How to Resign and Win Respect

Many of us have pictured resigning. From our jobs or other commitments, the temptation is great to make either too much or too little of it. This week, I received a letter from Elizabeth Coleman, resigning her presidency of Bennington College. I was neither surprised nor saddened. I felt proud for her. That should be the goal of any resignation: make people feel proud to have been along for the ride.

For years I admired Elizabeth Coleman. She turned around a vital institution on the brink of extinction and suffered all manner of sniping for it. But she triumphed in the end.

I feel blessed in my life to have encountered women like Elizabeth Coleman and Judith Krug. Fearless women, I always thought. Anyone who doubts how difficult it is for women to take up unpopular causes, simply consult world news to see how fiercely the status quo drives back young women from their quests to make change.

(Full disclosure: my son went to Bennington College during Coleman’s tenure.)

For any of you wondering what to say when you resign, I include her letter verbatim.

Dear members of the Bennington College community:

I write to inform you of my decision to retire from the presidency of Bennington College at the conclusion of this academic year. Not surprisingly, I do so with deeply mixed emotions. It has been a remarkable 25 years in which to be a part of the Bennington story—but then the next 25 promise to be even more remarkable.

When I became president in 1987 I said: “I accept and greet this charge with something resembling the alacrity and high expectations with which, to butcher Shakespeare, the young bridegroom ‘leaps to his death.’ Those of you unfamiliar with the wondrous meanings of Elizabethan English are cordially invited to come to Bennington College to discover them.”

This suggested an excess of confidence, and ebullience, a soaring order of expectation that verged on madness. But it turned out I was right. Presiding over Bennington has been more than I had dared to dream—exhilarating, tumultuous, challenging, heady—and always, always about things that mattered, things that mattered a lot, and about people of immense dignity, grace, intelligence, and courage.

Amongst the rich array of experiences that have defined this time, for me the most vivid and most treasured was participating in the reanimation of Bennington’s most powerful originating ideas—the teacher as practitioner; the student as shaper no less than as recipient of an education; and the ever-increasing commitment to assuring a rich and complex dynamic between the College and the world. 

Bennington’s maturity as an institution was achieved, in short, not by abandoning or softening its most radical principles, but by embracing and revitalizing them.

The Board of Trustees has already embarked on initiating the search for a new president and will contact you in the near future to assure your participation in that process. At the request of the Board of Trustees, as part of the transition I will serve as the first director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action for two years upon the completion of this academic year.

I look forward to the many occasions we will have over the coming months to celebrate this college, to talk, to remember, and to imagine its future.

With all good wishes,

Elizabeth Coleman