Joanne Berger-Sweeney Appointed Trinity College President, 1st Female and African-American to Hold Post

New Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney
New Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney

HARTFORD — Several hundred Trinity College students, faculty and alumni greeted Joanne Berger-Sweeney, named Thursday as the college’s first African-American and first woman president, with enthusiastic whoops and applause.  “How could you have a warmer welcome for someone?” said Berger-Sweeney, a dean at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “It’s not very often that I get to walk into a room and there’s a standing ovation.”  But then, she noted, to a roar of laughter, there were no seats in the room.

Berger-Sweeney, 55, a neuroscientist who was accompanied at Thursday’s announcement by her husband and two children, told the crowd she fell in love with Trinity the moment she first set foot on campus — shortly before New Year’s.  “We came through the arch … I looked to the left and saw the chapel, I looked to the right and saw this beautiful long walk, and I thought: I think I could be here,” Berger-Sweeney said. “… Some people may want to be on small bucolic campuses in Maine, but not me. I want to be right here.”

After that visit Berger-Sweeney decided to apply and emerged as the winner when the Trinity board of trustees Tuesday voted unanimously for her. She will be the college’s 22nd president.  Berger-Sweeney will take the helm at Trinity as it continues to grapple with financial challenges, a reputation as a party school, security concerns, campus climate and conflict with fraternities and sororities over policy changes.

“Trinity is a forward-looking institution that excels in liberal arts and sciences, and both are areas of excellence for Dr. Berger-Sweeney, who rose to the top of our highly competitive candidate pool,” said Cornelia Parsons Thornburgh, who led the search committee and will become chairwoman of Trinity’s board of trustees on July 1. “She impressed us with her strong academic credentials, curricular innovations, collaborative nature and enthusiasm for the Hartford community.

“I strongly believe that her vision of Trinity College as an elite liberal arts college with an urban pulse is one that will guide us, inspire us and lead us on a path to distinction and greatness,” Thornburgh said.  James F. Jones Jr., who has been Trinity’s president for a decade and will retire June 30, called the moment historic and said that Berger-Sweeney’s appointment brought him “an enormous sigh of relief” to know that his “successor is going to be a star.”

Berger-Sweeney, who has been dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts since 2010, brings with her experience that is relevant to Trinity, Thornburgh said. “At Tufts, she has proven herself in areas that coincide closely with, and are important to, Trinity: proximity to a city, a strong athletic tradition, budget and program coordination, an historical Greek tradition, and a deep appreciation for a liberal arts education.”

Trinity sophomore Keyla Inoa said she was thrilled that the new president was both black and female. She said Berger-Sweeney’s appointment has the potential “to change people’s perspective on what it is to be an educated black person.”

‘A Natural Fit’

Berger-Sweeney, who holds a doctorate in neurotoxicology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was on the faculty for 19 years at Wellesley College, her undergraduate alma mater, and also served as associate dean.  A native of Los Angeles, Berger-Sweeney said Thursday she came east to Massachusetts to attend Wellesley, inspired by her mother, who always wanted her daughter to go to one of the Seven Sisters women’s colleges.

She will take office on July 1, succeeding Jones, who announced last May that he would step down a year earlier than expected. Jones said at the time that it was the “optimal moment for me to move aside.”  Jones had come under fire for his decision to force fraternities and sororities to go co-ed — a move that brought threats from some alumni to withhold donations.  Jones’ original contract was supposed to end in 2012, but at the request of Paul E. Raether, chairman of the board of trustees, Jones agreed to extend it through 2015.

Raether said in a statement Thursday that “Trinity College is an institution that honors its traditions and embraces its future, and with the selection of Joanne Berger-Sweeney, we have found the right leader to renew our commitment to the value and delivery of an excellent liberal arts education.”

“She is a natural fit for Trinity and Trinity for her,” Raether said.

Diversity, Longevity

Trinity sociology professor Johnny E. Williams praised the board’s choice. He said Trinity “has to diversify itself from the top to the bottom, from the board to administration to the faculty, staff, to the student body. It has to do that if we want to survive and keep our longevity.”

He said increasing diversity would transform the image of Trinity from a “party school” to a campus with a more “intellectual culture.”

“If [Berger-Sweeney] can do that,” Williams said, “it will be a big, big thing.”

History professor Sean Cocco, one of three faculty representatives on the search committee, said he was delighted that Berger-Sweeney took the job. “She is an outstanding candidate. She is as good as anyone out there right now for this position. She took this job because she sees the potential in this place. She was at Tufts, which has some similarities to us, so her range of experience, the wealth of experience that she can pull from, is just top-notch.”

Cocco added that Berger-Sweeney understands “the complexities of these types of institutions and the transformation of social policy the college is undertaking right now.”

It was Jones’ concern about Trinity’s image as a party school, and his opinion that fraternities and sororities contributed to that image, that led him to originally consider eliminating them. He eventually supported the recommendation of a college committee to force the Greek organizations to go coed.

Jamie Smith, a Baltimore resident who graduated in 1990 and was a fraternity member as a student, said in an email that he hopes Berger-Sweeney will “move quickly to re-engage with alumni who belonged to Greek organizations, as they have historically been Trinity’s most involved and committed graduates.”

Berger-Sweeney said Thursday in an interview after her introduction to the Trinity community that she would not “walk in from the outside and immediately change a decision that clearly was very well thought out.”  She said her job is to listen, “to learn more about the community, understand the decision, and try and steer it in the right direction.”

She said she has seen fraternities and sororities play a healthy role on college campuses — Tufts has 13 Greek organizations — but she wants to ensure that the groups do not dominate social life on campus. She also said she sees Trinity as “not elitist, but elite.”

Berger-Sweeney also talked about campus safety.  “I think one of the keys is making sure that the community and Trinity College know each other well, because that’s when people feel safe. … I think sometimes the higher the walls that you build between a campus and the community, the less safe you feel.”

Campus Mood

Students repeatedly mentioned the atmosphere on campus and their hopes that Berger-Sweeney will help unify the college community.

Inoa said that when she walks into the cafeteria, often blacks and minorities are on one side, whites on another and athletes on another.  “I hope she breaks down barriers,” Inoa said.

Olivia Berry, a senior, and a co-leader of a multicultural group on campus, said: “Trinity is making steps in the right direction, but the college as a whole needs a complete systemic overhaul. We hope that this is the first step in correcting some major issues that the college needs to recognize and transform immediately.”

Kaitlin Sprague, a sophomore, said she hopes the new president will bring social change that will break down any stereotypes of Trinity as a “party school” and replace it with a more academic reputation.  Ronald Brown, also a sophomore, said he hopes that Berger-Sweeney will “bring the Hartford community and Trinity together.”

He also said he thinks she will bring “a nurturing feeling” to campus, “a kind of shift in the social scene” that will help to unify various groups on campus.

article by Kathleen Megan and Rose Lichtenfels via The Hartford Courant

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