Celebrating two centuries, looking ahead to our third

Joanne Berger-Sweeney
Photo by Julie Bidwell

One among many truly uplifting moments for me this semester was the enthusiastic response we received from our community to take part in planning Trinity College’s Bicentennial Celebration. More than 150 people volunteered or nominated someone to play a role in this effort. This outpouring was yet another sign of how proud we all are to be part of the Trinity community.

There is pride in the college’s long history, no doubt: When we mark our bicentennial in 2023, the college will have persisted through domestic and global conflict, the Great Depression, and not one but two global pandemics. And there is pride in the enduring relevance of the college and the importance of a Trinity education in advancing knowledge, cultivating leaders, and serving the public good. There is no better occasion than our bicentennial to celebrate our history, to lift up our values, and to set a course together for our third century.

As we announced in a letter to the community in March, we will kick off the Bicentennial Celebration in September 2022. The festivities will continue throughout the year, including on May 16, 2023, the 200th anniversary of the state’s granting of a charter to Bishop Thomas Church Brownell and a committee charged with the incorporation of a new college.

Our planning will begin in earnest this summer. Philip Khoury ’71, H’21, former vice chair of Trinity’s Board of Trustees and Ford International Professor of History and Associate Provost at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Kelli Harrington Tomlinson ’94, a current Trinity trustee who serves on the boards of numerous educational and cultural organizations and as co-president of the Tomlinson Family Foundation, will lead an overarching Celebration Group that will meet quarterly beginning in June. The Celebration Group will provide oversight and guidance to a Bicentennial Steering Committee, chaired by Director of Major College Events Kate McGlew, and a number of to-be-determined subcommittees devoted to specific themes or initiatives. All groups will include volunteers from every part of the Trinity community. Please join me in thanking all who have raised their hands to help in this grand effort, and especially Philip and Kelli for their leadership.

Commemorating a milestone such as this affords us the opportunity not only to celebrate but also to reflect on our history in all its complexities. We will be a more enlightened institution if we take this opportunity to provide a fuller telling of Trinity’s founding and its evolution. To that end, the Primus Project, launched in 2020 and named for Hartford native and educational pioneer Rebecca Primus, is reviewing historical research with a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation’s Directors’ Discretionary Grants Program made at my request. The group’s work will add to our historical knowledge and inform our Bicentennial Celebration and the broader narrative of the college. 

Thorough, rigorous research is critical, and as an academic institution, we value it deeply. As I also reported in March, we erred last year in moving too swiftly to a decision to rename Seabury Hall based on work that later was found to be incorrect. I regret this error and have apologized to members of Bishop Seabury’s family. The grant-funded Primus Project research is one step in our commitment to a full and accurate telling of Trinity’s history and an honest consideration of our past on the occasion of our bicentennial.

Another step is the restarting of a committee established by the Board of Trustees in 2013 under President Jimmy Jones to assist in the naming of spaces on our campus. The Committee on Named Facilities and Commemoratives, which until now was created but not ever charged with specific responsibilities, will begin its work in July 2021 and will help the college develop a consistent, deliberate process for naming (or renaming) spaces at Trinity.

To be clear, this is not an effort to erase or change history. This committee’s most important charge will be to create clear and specific objectives and criteria for naming buildings and spaces. Those whom we choose to honor with named spaces should exemplify Trinity ideals and signal to ourselves and to the wider world who we are and what we value. We are not alone in grappling with such questions, of course. Many institutions—public and private—are examining their histories, aiming to honor what is noble and good while acknowledging past wrongs and paying tribute to those whose stories were previously unknown. This is critically important work of the academy.

As we look toward our bicentennial at Trinity, we recognize that all histories are complicated, and, just as we do in our work as educators every day, we seek truth, understanding, and, ultimately, enlightenment.