SETTING THE TONE: AT TRINITY AND BEYOND

Our nation’s recent climate ­— with the tumultuous presidential election, instances of racial discrimination and profiling, and situations involving the intolerance of individual differences — has given everyone pause about the state of the world we live in today. As a college president, I see how our campus is a microcosm of our society at large. We at Trinity College are living many of the same experiences that affect others who are not members of our community. Student protests here and throughout the country have brought into focus pressing issues that have been brewing for some time.

That is why Trinity, in collaboration with the Consortium on High Achievement and Success (CHAS), played host to “Setting the Tone: Student Activism, Community, and Presidential Leadership” in October 2016. This gathering of nearly 40 college presidents and administrators from 18 selective liberal arts colleges engaged in an examination of the leadership role that presidents play in relationship to the questions posed by our students. We purposefully kept the number of attendees small to help foster substantive, meaningful discussions.

The conference aimed to give these college leaders a chance to meet one another and to network, to collect information, and to reflect. The end result, it was hoped, was that the participants returned to their campuses with a set of concrete strategies to transform moments of crisis into opportunities to accomplish much-needed change.

Featured speakers included Shaun Harper, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education; Carol Geary Schneider, Ph.D., president emerita of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U); and Ajay Nair, Ph.D., senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University. All three offered inspiring insight on institutional responses to student activism.

In an ironic mea culpa, the event was scheduled for the same date as Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish High Holiday. We quickly realized that we had failed to be inclusive by thinking of all holidays on that date that might prevent anyone interested from attending. While truly regretful, this incident reminded us that we must be ever vigilant in all that we do; inclusive — in every way, shape, and form — is at the heart of what we aspire to be at Trinity College.

Our student-centered Campaign for Community, introduced in April 2015, examines and addresses diversity and inclusion, as well as many other major issues facing any college, including academic environment, social environment, and community involvement.

The Campaign’s first phase involved assembling five student working groups to identify specific means of improving campus climate. At November 2015’s TrinColl2Action, more than 200 people gathered on a Saturday to learn about the recommendations of the five working groups and to vote on those ideas on the spot by using their cell phones. Next, Phase II, in spring 2016, featured the implementation of many of the ideas. “Living the Vision” became the theme of fall 2016, with everyone in the community challenging themselves to make Trinity the place we wish it to be. For example, our renovated Cave, featured on page 8, seeks to be inclusive through its design. Now, this spring, we plan to continue to bring the best of the Campaign for Community to life.

During these last few semesters, we have witnessed protests on several college campuses, where some students explained that they felt their administrations just didn’t care. I pledge to you that at Trinity College, we care. And at “Setting the Tone,” I shared with college presidents and administrators all the lessons that we have learned along the way.

Watch a video of President Joanne Berger-Sweeney in an interview for The Chronicle of Higher Education.