When I mention to people that I’m writing an essay about Trinity College’s relationship with the City of Hartford in recent decades, many quickly reply that “Trinity has done nothing.” But the truth is that Trinity College has played a large role in transforming the future of some of its residents through collaboration via community service projects and internships at a multitude of Hartford organizations. However, the relationship between Trinity College and the Hartford community struggles. The college community differs greatly from the city of Hartford and at times seem like two completely different worlds. In its founding, Trinity College was in constant collaboration with the city but over the years, with Hartford’s changing character, the connection between both communities grew wider and wider. After “white flight” in the 1970s Hartford struggled economically as Trinity managed to repel the issues that came with residing in the city. Hartford’s ills, did not go unnoticed by some in the college community. How did Trinity College view its relationship with Hartford in the 1980s and 1990s, and how have different presidents expressed changing strategies during this time?
Over a 20 year period beginning in 1981, the Trinity College administration has made efforts to improve community relationships in Hartford. Despite these efforts, the interactions with the Hartford community have remained strained. Although community service and service learning projects make efforts to improve Hartford appear superficial from the outside, there has been a direct attempt that has been deeply embedded into several administrations that had a mission to help improve the surrounding Hartford community and its relationship with them. Trinity College has not only executed vanity projects in the Hartford community. Instead, the efforts made by administrations over time have aimed for systemic change within surrounding neighborhoods. Though different administrations have had a different perspective on what aspects relating to the college and the Hartford community should be prioritized, there was a commonality of recognizing that Hartford was home to Trinity and that the college’s urban setting was something that should be embraced instead of erased. James Fairfield English, Jr, Tom Gerety, and Evan S. Dobelle each made changes during their administration and had varying effects.
Trinity College, founded in 1823, is a liberal arts college located in an urban environment. In its founding Hartford, looked a lot different than it does today. Founded by religious leaders and wealthy investors from Hartford, the student body greatly reflected the city in the nineteenth and early twentieth century making it easier for the college to feel like a part of the city. As American industrialization, widespread immigration, and the Great Migration of African Americans changed Hartford demographics, Trinity’s remained unchanged. Before the 1960s, its student body, mostly male and white, lacked diversity. Demands from black students and student leaders pushed the college to become co-ed and admit a larger number of African American students through scholarships. Today the city of Hartford, Connecticut’s capital, is a majority-minority city with more than half of it’s residents coming from an African American or Latino background. Although Hartford is only 17 square miles, it is densely populated and plagued with poverty. The average income in the city in a little over $16,000. (U.S Census 2010) while the cost of tuition at Trinity College is $65,000.
On July 1, 1981 James English, Jr. took over as president of Trinity College. Formerly the chairman of Connecticut’s Bank and Trust Fund, English had a background in finance and planning and grow up in Hartford. He recognized Trinity as being “on the periphery of the city” when recognizing its need to have a stronger relationship with it (Knapp, p. 483). As President English stepped in, the College’s Board of Trustees was recognizing the colleges increasing struggle with student enrollment and money problems. English’s background in business was the ideal fit. As he emphasized Trinity’s urban location he took on a political approach to the way that he saw Trinity should be managed going forward. “You have to balance some fairly diverse constituencies,” he once stated at the beginning of his term (New York Times, 1981). In the following years displayed that his intentions were to do just that.
President English realized that in order to strengthen ties with the Hartford community, some of Trinity’s resources would have to be utilized and, in turn, prioritized fundraising. In 1985 the college launched the Campaign for Trinity to increase its capital. English’s background proved useful after the administration raised over $50,000,000. During his administration, English took several steps to grow the college’s capacity. He approved the consortium for Wesleyan and Connecticut College in an effort to improve the college’s academic experience and expand the college’s use of technology. In 1989, years ahead of the country’s widespread use of computing technology, the administration designated $6,000,000 to computing and engineering. (Knapp, p. 471) In 1982, the English administration used Trinity’s Individualized Degree Program as a way to strengthen ties with Hartford by actively recruiting students. As a result, students in the program would commonly dwell in the Greater Hartford area. (Knapp, p. 410) Hartford was seen as an asset to the administration to enrich the Trinity College student experience. President James English, during his term initiated a theme of change and community collaboration within the Trinity College community. He efforts recognizing the urban community and seeking to invest in it through the college’s endowment funds set an expectation for future presidents.
Tom Gerety was appointed president of Trinity College in 1989 after the retirement of President English. President Gerety was previously dean of University of Cincinnati College of Law before making the move to Hartford. Continuing with former President English mission of having a commitment to Hartford. While President English primarily collaborated with Hartford organizations While Gerety approved a continuation he also sought to invest in the the surrounding neighborhoods. Stating that Hartford provided a vibrant setting for Trinity college students and faculty. Months into his appointment, Gerety spoke out against racial injustices and quickly took a stance on his views on equality. One of his early initiatives was to promote diversity inside the college. President Gerety formed a committee and appointed four non-white individuals to combat racial tension on campus. Soon his initiatives would go beyond Trinity’s boundaries and spill directly into the streets of Hartford with a new yet familiar face.
In President Gerety’s plan to move efforts into Hartford he started by seeking out one of Hartford’s biggest assets. It was in 1989 that President Gerety appointed Eddie Perez, a community advocate and student of the college’s Individualized Degree Program, “when Trinity’s trustees were in a panic over the deteriorating neighborhood” (Hartford Courant, 2001). This move was a predecessor of future things to come. Perez was brought on to strengthen ties with the the city and college. President Gerety’s strategic plan focused on increasing the College’s academic programs,increasing rigor, and increasing student activities and involvement in on campus activities.
Student and community interaction increased dramatically during this period. For example, one on-campus “Community Outreach” organization composed of Trinity students helped mentor children in the immediate Broad street neighborhood and strengthen ties within the community with Neighborhood Posse initiative. One Trinity Tripod article stated that the Trinity community had negative stereotypes about black and Latino males in Hartford. (Trinity Tripod, 1990) President’s Gerety and his commitment to diversity worked to dissolve some of the negativity. Another example of the changing climate on campus during President Gerety’s administration comes from another Trinity Tripod article recapping a community conversation held to alleviate the homeless problem in Hartford. Trinity College was becoming an institute of change.
President Gerety’s abrupt departure left a hole in the Trinity College community. While an acting president stepped in to take his place the college’s board of trustees sought a new president. When Evan Dobelle stepped in as president of Trinity College in 1994 he was credited for his knowledge of urban settings and capacity to fundraiser. According to the Trinity College tripod, Dobelle has experience with creating solutions in “grim situations.” (Trinity Tripod, December 1994). Though faculty and the board of trustees were optimistic about his appointment, others were skeptical. Gang violence, absentee landlords, and drug related issues were at an all-time high. And as students and administration in the Trinity community stood safe on the hill the issues of Hartford bled into the college’s reputation. As the turbulence in Hartford increased the student yield rate, the rate in which students choose to go to Trinity, decreased dramatically and was at an all time low. The College administration realized that if action was not taken to alleviate some of the community’s issues, Trinity would not be able to uphold its reputation as an intellectual and competitive institution. During his term, Dobelle made many changes, not only inside the college, but outside as well. He focused heavily on revitalizing the surrounding Hartford community by building a learning environment around the college in collaboration with Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance or SINA, a partnership between Trinity College, Hartford Hospital, and the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. During his administration, Dobelle strengthened community learning initiatives with infrastructure that would visually improve the outside of Trinity’s campus.
As the quality of life in Hartford was declining, the neighborhood deteriorated and its reputation affected the college. In response to the low yield rate, the administration also sought to attract students internationally and further across the country. Trinity was marketed aggressively as an institution for change, as it was in the midst of improving the community. President Dobelle’s messaging was directed at embracing the urbanity of the college campus not only locally but globally (Knapp, p. 505). One program during the Dobelle administration was the Trinity’s Center for Neighborhoods or TCN partnered students with nonprofits in the community and assisted with research efforts to gather data for the organizations to work with. Community Learning Initiatives like that of TCN continued throughout President DoBelle’s administration and were centralized to becoming a direct efforts from the College instead of from separate on-campus organizations and faculty. The arrival of The Learning Corridor which connects Trinity College to Hartford Hospital was the catalyst in transforming the community around the college campus.
Trinity College and Hartford are not as distant as they might appear to some and many of the Trinity College’s efforts have not been realized. When issues like those in Hartford exist, twenty years ago and today, it is important that efforts like Trinity Center for Neighborhoods and the Learning Corridor are realizes so these collaborative efforts may continue. As continue Hartford struggles with the same issues, many of the programs launched by Presidents English, Gerety, and Dobelle are still in existence. Some of the names have changed, and so have the faces but Trinity’s College’s commitment to being an urban liberal arts college allow for the possibility of change.