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Updated: July 27, 2020

Trinity College President Berger-Sweeney navigates liberal arts school through historic challenges

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity College’s first Black president, is navigating crises in public health, college finances and race relations.
Addressing racial tensions on campus
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Before becoming a college administrator, eventually rising to be Trinity College’s first Black president, she was a neuroscientist studying chemicals’ affect on behavior. And before that, she had a front-row seat to a behavioral phenomenon known as “white flight.”

In the early 1970s, Berger-Sweeney’s family moved to the Inglewood section of Los Angeles, known at the time for its superior public schools. In 1970, a year before Berger-Sweeney began her freshman year at Morningside High School, Inglewood’s population was almost 86% white, and just over 11% African-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1980, the Black population grew to about 57%, with whites dwindling to about 29% of Inglewood residents.

“You just recognize things like that happen,” Berger-Sweeney said. “I think what that instilled in me was a strong desire to succeed.”

But Berger-Sweeney, a science wiz cheerleader who spent part of her high school freshman year studying abroad in Malaysia, says she only really noticed that dramatic shift in hindsight. In fact, she was into so many things in high school, her mother — who every morning of her childhood whispered into her ear, “You can be anything you want” — worried she may lack focus.

Perhaps in response, she went on to earn a doctorate in neurotoxicology, an extremely specialized area of science. But now-a-days, it seems like her broad experience with everything from race relations and public health to using elements of the humanities in scientific work have prepared her for a moment in which everything is in flux.

Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Berger-Sweeney is in the thick of working to reopen Trinity College’s campus safely this fall, and expects recent national unrest and a racial-justice protest movement to spark debate and controversy among students and faculty. And even before the pandemic hit, liberal arts colleges have been enmeshed in what Berger-Sweeney calls “a crisis of confidence,” as some observers cast liberal arts education as ineffective for job-seekers.

But with an unassuming self-confidence, the California native and married mother of two adult children is taking all those challenges head on by: using her scientist background to inform her decisions on campus health and safety; using her experience handling a racially loaded controversy on campus last year to predict what issues may arise in the fall; and doubling down on her belief in the value of liberal arts education as she steers the small, nearly 200-year-old college through one of the most tumultuous times the country has experienced.

An education

Long before she even applied to attend college, higher education played an outsized role in Berger-Sweeney’s life. Born in 1958, Joanne Eileen Berger-Sweeney is a fourth-generation college graduate in her family.

Her parents, Paul and Arminta, met at Clark College in Atlanta, before her father got his law degree at Howard University and became an attorney in Los Angeles, and her mother became the first African-American executive director of the Los Angeles Girl Scouts Council.

When Berger-Sweeney and her two older brothers sat at the dinner table each night, their parents impressed upon them the importance of education.

HBJ Photo | Greg Bordonaro
Trinity College’s Hartford campus.

The conversations were always about the future, and how the progress each child makes in life could lift up future generations of their family, and in some ways, African-Americans as a whole, Berger-Sweeney said.

Eight years younger than her brother, Paul Jr., and seven years the junior of her brother, John, Berger-Sweeney engaged with that kind of weighty subject matter at an early age.

“We talked about motivational things, current events that put her ahead of her classmates,” recalled John Sweeney, her brother who is the founder and senior partner of Beverly Hills-based law firm The Sweeney Firm. “We were always motivated by our parents, always encouraged to stand out from the crowd.”

That mission approach to life was part of Berger-Sweeney’s Sundays growing up, when her family attended services at Holman United Methodist Church, listening to sermons delivered by the Rev. James Lawson Jr. — a civil rights pioneer of nonviolent protest — and guests including Martin Luther King Jr.

“I just grew up with kind of an activist point of view, or at least an understanding and appreciation of the plight of Blacks in America,” Berger-Sweeney said.

But that activist point of view didn’t lead Berger-Sweeney to the rowdier corners of 1970s-era protest movements, her brother John said. His little sister was a studious joiner — excelling in dance, playing piano and participating in a litany of social groups, while keeping her grades up enough to graduate high school second in her class.

Berger-Sweeney now jokes that she gravitated toward math and science because, as the daughter of a lawyer and sister of two aspiring attorneys, she wanted to be as far away from a law-school track as possible. But the bigger reason seems to be she was really good at both subjects.

Berger-Sweeney’s mother always pushed her to attend a women’s college in the Northeast, and at age 16, she enrolled at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Berger-Sweeney’s mother died of a brain aneurysm about a year later. It was at Wellesley, she says, she became a true believer in the concept of liberal arts education.

A psychobiology major, Berger-Sweeney also took courses in philosophy and English, learning how to form an argument, and use data to demonstrate a narrative.

The skills helped her write better scientific papers, as she moved on to earn a master’s degree in environmental health science at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981, and a Ph.D. in neurotoxicology at Johns Hopkins University in 1989.

Journey to corner office

Academia first became Berger-Sweeney’s profession in 1991, when Wellesley College hired her as an assistant professor.

Like many areas touted as progressive beacons, racism and implicit bias existed just beneath the surface in Wellesley, Mass., where the college is located, said Jean Fuller-Stanley, the recently-retired associate dean of William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Fuller-Stanley, who is Black, was a professor of chemistry when she, as a member of the faculty’s black taskforce — which served as a welcoming committee and sounding board for African-American students and faculty — first met Berger-Sweeney. It didn’t take long for Fuller-Stanley to see her new colleague was very adept in relationship-building, a skill she believes helped her make the transition from faculty to administration, and eventually president.

That corner-office job came in 2014, when Berger-Sweeney was hired as Trinity College’s president, after serving positions at Wellesley, Harvard and Tufts University.

The big show

There’s a joke Berger-Sweeney likes to tell: A pilot and co-pilot on a commercial flight both fall ill and are unable to land the plane. When a frantic flight attendant gets on the intercom to ask if any passenger can land the plane, a woman jumps from her seat and runs to the cockpit.

It’s a rough landing, but she brings the plane to the tarmac safely, and once she’s on the ground, the flight attendant says, “We’re so lucky you were here! Where did you learn to fly a plane?”

“I didn’t,” the woman responds. “But they told me I can do anything with my liberal arts degree.”

But liberal arts colleges do have a serious perception problem in the modern world. Some view them as providing little more than navel-gazey courses on subjects unrelated to any particular profession at a time when higher-education costs continue to soar and specific job skills — particularly related to science, technology, engineering and math — are in demand, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

But the idea that a liberal arts education is less valuable than training in a specific field just isn’t true in the long term, Carnevale said. A CEW study of degree-earning power three decades after students graduate ranked Trinity College in the top 100 among U.S. universities.

“The evidence is now showing that a liberal arts education has long-term value,” Carnevale said. “In any particular field, it’s the mix of general and specific education that generates your earnings.”

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney.

However, Berger-Sweeney recognizes people paying tens of thousands of dollars per year for a college education are increasingly looking for a quicker return on investment in the form of a decent-paying job after graduation. That was in her mind when she sought a partnership with Indian IT giant Infosys.

Berger-Sweeney was one of several leaders in Hartford’s business community who was recruited to promote the city to Infosys CEO Ravi Kumar in 2017, when he was scoping out U.S. locations to establish technology hubs.

After that initial meeting, Berger-Sweeney followed up with Infosys, building on what she saw as complimentary visions for the two organizations.

Last year Trinity debuted its Trinity-Infosys Applied Learning Initiative partnership, which provides a five-week business analysis training program for liberal arts graduates. More than 150 Infosys employees have trained through this program, which is based in downtown Hartford.

Aside from the practicality of setting up a pipeline between the school and a hiring employer, Berger-Sweeney said the program gives Trinity the panache of working with one of the highest-profile companies in the city, while demonstrating the college is serious about its graduates’ job prospects.

“We have been very strategic with our partnership with Infosys, and it has gotten us into circles that we hadn’t imagined before,” Berger-Sweeney said.

Choppy waters ahead

While liberal arts institutions across the country were already struggling financially, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced campus closures in March, Trinity’s not currently in an existential crisis.

The school’s $596-million endowment is enough to ensure it won’t become financially insolvent even in a worst-case scenario in which its campus closes for all of the upcoming academic year, Berger-Sweeney said.

For now, Trinity College is planning to allow residential students to move onto campus at the end of August.

Regardless, the college has already taken a financial hit.

In April, Berger-Sweeney said the school was facing a $7-million loss in fiscal 2020, and a potentially worse outcome in fiscal 2021.

She said she’s been studying the virus closely as she weighs the health implications of opening this fall with the financial necessity for a college to have students — who pay fees for housing, dining and a host of other activities — on campus, she said.

“COVID has affected pretty much every one of our revenue streams, whether it’s tuition, or our endowment,” Berger-Sweeney said.

While the pandemic has put small liberal arts institutions in a financial bind, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said those schools’ survival really depends on their leaders’ ability to acclimate to a rapidly changing situation.

“It’s no secret that American universities and colleges are the most enduring institutions in our nation. … [That’s] because they’re adaptable,” Bacow said.

He’s confident Trinity is in good hands. When Bacow was president of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., he hired Berger-Sweeney as the school’s dean of arts and sciences.

“I thought in recruiting Joanne we were recruiting a president in waiting,” Bacow said.

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