Serena Elavia ’14
On Thursday March 27, the Presidential Search Committee announced that Dr. Joanne Berger-Sweeney would be the next and 22nd President of Trinity College. Berger-Sweeney is currently the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University in Medford, MA. The Board of Trustees unanimously elected Berger-Sweeney on Tuesday March 25 and she will take the reins of President on July 1, 2014 after current President James F. Jones, Jr. retires after 10 years at the College. Berger-Sweeney’s appointment marks a historic point in Trinity College’s 191 year history as she is not only the first female President, but also the first African-American President. Chair of the Presidential Search Committee and the chair elect of the Board of Trustees Cornelia Parsons Thornburgh ’80 will begin her tenure as chair when Dr. Berger- Sweeney becomes President.
There were numerous events to welcome Dr. Berger-Sweeney to campus. The official announcement of Dr. Berger-Sweeney’s appointment from the Presidential Search Committee came in a campus wide email at 11 a.m. on Thursday March 27. At 1:30 p.m. that afternoon, Dr. Berger-Sweeney greeted hundreds of students, faculty, staff and alumni in the Washington Room. The audience heard speeches from Cornelia Parsons Thornburgh ’80, Dr. Berger-Sweeney and Pres James F. Jones, Jr. Dr. Berger-Sweeney’s husband Urs V. Berger, Ph.D, also a neuroscientist, and her children Clara, 17 and Tommy, 13 were in attendance for the day’s events. Clara is entering her senior year of high school in Natick, MA and will stay in Natick with her father until she graduates. She plans to spend the summer in Hartford and visit on the weekends during the school year. Tommy will move to Hartford with his mom and the family is exploring schools for him to enroll at. One option mentioned by Berger-Sweeney is the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA) citing the school’s beautiful facilities and great teachers.
Berger-Sweeney received her undergraduate degree in psychobiology from the all women’s college Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA in 1979. She then went on to pursue an M.P.H. in environmental health sciences from the University of California, Berkeley, a Ph.D. in neurotoxicology from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and completed her postdoctoral training at the national Institute of Health (INSERM) in Paris, France. After completing her graduate education, Berger-Sweeney returned to her alma mater Wellesley College as the Allene Lummiss Russell Professor of Neuroscience and an associate dean. During her tenure as associate dean, she oversaw 20 academic departments, faculty recruitment, student retention rates and professional development. From 2004 to 2006, Berger-Sweeney created Wellesley’s Neurosciences Program and created an interdisciplinary major in Neuroscience.
After 19 years at Wellesley, Berger-Sweeney became the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and was responsible for developing and directing the strategic vision of Tufts’ largest school composed of 5,000 students, a 385 member faculty and an annual budget of $311 million. She also oversaw undergraduate admissions, athletics, undergraduate and graduate students, the graduate school and communications. At Tufts, she worked closely with Greek Letter Organizations (GLOs) and will be able to draw on that experience when approaching Trinity’s current situation with GLOs. As dean, Berger-Sweeney helped found the Bridge to Liberal Arts Success (BLAST), which helps students who are the first in their family to attend a four year college.
A recipient of numerous awards, Berger-Sweeney has won the National Science Foundation and Young Investigator Award and in 2006 was awarded a Lifetime Mentoring Award from the Society for Neuroscience. In May 2010, the History Makers organization recognized her as one of the nation’s leading African-American scientists. She is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chairs the professional development committee of the Society for Neuroscience. Her area of research focuses in the neurobiology of learning and memory and she has done extensive research in Alzheimer’s disease. Berger-Sweeney brings to Trinity a wealth of management experience and believes in the excellence of a liberal arts education.
The Tripod had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Berger-Sweeney and hear her thoughts on the issues most relevant to students.
As the first female and first president of color at Trinity, Berger-Sweeney describes the feeling as exciting and daunting. “There is excitement of forging into a new territory” she says. Many female and students of color are excited to welcome Berger-Sweeney to campus and she hopes that her presence will socially balance things at Trinity. Currently, the gender breakdown at Trinity stands at 52% male and 48% female and the College has only a 21% rate for students of color. From her record, Berger-Sweeney is passionate for and has devoted much of her time to issues of gender and diversity. When she was a Dean at Tufts, she helped found an Africana Studies program and the Center for Race and Democracy, an academic center that promotes research, scholarship and discussion on how race impacts the lives of global citizens. “Trinity College has made a statement by hiring me” she says about how the College hopes to forge a new path en route to its bicentennial in 2023.
What initially brought Berger-Sweeney to Trinity was the quality of the College. At the core of Trinity is strong faculty and intelligent students, the foundation of a great liberal arts education and one of the defining aspects that drew Berger-Sweeney to Trinity. She also cited Trinity’s unique location and said that she wanted to be in an urban area, not in a remote, bucolic setting. But once Berger-Sweeney takes over in July, she will have to hit the ground running. Just 9 years away from its 200th birthday, Trinity College is at a unique crossroads with the paths of Greek Life, academic engagement and social issues all intersecting simultaneously.
Berger-Sweeney’s greatest strength in leading Trinity will be the knowledge and experience she has to draw on from Wellesley and Tufts. As Tufts is a NESCAC school and some of Wellesley sports competes in the NESCAC league, Berger-Sweeney understands the NESCAC commitment to athletics. While at Tufts, she set goals and strategies for athletics, oversaw renewal of facilities and ensured that the athletic department was following all Title IX guidelines. Outside of athletics, Berger-Sweeney has worked with multiple departments and programs both at Wellesley and Tufts. She understands the importance of an undergraduate education and the teacher-scholar model as she has had undergrads working in her lab at Tufts. While she may be the first female and first African American president, Berger-Sweeney is also the first scientist to lead Trinity. “I cannot take off my scientist hat” Berger-Sweeney says regarding what her approach to the job will be. Berger-Sweeney brings her scientific and analytical training to Trinity and is a major proponent of using data to support views and provide a rationale for particular decisions.
While Berger-Sweeney will develop specific programs and plans for Trinity, her overall goal is for students to remain strong and get stronger and for faculty to remain strong and get stronger. This academic mission is at the core of an institution and will not be forgotten. In 1990, a professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education published a widely discussed paper on the decline of the liberal arts education. Over 20 years later and after the 2008 Recession, the discussion on the value of a liberal arts education is still prominent and an issue that Trinity must grapple with. As liberal arts colleges begin to disappear nationwide and more students opt for vocational or schools with specialized job training, those who do enroll at a liberal arts college want to see the return on their investment, especially at Trinity College where one year of tuition, room and board and fees costs approximately $60,000, totaling almost $240,000 over four years. To combat naysayers of the liberal arts education, Berger-Sweeney says that Trinity has to balance parents’ current questions with the knowledge and temper complaints with real facts regarding multiple proven studies that liberal arts students are strong. She cites that liberal arts schools train and instill a love of learning in their students and that this type of training has the “best chance of giving a broad but deep knowledge in a particular subject that will empower one for an entire career” she says. “We don’t know half of the professions that will exist in 25 years” Berger-Sweeney cites as a reason for the continued support of a liberal arts education.
Regarding Greek Life on campus, Berger-Sweeney wants to approach this issue with open ears. This will clearly be one of her greatest challenges and projects at Trinity, and she says that the “most important thing for a new president to do is to come and listen.” Alumni will be included in the ongoing discussion of Greek life, as Berger-Sweeney has cited that observing issues from their perspective is important. But Berger-Sweeney does fundamentally support the recommendations put into effect by the Board of Trustees, the co-educational mandate, the GPA requirement and abolishing a pledging period. Despite supporting the new changes, Berger-Sweeney does not want any student or member of the Trinity community to expect that she will make drastic changes upon assuming the role of President and that her role will be to first listen and then develop “particular paths and particular projects” she says.
In order to diversify the social scene on campus, Berger-Sweeney’s strategy will be to create a positive, inclusive social environment for students and provide them with social options that they can be included in. She cites that the House System (to be implemented by fall 2015) aims to build a more inclusive community on campus. Increasing and diversifying social options will give students more venues for nightlife and socializing, thus making Greek Life less of the dominant culture on campus. During her tenure at Tufts, Berger-Sweeney saw a surge in fraternities and sororities as students cited that they wanted to be included in something. Tufts is home to over 14 fraternities and sororities including 9 male fraternities, 4 women’s sororities, 1 co-ed fraternity and many citywide and culturally based fraternities and sororities. Approximately 18% of Tufts undergraduate students are involved in Greek Life and the Tufts Student Affairs website cites that “membership enhances opportunities to meet new people, achieve academically, hone leadership skills and serve the broader community through philanthropic and service opportunities.” Berger-Sweeney worked extensively with GLOs at Tufts and hopes that she can bring Trinity’s fraternities and sororities closer to the overall social environment and promote a closer relationship with the Administration.
While modifying the social system, Berger-Sweeney will aim to increase academic engagement on campus. She claims that the key to boosting academics is to allow for more contact between faculty and students outside of the classroom. One of the ways that this can happen is through the Housing system which aims to be a living and learning environment and a blended model of curricular and co-curricular activities. President Jones’ 2011 White Paper identified a few tactics to tame partying such as increasing the number of classes that meet on Fridays, mandating senior theses/capstone projects and designating Fridays as a test day. While Berger-Sweeney is familiar with the White Paper, she says she is not fully informed of these options to make any decisions on them and will play the role of listener when she becomes President.
Trinity’s relationship with the Hartford community has been strained over the years, but Berger-Sweeney is willing to invest the time and energy into building a better relationship. “It’s essential to get out and meet some of the key players in the community early in my tenure” she says. Berger-Sweeney says that the relationship with Hartford should be a back and forth one where her presence is strong.
President elect Dr. Joanne Berger-Sweeney spent her short visit to Trinity by eating with students in Mather Dining Hall, taking “selfies” with students at Ferris Athletic Center and learning what being a Bantam is all about. Students who want to send their wishes to Dr. Berger-Sweeney can email PresidentElect@trincoll.edu.