An Interview with Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney

By Nancy M. Better
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña

Six years ago, Joanne Berger-Sweeney became the 22nd president of Trinity College, marking many firsts: she was the first woman, the first African American, and first neuroscientist to lead this venerable Hartford institution.

Since then, Berger-Sweeney has become an important presence on the national higher education landscape. She has overseen the completion of Trinity’s strategic plan, Summit, guiding the college toward its 2023 bicentennial; the creation of the Bantam Network mentoring program for first-year students; the launch of the Campaign for Community, an initiative promoting inclusiveness and respect; and the expansion of Trinity’s footprint in downtown Hartford.

A native of Los Angeles, Berger-Sweeney received her B.A. in psychobiology from Wellesley College, her M.P.H. in environmental health sciences from the University of California, Berkeley and her PhD in neurotoxicology from Johns Hopkins. After completing postdoctoral training at the National Institute of Health in Paris, France, Berger-Sweeney became the first African American woman to earn full professorship at Wellesley College, where she spent two decades before leaving in 2010 to serve as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University.

A renowned scholar as well as a teacher and administrator, Berger-Sweeney has authored more than 60 scientific publications and has held grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and many private foundations. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been honored with a Lifetime Mentoring Award from the Society for Neuroscience.

Berger-Sweeney resides in Hartford with her husband, Urs V. Berger, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and computer scientist.

The COVID-19 pandemic will clearly have long-term implications for higher education in the U.S. What are some of the greatest challenges you see?

This pandemic reminds us that on-campus face-to-face learning in subject to interruption. It has happened due to COVID-19 this year, but it is likely to happen again due to another crisis. To prepare for the future, we need to be flexible and have the ability to pivot seamlessly between in-person and remote learning. We must be prepared to offer high quality education to our students in both formats.

What are your plans for re-opening Trinity’s campus, and what would constitute a successful re-opening?

Contingent upon evolving public health guidance and conditions within the state, we will begin classes on Monday, September 7, and students will be moved into residence halls in gradual phases beginning the last week of August. We want to accommodate students and faculty by offering fall courses in different formats, and registration for each class will be designed as in-person, hybrid, or remote. A successful reopening is one that meets the needs of all our students, faculty, and staff.

How did Trinity handle the pivot to remote learning this spring, and how might it be improved for this fall?

Our students, faculty, and staff responded well to the quick changes required during the early days of the pandemic. Our faculty was flexible in meeting the needs of our students online, and they adjusted their course plans accordingly. Our staff offered support to both our students and our faculty, providing training sessions for online courses and work. They even offered virtual game nights to help continue the connections formed on campus. Students were nimble, willing to adjust to the transformations. They also worked to help the community. An example would be the read-aloud story time videos they recorded for local children and remote technical support they provided non-profit organizations. The pandemic was unknown territory for all of us and I’m proud of how we came together.

In what ways has your particular background — as a neuroscientist and a public health expert –prepared you to lead during the pandemic?

My background as a scientist and public health expert reminds me to look at the facts. Cut through media and political conversations and focus on the facts that we understand about this pandemic. My background as a liberal arts major who has studied history reminds me that there will be an end to this pandemic, and we will learn to manage through the current challenges. This combination is what I lean upon to lead Trinity now.

What sort of extra support do you feel students will need during the 2020-2021 academic year, and how are you preparing to provide them?

Health and mental health services such as the Counseling and Wellness Center, the college chaplains and the Employee Assistance Program, and so many others that we consider essential for a holistic liberal arts education experience will be available with even greater flexibility over the four terms of the academic year. Most importantly, we all are committed to support our students as they navigate this unprecedented time in our country and our world.

How will you deal with the financial challenges associated with the pandemic?

Much like other colleges and universities, we expect a decline in revenues and an increase in expenditures. We know that our families need additional flexibility and support during this time. For the 2021 fiscal year, we are taking progressive measures, which includes to refinance several bonds, delay capital projects, and renegotiate service contracts. We also enacted freezing positions, salary reductions, furloughs, and layoffs. These decisions were challenging and forced us to make difficult trade-offs, which no doubt will inflict pain in our tight-knit community. Even in these trying times, however, the process of reaching these decisions has shown our community pulling together and shared governance working at its best.

What does fundraising look like in this new environment?

In times of crisis, Bantams flock together. During Trinity College’s Giving Week in May, more than 2,000 donors came together to support Trinity students and families. The focus was turned squarely on helping students through this difficult moment, and the Trinity community answered the call. Within a matter of days, Trinity alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends contributed nearly $1.3 million to provide additional financial aid and to cover sudden, unexpected expenses such as those related to remote learning and the costs for students to travel home. Trinity trustees joined the effort with an additional $500,000 match to support financial aid.

You have a college-age son, and you’ve said that you want him to go back to college this fall. What worries – and excites – you most about his return to campus?

My son, like so many other students that age, learns best with face-to-face interactions with faculty members and with interactions with his peers. I’m anxious for him to get back to college where he will learn best. I’m worried that conditions will be such that he has to return home during the semester.

How have Connecticut’s colleges and universities come together during the pandemic?

We have been a support system for one another during these challenging times. Our needs are similar in many ways, and if I’m not mistaken, Connecticut was the first state to develop a plan for returning to college and university campuses. That meant we were all working together and were able to share and collaborate on ideas that may work for our institution. We were then able to share details and suggestions with colleges and universities outside of Connecticut.

What silver linings have you seen during these difficult times?

This is not a time for Trinity to merely get by, or to think narrowly about the implications of various scenarios. Rather, this is a time to put to use our training in the liberal arts: to collaborate, to look at problems from all angles, to ask questions no one has asked, and to devise solutions that will move Trinity forward. As we approach our Bicentennial Anniversary, I see this time as an opportunity for innovation and positive change.