March 18, 2019
Women in Business Awards 2019

Berger-Sweeney enhances Trinity College's connections with home city

Photo | J. Fiereck Photography
Photo | J. Fiereck Photography

Joanne Berger-Sweeney

President and Professor of Neuroscience

Trinity College

The relationships Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney has forged with businesses and others on behalf of her school, its students and the Hartford community have expanded the private college's outreach and instructed her leadership.

Aside from Trinity's experimental partnership with technology giant Infosys, dubbed the Trinity-Infosys Applied Learning Initiative, and Trinity's partnership with Capital Community College (CCC) on the Liberal Arts Action Lab purposely established in the core business district downtown, Berger-Sweeney sits on boards that include Hartford HealthCare and the Capital Regional Development Authority (CRDA).

She witnessed how those high-powered boards and executives comprising them operate, providing insight into how they approach problems, how their businesses are organized and how they interact with boards — valuable lessons influencing interaction with her trustees and how she leads.

"It's really been beyond what I imagined this position could be when I accepted it," said Berger-Sweeney, who became Trinity College's president in 2014. "I thought I was taking an academic leadership position and … I feel like I'm more now a leader, not just an academic leader."

Berger-Sweeney — who earned a doctorate in neurotoxicology and did proof-of-concept work on Razadyne, later a highly used Alzheimer's drug — was dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University before Trinity. Previously, she was on Wellesley College's faculty and an associate dean overseeing 20 departments and programs, plus teaching and researching.

Paul Mounds Jr., chief operating officer for Gov. Ned Lamont, said Berger-Sweeney has delivered in better linking Trinity with the city of Hartford, something he believes was lacking.

"She has implemented so many different partnerships," said Mounds, a 2007 Trinity graduate. "She has basically put forth as part of the overall strategy of the college that Hartford is part of Trinity's success."

She's also demonstrated Trinity won't stand idly by, that it's going to participate in solutions and progress for Hartford and Connecticut, he said.

Mounds, a Trinity board member from 2014 to 2018, said Berger-Sweeney, as a strong, smart leader of a prestigious college, also is a role model and inspiration for women. Her work has attracted more alumni involvement, including influential new trustees, he said.

Berger-Sweeney notes Trinity's primary academic mission educating students, but also its role in the public good. She saw opportunity in the latter.

With Infosys, for example, Trinity has begun a pilot program at its One Constitution Plaza space featuring training by faculty and Infosys. One purpose is to open a new stream of applicants and employees to technology jobs through hiring liberal-arts graduates and giving them some technology skills to be business analysts.

Another purpose is helping people within Infosys, perhaps from technology backgrounds, broaden their talent with softer skills from Trinity to be better business analysts, she said.

"The most exciting one for me is that our liberal-arts graduates here at Trinity College, we're hoping to provide a bridge to employment in technology fields," Berger-Sweeney said.

Another Trinity partnership emerged from her co-chairing the Connecticut Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group.

Showing public and private college collaboration, Trinity teamed with CCC on the Liberal Arts Action Lab at 10 Constitution Plaza, where faculty and students work together on issues of interest to nonprofits and government agencies in Hartford, and "that's a pretty unique opportunity," Berger-Sweeney said.

She's also proud of leading Trinity's new strategic plan and assembling a strong senior leadership team.

She also has confronted school issues, including imbalanced operating budgets, which she committed to balancing.

Trinity also made applicants' scores from standardized tests, like SATs, optional because scores highly correlate with family income.

"We didn't think that was the best indicator of talent," Berger-Sweeney said.

Instead, Trinity examines indicators such as high school GPA, class rigor, extracurricular activities, counselor recommendations, and traits like grit and persistence.

For the class of 2022, Trinity's third as test-optional, 49 percent of applicants did not submit scores. All three classes' quality has been phenomenal, Berger-Sweeney said.

Choreographing a busy schedule

Berger-Sweeney, a neuroscientist who found working with students in the lab deeply gratifying, has enjoyed her administrative transition.

"Administration feels like my ability to give back to others and to have a broader impact — and maybe that was just the way I was raised," she said, noting her mother encouraged using her talents to help society.

Berger-Sweeney, a fan of professional dancing, says her guilty pleasure is watching "Dancing with the Stars." She's also an avid reader.

Her husband, retired neuroscientist Urs Berger, has maintained the household while she choreographs a busy schedule.

"For a while, and certainly since I've had this job, he has really taken up the slack in supporting the family," Berger-Sweeney said, noting the couple's two children, a college freshman and senior.

Q&A

What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

I want my legacy to be my ability to empower others through education.

What are your keys to maintaining business success?

Keep the mission of the organization central, and use it in the decision-making process.

Try to leave the organization better than when you found it. Keep in mind the long-term changes that you are trying to achieve, and focus on those even when there are short-term bumps.

When possible, use data to inform your decisions, but make sure to create a narrative and not just a graph to justify your decisions.

Keep in mind both high-level strategy and how decisions will impact individuals. It is a difficult but necessary balance.

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