March 29--HARTFORD -- As Trinity College's incoming president, Joanne Berger-Sweeney says she intends to strengthen ties with the city of Hartford, come up with strategies to ensure the college's financial future, and work to improve the social climate on campus.
Now dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, Berger-Sweeney will be the first woman and first African-American to lead the 191-year old college when she takes office July 1.
After being introduced Thursday to the Trinity community, she briefly talked with The Courant about her plans in her new job.
In this edited conversation, she discusses such topics as her "Pollyanna attitude," Trinity's relationship with the city, fraternities and sororities, exploring connections with the insurance industry and campus safety.
Q. You've said you don't want to be on a bucolic campus in Maine, that you like being in a city. How will reach out to the city of Hartford?
A. Already, Trinity College has made incredible connections throughout the city. I think most notable is the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy. So, obviously, taking the educational message that's so important here at Trinity and breaking out of the ivory tower and sharing education with the greater population of Hartford -- that's a very, very important program.
I also have heard about [Trinity's] legislative internship, so the fact that Hartford is the capital of Connecticut, that's really quite a unique experience for students to be able to have. So those are the kinds of things that of course have to continue and I would be interested in seeing whether there are other connections possible with the insurance industry, which is so strong here in Hartford.
Q. Do you envision yourself working with city leaders?
A. Absolutely. That's one of the reasons that I want to be here at Trinity and in Hartford. It's to really understand and make a connection with the city because I believe that a rising tide raises all boats -- that as Hartford becomes more prominent and stronger, Trinity becomes more prominent and stronger, and that the future of the two are inextricably linked.
So that's exciting to me, all of the potential and the diversity that the city brings. ... This is a little sample of real life here at the same time as this beautiful Gothic campus. A student sitting next to me called it Hogwarts in Hartford, and I just thought that was great.
I do feel like just about the luckiest person in the world, to have been able to come to a job at an institution of this caliber, located in Hartford ... I think if people understand the potential -- and even perhaps [the] Pollyanna attitude that I bring to the situation with the belief that this is a great partnership between the college and the city -- it's going to be even better and brighter in the future.
Q. I talked to one professor who said he hoped that you would bring more diversity from the highest ranks, down to the lowest.
A. Well I've brought that to the highest rank -- that's pretty obvious. Diversity and inclusion is probably one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century ... Certainly, at the institutions where I was before Trinity, I've had a particular focus on diversity and inclusion ... So will I bring that interest, concern and care to Trinity? I would say of course.
Q. I know President [James F. Jones Jr.] was very concerned about the financial future of Trinity.
A. I would say fundamentally I'm an optimist. I believe Trinity has a very bright future, or why would I have chosen to come? And, I think that basically all liberal arts colleges at the moment are thinking about the sustainability, the financial stability of liberal arts colleges. It's a very labor-intensive, cost-intensive manner in which to educate individuals. But I think we have proof that it is a very valuable way to educate individuals ... I think we're all concerned about financial models and how it's going to work, but fundamentally, I can't imagine a better time to be in higher education or at Trinity.
Q. Any particular strategies you will pursue to strengthen Trinity's finances?
A. We have to think about those. We have to think about cost-cutting strategies, revenue-generating strategies, but all of this has to be consistent with the mission. So that's the discussion in which I will engage.
Q. Are you thinking about expanding Trinity's graduate programs?
A.There are more at Tufts than here. I think it would be a wonderful area to explore. I think coming from the outside, I have to listen for a little bit, to take a bit the temperature of the campus to see what people are interested in, but there are already ... a few masters programs here at Trinity, and I can envision with support that that might be a great direction in which to move.
Q. Safety has also been a big issue on campus.
A. I have looked at some of the statistics regarding safety and do not consider them to be significantly different from many of the institutions in which I've been affiliated. So Trinity, I believe, is a safe campus from everything that I can see. People are always concerned about safety and 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.
There really is sometimes a difference between feeling safe and actually being safe, and I think that sometimes the higher the walls that you build between a campus and the community, the less safe you feel. I think that we have to think about that perception of what really is safe, what do the statistics show and talk with campus security to see what we can do better, whether it's lighting, whether it's cameras, but I don't believe it's by building higher walls.
Q. Many alumni were angry and threatened to withhold donations when the college decided to force Greek groups to go coed. What message are you sending them?
A. I think I want to send the message that where I'm going to start is listening and assessing the situation.
I still envision a future for the fraternities and sororities and I think in fact bringing them closer to the college and having the college have responsibility for sometimes the physical space as well as the social atmosphere is the way to do it and not to distance them from the community... I think that's when you lose out.
Q: I know President Jones is bringing in a new house system, trying to diversify the social scene. Are you on board with that idea?
A: I think what a fantastic opportunity... Certainly everyone, the industry standard is thinking about living-learning communities and how you build community, and that to me is exactly what the house system is trying to do: integrate the curricular and co-curricular so they are not completely separate entities and provide the sense of community for the students.
Q. Anything unusual you think you might pursue when you get here?
A. I'd like to find out where there's ballroom dancing. My husband and I like that.
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