Joanne Berger-Sweeney

JBS2The Reporter talks with Trinity’s 22nd president

Interview by Sonya Adams

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Ph.D., the 22nd president of Trinity College, began her term on July 1, 2014. The accomplished neuroscientist, scholar, teacher, and administrator joined the College after serving since 2010 as the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Prior to Tufts, Berger-Sweeney served for 19 years as a faculty member and associate dean at Wellesley College.

The first African American and first woman to be elected president of Trinity, Berger-Sweeney received her undergraduate degree in psychobiology from Wellesley, an M.P.H. in environmental health sciences from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in neurotoxicology from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She completed her postdoctoral training at the National Institute of Health (INSERM) in Paris, France.

She and her husband, Urs V. Berger, Ph.D., also a neuroscientist, are the parents of Clara, age 17, and Tommy, age 13.

What follows are excerpts from an interview with Berger-Sweeney that took place during her first month at Trinity.

What about Trinity College drew you to this position?
JBS2First, without a doubt, was the quality of the institution. I had been fortunate enough to spend my life at very high quality, selective universities and colleges. I knew that I had to think about the quality of the institution, and Trinity is very high quality. Second is that I enjoy living in urban areas. I wanted to be in a city, so Hartford was appealing to me. Third, I knew that I needed to be a part of an institution with top-notch faculty members who care about their students. The fourth was the physical beauty of the campus. The first time I walked on the campus, I came through Downes Memorial Arch, and my jaw dropped. It was so beautiful. Fifth is the fact that I believe that I can make a difference here.

What do you see as your immediate priorities?
My first priority is to listen. I can come with my ideas about higher education and certain beliefs about the liberal arts, but my first job is to listen to people’s hopes and aspirations for Trinity and to try to shape my vision along with the collected visions of everyone I hear from–the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees. These are absolutely critical voices in developing a vision.

What do you believe are your greatest strengths, and how will you use them at Trinity?
I would have to say that I have two particular strengths. First, I’m analytical. I’m a scientist. It is an important skill set that I bring to a new job. I like metrics and am focused on outcomes. I’m a bit of a doer. Another strength that I bring is that I come with a very rich, full network of relationships, both within higher education and outside of it.

CommunityGardenParty077What do you hope for the College’s relationship with Hartford?
There are already strong relationships between Trinity College and the community. The Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy is a great example of Trinity College and Hartford working together. I was so impressed with the Academy that we enrolled our son. That’s a very strong connection. Last week I went to Trinfo.Café. I thought that was one of the best examples that I have seen of moving beyond the campus hedges and going into the community to provide people in the local community with technological skills and the help to create resumes to get jobs. How much more profound of an impact can an educational institution have on the surrounding community? We need our relationships with the community to be deep and long lasting. The community knows when you are not invested long term. So much of Trinity’s future is inextricably linked with Hartford’s future. We had better embrace that and make the most of it.

How can Trinity alumni/ae further strengthen the College?
Give a Trinity College graduate a job interview! Trinity has a network of proud and prestigious alumni. Our graduates are leaders across many professions. They know that our students graduate prepared to engage in their communities. The difference between an education at Trinity College and many other places is that our students hope they’re getting a network tied to alumni. It’s not just the relationships students have for their four years here, but, more importantly, that lifetime of networks. I certainly hope that alums are taking that as seriously as I do. We encourage our alumni to give their time, to remain connected, and to financially support the institution.

Why is liberal arts education so important, especially amid the complexities of today’s world?
Fundamentally, liberal arts education prepares our students for careers that don’t yet exist. We don’t know in 20 years what professions will be available. Did anyone 30 years ago predict that people would have a career testing video games? People right now love to talk about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship … individuals who can start a business as well as individuals who can contribute to that business. What is fundamental about every business? The ideas that are driving that business. In liberal arts education, we are in the business of ideas. Aside from business, a liberal arts education gives our students the tools to appreciate the past and analyze new ideas from a multidimensional, global perspective. They learn to understand or even challenge other ideas through their own learning.

What is your perception of the value of interdisciplinary studies?
With interdisciplinary studies, most people are referring to those in between the traditional disciplines. So very often when people speak about interdisciplinary, they’re talking about those areas on the cutting edge of knowledge. I believe that some of the greatest opportunities are where traditional disciplines intersect. So I, as a neuroscientist, am in this new, burgeoning, exciting field of neuroscience, and it arose more or less from physiology and psychology. I also think sometimes people are thinking about multidisciplinary studies, and that if we consider any of the world’s major challenges, it’s going to take a multidisciplinary approach to address them. You can’t think about clean water in Namibia without thinking about the engineering aspects of it, the public health aspects of it, the communications aspect of it, the geology aspects of it. Many of the challenges that we face today and certainly will in the future are going to take both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to address. It’s exciting to see the evolution of fields merging together to not only create great academic opportunities, but to look at solving some of the biggest challenges that the world faces through interdisciplinary studies.

JBSannouncementWhat do you see as Trinity’s biggest challenge, and how will we conquer it?
I think one of the biggest challenges for an institution of higher learning, and particularly a liberal arts college, is to remain relevant outside of the institution and to continue to make the case for the importance of higher education. To me, education is the foundation of our democracy.

How do you envision the evolution of Trinity’s social scene?
I believe that the Trinity social scene must be diverse and inclusive. We need to have a variety of options for people on campus–a variety of social options just as we have a variety of academic options. At the moment, in my mind, that diversity includes Greek society on campus.

What is the most outside-the-box idea you have ever had in your career? What was the result?
Certainly one of the most out-of-the-box ideas I had was to become a president of an institution where I was a first, and that has happened. I am the first female president at Trinity, the first African American president at Trinity, and, to the best of my knowledge, the first scientist to be president at Trinity. I believe being a bit of a pioneer is in my blood. My father was absolutely a pioneer. He finished law school, and according to family lore, got into a car to drive to Los Angeles to set up practice. He was at Howard Law School in Washington, D.C., and he said, “I’m going west.” My mother was the first African American to be the executive director of the Girl Scouts Council of Los Angeles. I was raised to be an out-of-the-box thinker. I believe that it’s part of my job in life to be a pioneer and do things people have not done before. I hope that inspires others to get out of their own comfort zone and find their own way to be a pioneer.

What do you most enjoy doing outside of work?
One thing that I enjoy a lot is reading. The advantage to my previous job was that I had a one-hour commute each way. I listened to books on tape. My luxury was to have the tape and a hard copy of the book, and at night I would read it in my own voice. I am going to have to try to figure out how I can fulfill that need here when I have such a short walk to work.

Is there anything else you want people to know about you?
I want people to know how happy I am to be here, how excited I am, and how optimistic I am about the future. My plan is to be fully and totally vested here and to listen as well as I can, especially at the beginning, so that we’re creating a vision that we want to carry out. I want people to know that I made a very specific choice to come here. I sought this position because I want to be here.

For the latest information about Joann Berger-Sweeney’s Inauguration, visit

A few of her favorite things

Berger-Sweeney offers a glimpse into her life beyond her role as Trinity’s new president, allowing us to get to know her just a little bit better. From favorite book to favorite food, here’s what she likes best.

book1Favorite book from the past year:
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
“I just loved it. I thought it was lyrical and magical. It described Afghanistan–Kabul–before it was war torn and gave me an appreciation of what a magical place it was and is.”

Favorite movie:
West Side Story
“One, I love musicals, and two, the music and dancing are phenomenal. The message and story–about diversity and how it can tear us apart–will never be outdated. It’s a classic.”

Favorite type of music:
“I could say many things, but the truth is, I love musical comedy. The melding of words and lyrics in a great musical is something that just can’t be beat.”

Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night:
“Usually by Saturday night, I am so tired. My favorite thing to do is to put my feet up, and it’s wonderful for the family to sit down and watch a movie together over pizza. I love those times.”

Favorite food:
“My children know this. I love fish. I love salmon, grilled, without a lot of sauce.”

 Favorite hobby:
“Ballroom dancing, particularly Latin dances. It’s a great opportunity for my husband and me to connect and let the rhythm take us away.”

 Favorite season:
“I love them all. I really do. But probably summer is the best. I grew up in L.A., and I just love sunshine.”

Favorite teacher in your life:
“My mentor Joe Coyle, who was my dissertation adviser. A teacher later in my life, but he taught me what it means to be an innovative and precise scientist.”

Favorite lab experiment:
“When I was a graduate student, I worked on the proof of concept studies of a drug that went on, when it was patented, to become the second-most-used Alzheimer’s drug in the world, called Razadyne. That series of experiments had such a profound impact on people’s lives, it just has to be my favorite.”