BENJAMIN CHAIT ’16
I met with President Joanne Berger-Sweeney on the rainy Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving break. We met rather early—8:30 a.m.—but by that time President Berger-Sweeney had already walked her dog, attended a parent-teacher conference, and amassed over 5,000 steps on her pedometer. She offered me a piece of Lindt chocolate as a substitute for breakfast.
We met to discuss her thoughts on Trinity after her first official semester as President. I asked her about her academic hopes for the College, the US News and World Report rankings, Greek life, the student body, issues facing minority students, and even the book she is currently reading. She answered each question carefully, thoughtfully, and always with her mind on the future.
Benjamin Milton Chait: After your first semester as President, how have you found your time at Trinity so far? Is it living up to your expectations? What has surprised you, if anything?
President Joanne Berger-Sweeney: So far I just love it! I think I like it better than I had hoped. I hoped that I would like it, and it has really met my expectations. Both the people here, an institution is always the people, and the physical beauty still does not grow old no matter how long or how often I’ve seen it. The house is very comfortable and I love Hartford. I would just say that it’s exceeding my expectations. I’ve had a very warm welcome.
BMC: Well speaking of that, I wanted to thank you for attending Barnyard’s Trintoberfest. You seem to be very active with student affairs at Trinity. Have you found the student body welcoming?
JBS: Yes! They have been extremely welcoming. I tried to start my relationship and rapport with students before I even started the job. So after my Presidency was announced, the first thing I did on the second day was what I called the “walk about.” I actually just went around to places on campus and met with students. I met with students in athletics and students in various buildings.
So people are now saying, “well I met you the first time” or “I met you there…” but if you want to build a rapport with people, you have to understand that it takes time. So I’ve tried to block off one day a week where I go down to Mather and have lunch with students. I just pick a table with whoever seems to not be walking away. I also try to go to a student activity once a week. I’d like to go to everything, but I can’t. So for now I am selecting events that sound interesting, or go when people remind me—like you knocked on my door for Trintoberfest, and I showed up!
BMC: What do you think is the most valuable quality that you bring to the position as the president of the college?
JBS: I would say it would be my skills as a scientist, particularly a neuroscientist. So as a scientist, I bring analytical abilities, the ability to understand data and numbers, and how to look for a rationale for particular responsibilities. At the same time, I am a behavioral neuroscientist. So as a neuroscientist one of the things I am particularly focused on is behavior. I examine behavior in animals, particularly rodents, mostly mice, but to some degree, rats.
When you’re a behavioral scientist you actually become very observant about people’s behavior, and in particular, non-verbal behavior. So I think I bring the analytical strengths of a scientist as well as the sensitivity of someone who examines and studies behavior. Those two skills are particularly helpful in working at a job like this; working with people and looking at data.
BMC: I remember you sent out an email that addressed Trinity’s drop in some college rankings. In what ways would you like to see Trinity grow and improve in those rankings?
JBS: The first thing I’m going to say is that I’m not going to run a school based on rankings. We all know some of the flaws of rankings. At the same time when you see significant decreases in a short period of time you have to ask yourself if there is something underlying that I need to understand in order to move the college forward and make it a better institution. What I said in a letter to alumi/alumna is that one of the things I’ve seen among some of our constituents is a lack of engagement with the institution over the last couple of years. If what I’m seeing in the rankings is a sign of a lack of engagement, I particularly want to focus on that. How do we get faculty members engaged with the institution? They are engaged with the students—that is fundamentally not the problem.
The rapport and relationships between faculty members and students is at the heart—to me—of what is really going right at Trinity. But the faculty’s rapport with the administration and the trustees, and their desire to engage above and beyond the classroom experience are some things I have seen appear to be eroded over the past couple of years.
Students’ engagement with each other—they’re engaging with the faculty—but students engaging with each other and leadership are examples of things what we can do even better. I think we can also speak better of Trinity and the Trinity experience to everyone on the outside. These are the kind of things that help turn around an institution. I believe when the reputation turns around after we’ve addressed some of the social and climate issues on campus, then more students will want to come. I believe that those factors are absolutely critical for our reputation and it is my hope than the rankings will follow.
BMC: Besides what you hope to accomplish professionally as the President, what are the personal goals that you’ve set for yourself?
JBS: I would like to somehow retain and maintain contact with my scientific life. This is the first time I haven’t had a research laboratory. When I have a research laboratory I love doing science and I love being a scientist. I also love having students in the lab. That’s when you really get to know students. It doesn’t really happen when you’re standing up and giving a lecture.
I really get a rapport with my students when I have them in a laboratory day in and day out, and when we are working closely together. So I don’t know if you would consider that a personal or professional goal, but to maintain my contact with science, even though I’m a full time administrator, and to be able to maintain contact and rapport with people outside of those who directly report to me; and that means students, faculty, and staff. That to me is a personal goal because that’s the rapport I need to have to in order to have full satisfaction. I know I will be a better administrator if I’m a happier person. I also want to remain close with my family and friends outside of the institution. I do need a life beyond Trinity.
BMC: Do you have plans to teach neuroscience classes while at Trinity?
JBS: I will not be able to teach a standard course here at Trinity College because the students deserve their professor’s full and apt attention. Given my job and the things that happen everyday that I can’t even predict, I can’t take on that relationship with students full time and know that I’m delivering the full education they deserve for Trinity credit. Now that being said, I can imagine a couple of things I can do. The first is perhaps teaching something relating to leadership.
Something like a J-Term course is a possibility. I’ve also said that if we decided to accept an invitation to join edX which is an online technology and learning platform that offers massive online and open courses, that I would be willing to volunteer, if I were to be accepted through whatever process, to teach something that can show students what I care about. I will tell you that I haven’t taught full time in a classroom for more than a decade.
I’ve been a full time administrator for quite a while, and I tell people that, when I started in administration, I actually started teaching Sunday school because I love teaching so much. So somehow I will remain active as a teacher because teaching and learning are as much of a passion for me as my sciences. In order to be happy I will be doing some kind of teaching.
BMC: Hartford seems to mean a great deal to you. Mayor Segarra spoke at your inauguration, and your son is currently enrolled in school here. How do you plan on strengthening Trinity’s relationship with the community?
JBS: One thing I have been doing is going out, meeting people, spending time in the community, and really getting to know what Hartford is beyond the walls of Trinity. You can’t build relationships without going out and meeting the people. So I’ve gone out—I’ve met our senator, our governor, our mayor, I’ve met with city council. I’ve also gone out and tried to meet people from the neighborhood. We have entities called neighborhood revitalization zones (NRZs), and those are the local groups that care about fixing streets and creating safer neighborhoods. I’ve gone to one of the NRZs to introduce myself and I’m going to another one before the end of the semester.
So again, I’m going out and meeting people in the neighborhood so I can better understand what their needs are. Just yesterday I met with the CEO of the Connecticut Girl Scouts so I can understand how they’re trying to strengthen the communities around them. I’m also inviting members from the community here to the activities that we’re having on campus. For example, lots of neighborhood groups were invited to the inauguration ceremony. It was big and it was open. I wanted it to be a community celebration.
I need to get to know people and they need to get to know me so we can understand how we can best partner. Partnership means both groups offering something and gaining something from the relationship. It’s not just what Trinity can pass out to Hartford or what can Hartford give to Trinity. It’s really about building a relationship.
Something more specifically I will say is that I’ve released a podcast where I mentioned the mentoring networks. A key component of the mentoring networks is to integrate our students better into the Hartford community. From what they have expressed to me, so many of our students actually chose Trinity because it is in Hartford and because it is in a city. We have to make sure that we are fostering and developing these relationships. Right now I have asked students to join design teams to think about what mentoring networks would be, what kind of programming should they have, and how they should be connected to Hartford. It’s not just what I’m doing to build the relationships, it’s what the entire campus is doing to be involved with the community of Hartford and vice versa.
BMC: You spoke of having an open inauguration. From the intimacy of the speeches, to the upbeat music from the samba band, your inauguration felt very personal. Did you have any say in the execution? Were you pleased? Were you nervous for the weekend?
JBS: I was just thrilled with inauguration. I thought it was so much fun and I really enjoyed it. I selected the speakers and the people who contributed the music, but the execution and organization was done by our special events officials, and in particular, Meghan Fitzsimmons. Mary Jo Keating and I had weekly meetings in regards to all of the people that needed to be involved. It was personal in that I selected the people and the participants, but some things were added that just made it wonderful. For example, the flag ceremony was wonderful, and I didn’t create that. I said that I like lively music, and I think it was Megan Fitzsimmons who came to me with the idea of having a Samba band, and I thought that was awesome.
Those aspects really just set the tome. I could not have asked the speakers to be better or the composers to be better. One thing I would like to say about the inauguration is that when people ask me about my vision for Trinity, I say it was really encapsulated in the singing of “America the Beautiful.” First, [“America the Beautiful”] is a wonderful and patriotic song. The lyrics were written by Kathy Lee Bates, who is a Wellesley alum, so it connected a bit with my past. However, our composer composed a brand new arrangement for me.
It was a combination of where I came from and my background from Wellesley, but with a new Trinity composition, and then there were about 150 students who came together from various singing groups on campus. Some had lots of formal training and some just get together because they love to sing. It was a variety of voices and groups, whom to the best of my knowledge, came together to sing this beautiful and patriotic hymn with an arrangement specifically for Trinity and the inauguration, but yet tying to my past. That really encapsulated my vision for what Trinity can be: an incredibly inclusive community with a strong past and a distinct present.
BMC: You were recently hosted by the Sisters of Kappa Kappa Gamma for a tour of their new house and for a discussion on female leadership. What are your plans for Greek Life at Trinity? What changes, if any, would you like to see be implemented?
JBS: Trinity is already on a path towards thinking about how to make the Greek experience more inclusive. There is no question that I am continuing on that general path. As a community, we also need to think about how to make the community—particularly, but not solely for students—more inclusive. We have to reconcile how we are going to have organizations that feel a bit more exclusive with trying to create an inclusive environment. I’m looking forward to continuing dialogues and understanding the Greek community and what they want to accomplish.
I also look forward to understanding the overall goals of the community. I want to make sure that students have options. At the same time, people need to understand that we are in a climate, nationally, that is not very kind towards fraternities and sororities. You cannot pick up a paper without reading an article about another fraternity or sorority being shut down. So people have to understand that fraternities and sororities are under an enormous amount of scrutiny. So I look forward to forging a plan together of where we need to go, but with the assurance that we are not going to be moving back into the past.
BMC: While serving as the Dean of The School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, you founded The Center for Race and Democracy. In what ways do you see prejudice manifest itself at Trinity, and how would you like to tackle some of the issues facing minority students at Trinity?
JBS: I’m so proud of [The Center for Race and Democracy]! Now that is very complex question. I am going to answer that, at the moment, a bit generically, and say that race in America and inclusion in America are very complex issues. It’s not a problem to be solved, but it’s a complex issue that we all deal with.
With all complex issues, they cannot be addressed by any single thing or by any single person. I was having a conversation with someone yesterday and I’m not going to get the quote right, but we were describing how, when there are complex issues, there is no silver bullet. There isn’t one thing that I can come in and point at and say that symbolizes race issues on campus.
To address issues of race and inclusion, in America and beyond, it’s going to take looking at it from different perspectives and doing multiple things to create a more inclusive atmosphere. There is no one single thing I can do. But what was interesting about your question is that you asked me about The Center for Race and Democracy at Tufts. Well the The Center for Race and Democracy was one piece of a multifaceted strategy. So we created a major and minor in Africana studies.
We created an umbrella minor in race, colonialism and Diaspora. That addressed some of the curricular issues. The Center for Race and Democracy was created, at least my intent, was that so we continue to have dialogue and actually continue to create new and innovative research about race and democracy. So not just the curricular component, but the intellectual and innovative components as well.
At the same time, I was addressing increasing diversity amongst our faculty and staff. Any of those pieces alone would not have the effect of changing climate on campus or address some of the issues involving race, but, in a combination, they start to move the needle. So more generally here, we are going to have to talk again about a more multifaceted strategy. There is no one single thing I can sit back and tell you I am going to do to improve inclusiveness on campus. But I will tell you that I will be looking for opportunities in the curriculum, in centers, in student originations, and student groups, amongst faculty and staff.
Collectively, I believe that a number of those individual things will begin to move us forward. But, for any of those things to work, it comes back to a question you asked me earlier about US News and World Report. You have to start with engaged students. We have to be engaged about serious principal things. We need to have fun, but we need to be engaged in business, education, expanding opportunities, and inclusiveness. It’s not good enough to just bring a diverse group of people to campus. We need to look at how people interact and how people feel.
BMC: You’ve established and hosted academic symposiums at Trinity. How would you like to see the academic culture change here?
JBS: One thing that I’ve said is that I would like to see Trinity integrating technology appropriately in the classroom. Two weeks before the gubernatorial elections, I had an opportunity to meet with Governor Malloy and Tom Foley. The meeting was with presidents of independent colleges here in Connecticut.
We had thirty minutes with the candidates, I will never forget, Governor Malloy looked at each of us—he was actually pointing at me—and saying you know that students when they gradate with their terminal degree, be it a B.A. or a B.S. or a masters or maybe a PhD, after they start working, the majority of their time will be spent with technology. If you’re going to work in banking, for example, you will most likely need a skill set that will allow you to effectively work online.
He reminded me that most people, once they finished their formal degrees, will be doing something involving online education. Shouldn’t we be making sure we prepare our students in some way to have opportunities to learn online? Now when I say that it doesn’t mean that I don’t care very deeply about the liberal arts experience and the rapport the students and faculty members have here.
That is the core of what we do and what we do well. At the same time, we do need to think about preparing our students for life beyond Trinity and the likelihood that a lot of that will come online. We need to make sure that when we are thinking of education we are not just thinking about broadening the minds of students but also thinking about preparing them well for whatever they need to do afterwards. I believe, unfortunately, that industry is taking less of a role in preparing people for jobs than they did a generation or two ago. They have fewer onsite training programs.
They’re putting more of a burden on the undergraduate education system, including the liberal arts experience, to prepare students such that they are ready for jobs. As educators we have to accept that challenge and ensure our students are ready for what is to come next. I would love to see that as we are thinking about ways to provide our students with analytical skills, that we are also thinking a little bit about helping them understand how to translate a really fine English degree into a job where you will use the analytical skills and the wonderful writing skills that you develop.
I want to see students take what they have learned here and really turn it into satisfying life work. So I’d like to see that for sure.
I think that I would also like to see faculty members stop and think about the curriculum in general. We are all very good about thinking about the courses that we teach, but I also want to challenge the curriculum committee to think about not only if the individual courses are good, but if we are tying it together to create an excellent overall academic experience. I know that if we continue to ask ourselves these big questions about curricular issues, we will come up with new, innovate, and exciting answers.
BMC: You’ve spoken about how you love to read. What books are you currently reading?
JBS: I do love to both listen to books on tape and have the hard copy. Sometimes when I’m cooking or doing something in the house, I can listen, but I also like to hear my own voice. So I kind of like to splurge by getting both the audio book and have the hard copy sitting by my bed. At the moment I’m reading “Edge of Eternity” by Ken Follett.
It is the third in a trilogy about the twentieth century. It follows four or five families that are in the US, the UK, Germany, and Russia and details the events of the twentieth century from their perspectives. It’s multigenerational and about how these families interact and overlap. The thing that I love about Ken Follett books, now that I’ve read a couple, is that they are extremely accurate historical fiction.
So I can both learn about an interesting time in history, but it’s also woven with personal stories about people’s lives. I love historical fiction. At the moment “Edge of Eternity” is about the period post WWII from about the 1960s until about the 1980s. I am reading about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. Some of the events that just happened were the Cuban missile crisis, some of what John F. Kennedy was doing, and then how people were impacted by his assassination.
BMC: In your convocation speech you spoke about raising awareness about sexual assault and rape culture. You also helped students bear the weight of sexual assault by helping carry mattresses around the campus. How would you like to see the culture that encourages sexual assault in general and at Trinity change? Are you hoping to set a plan that can be modeled by other academic institutions?
JBS: I announced in my convocation speech and in a letter to the campus that I was forming a task force for the prevention of sexual misconduct. That task force met as a group for the first time yesterday, so I can’t tell you what the plan is yet for Trinity, but I can tell you that I consider the issue important enough to make it the subject of my first task force. I’m sure I will create many presidential task forces during my time here, but I really felt that the prevention of sexual assault was the topic to choose for my first.
We talked about what our overall charge was, what kind of subgroups we are going to have, and how we are going to accomplish the goals of understanding both what we’re doing now, what we’re doing well, what we are doing not so well, and how we are going to move forward. I would like to say to people that there is obviously a lot of federal and state pressure about sexual misconduct right now. It’s not just a legal or compliance issue.
This is a moral issue and we have to create safe spaces for everybody here. One thing I will also say, going back to the “Edge of Eternity,” is that I was reading a section in which there is a band that is growing in popularity and becoming famous. It’s not the Beatles, but clearly Follett is trying to parallel some of the lives of the Beatles.
One of the members of this band, remember this is 1963, has just come out to his fellow band members that he is gay. It’s a British band so they use the word queer, they even make note “in America where they are going on tour, they use the word gay.” So it’s dealing with those issues but also saying that in England they went to a bar that was frequented by gay men, and the police were coming and harassing them.
I was reading this section and thinking, at least it doesn’t happen to that degree anymore. We have indeed made progress, but not as much progress as we need to make on the issues. I was also reading about 1962, the boycotts in Selma, Alabama, and the way African-Americans were treated. I was thinking people are not being beat up for sitting at a lunch counter anymore. We have made progress in some of these issues, but both of these examples reminded me of how much more progress we need to make.
BMC: What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given and who gave it you?
JBS: Some of the best advice that I received was from Joe Coyle. Joe Coyle was my dissertation advisor at Johns Hopkins University, and he moved and became the chair of psychology at Harvard Medical School. At the same time, I was moving up to have an assistant professor position as Wellesley College.
We remained in contact and he continues to serve as my mentor. I know he provided a recommendation on my behalf for Trinity. I have been out of his lab for about twenty-five years, and he is still supporting me and helping me move my career to the next level. So when I was considering leaving the classroom and going into administration, I spoke to him and said “should I do this?” He responded “Let me just remind you, if you move into administration, your satisfaction becomes how other people succeed.”
When you are in the classroom and teaching, it is about you. Even the laboratory, its about you; it is your laboratory. People in my lab do what I think they should do in a laboratory. When you’re in the classroom, it might not be every student, but most are really there to listen and learn about what you do. He reminded me that people don’t go around and say “my favorite administrator is…” You aren’t going to get your satisfaction that way. People will say “my favorite professor is…” His advice was that when you move into administration, you’re going to have to get your satisfaction form watching other people succeed because much less of the focus is going to be on you; that when you’re doing well it’s really other people succeeding.
It could be those that you encouraged, those that you supported, or those that you put in positions so that they can grow to the next step.
That was just a really great reminder. So when some people say they don’t like what I do, I have to stay true to what I think is right for the institution and realize that administration is not totally a popularity contest.