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True Tenure

by Ruth Graham

College seniors may feel like fixtures on campus by the time they graduate, but they've got nothing on two faculty members who recently celebrated 35 years at Colby-Sawyer: Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Education Janet Bliss, who founded and still leads Colby-Sawyer's early childhood laboratory school, Windy Hill, and Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculty Deborah Taylor. Professor Bliss's true tenure on campus stretches back even farther: She earned her associate's degree from Colby Junior College in 1971, an era when streaking was popular on campus and professors used to smoke cigarettes in class. During the war in Vietnam, students protested on the quad. “It was exciting because people cared,” Bliss recalls. “It felt like people really paid attention to the news, and to what was going on in the world.”

After completing a bachelor's degree in elementary education at New England College, Bliss and a friend started their own school in the basement of a church in New London. Fortuitously, Marc Clement, who then led the college's new Child Study Program, enrolled his young daughter at her school. Over the course of that year, Clement convinced the college administration that the new program needed a laboratory school where Child Studies majors would gain direct teaching experience, and with that, Bliss's school moved to the college and became the Windy Hill School in 1976. Although the administration was willing to give Bliss and the school a chance, they were skeptical. She recalls that the college president decided to err “on the safe side” by paying her half of the tuition raised, instead of a normal salary. To his surprise, the school was an instant success. “By the end of the year they didn't want that arrangement anymore,” Bliss says with a laugh. “Gosh, I wish I still had that deal today!”

Windy Hill opened on campus as one large room in the basement of Abbey Hall, a space the children and teachers shared with resident students. If students had planned a party on a weekend, the school had to put all of its supplies away. While teaching at and directing the Windy Hill School, Bliss earned a master's degree in education at Wheelock College. She learned more about the constructivist learning theory in education—in which teachers serve as guides for children's self-directed learning through active play and project-based social interaction—and began to incorporate this approach at Windy Hill.

The school soon expanded into another wing, then the entire floor, and finally, took over the basement of nearby Burpee Hall as well. In October 2010, Colby-Sawyer dedicated a new light-filled building for Windy Hill on a grassy hill with views of Mount Kearsarge.

Over the years, Windy Hill School has evolved not just architecturally, but technologically. When Professor Bliss began teaching, the school had no computers, and she had never even used one until she arrived in her office one day to find a Macintosh sitting on her desk. Dismissive at first because, she says, “I thought in my advanced age, in my 40s, it would be a huge challenge,” she quickly embraced it.

Windy Hill students also embraced computers, along with smart boards, digital cameras and other technologies, as tools they can choose to use in projects and to make their own discoveries.

Professor Bliss plans to retire after this school year, and though it will be difficult to move on from the little school that started out in a church basement, she is proud of what she's leaving behind. “What's inescapable is that the [new] building speaks to the importance of young children and the people who work with them,” she says. “When I leave, I'll think 'Yes. It's on the most beautiful site on campus. How fitting.'”

Enduring Values Amid Constant Change

Vice President Taylor arrived on campus in 1976 to join the Psychology Department, soon after completing her doctorate at Rutgers University. After rising within the department, she became dean of students and vice president for student development, and then returned to serve as chair of what had become the Social Sciences and Education Department. She became academic dean in 2001, and four years later she took on the role of academic vice president and dean of faculty.

Taylor remembers the college's decision to become a coeducational institution as a time of particular upheaval during her tenure. Enrollment had been dropping throughout the 1980s, and remaining an all-women's school simply wasn't feasible. But that pragmatic change wasn't easy for the students who had chosen Colby-Sawyer in part for its single-sex atmosphere.

The college announced the decision a year before the male students arrived, providing time for discussion and planning. There were disagreements among faculty, staff, students, administration and alumni along the way.

“It was a difficult year,” Taylor recalls. At one point, students held a sit-in in Colgate Hall, preventing faculty and staff from entering the building. “It was all very peaceful, very appropriate and very heartfelt,” she says. “It was an expression of how strongly the students felt that they were getting a really marvelous education and wanted things to remain the same.” In the end, however, most parties understood the institution was doing what it needed to do to survive. The first class including male students arrived in the fall of 1990. Taylor echoes Bliss in noting the dramatic technological advancements at Colby-Sawyer in the last three decades. She looks forward to related changes ahead, including the college's plans for expansion.

“We'll continue our pattern of growth and evolution,” she says, adding that distance education plays a role in current planning, although it's difficult to predict exactly what it will look like. “If anyone has a crystal ball and can predict the direction that will take, that would be amazing,” she says with a laugh. “One of the things that makes our work particularly exciting and particularly complex is the fact that we're preparing students to graduate into a world that's changing at such a rapid rate that we don't know what careers or grad programs are going to be like in five or 10 years. It's a reminder that our primary job as faculty is to encourage and lead the way for our students to be lifelong learners.”

Colby-Sawyer has grown and changed significantly since the 1970s—professors no longer smoke in class—but both Bliss and Taylor see a certain abiding institutional character. “The basic values have remained the same through a lot of changes,” Taylor says. “We're very individual in the way we approach our students, and that fundamental value has remained the same.”

Ruth Graham is a freelance writer who lives in New Hampshire.