We need creative thinkers, we need that kind of self-directed learning, and we need our graduates to have a sense of confidence and a sense of purpose that will change the world.


Sherman: You became the President of Bennington College during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think that your experience with 9/11 when you were working at WNYC specifically prepared you for taking the reigns at Bennington at the start of the pandemic?


Walker: Yes, because I had led an organization through several crises that were not of our own making. One of the most wonderful things about coming to Vermont at that time, despite its difficulty, was the community of college presidents here. I was really struck with how the college presidents worked together so well. During the pandemic, we came together as a group to share information, share resources, problem solve, and compare notes about how we were all dealing with it. That was similar to 9/11, where the public radio community was very much together and thinking about how we could be better together. The college community was terrific. The students also did an amazing job of coming together as a community and supporting each other. In that sense, it was a great introduction. Seeing how the faculty turned on a dime to be able to do online classes was extraordinary.

Laura at Bennington College.

Sherman: Tell us about your life here in Vermont. Earlier in the interview, you mentioned your ties to Londonderry. How does it feel to be here full-time?


Walker: I love Vermont. It’s just so magical. When I came to Bennington (to be interviewed), my husband and I drove up the hill and just fell in love. It was the most amazing experience. It was a feeling that enveloped a creative spirit. I could see Donna Tartt, I could see Helen Frankenthaler painting her paintings. I could see Michael Pollan walking around and Peter Drucker and Erich Fromm, and I could see what Bennington could be and how special it was. If you go into our dining hall, people are with each other and talking to each other. They’re present. They want to be together. They’re forming deep friendships. That’s what Vermont is about. It’s a culture of human interaction and beauty.


To listen to the extended interview with LAURA WALKER go to VTVOICES at

OldMillRoadRecording.com

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