College Update Following Board of Trustees Meeting

March 8, 2016
Dear Members of the Trinity College Community,
We are nearing the midpoint of the spring semester, with Commencement for members of the Class of 2016 in our sights.  It has been wonderful to host more than 100 seniors at my house for conversations before they graduate.  As you can imagine, they are sentimental about the fast-approaching end of their time as students here ’neath the elms.  Even as we prepare to say goodbye to our graduating class, it remains an exciting time at Trinity, with many goals accomplished so far, but also many tasks and challenges ahead. 
The Board of Trustees met on campus last week for the third of four meetings this academic year, and I’d like to update you on the highlights of that meeting. The meeting was quite productive and addressed the key issues at the forefront of our minds, including admissions, finances, campus infrastructure, and strategic planning.  The following is a brief recount of the trustee meeting, more or less in the chronological order in which the issues were discussed.

Strategic Planning and the Trinity Bicentennial Planning Commission

As we plan for Trinity’s bicentennial in 2023, there are important questions we need to address as a community.  The time is right for the creation of a strategic plan to define the College’s top priorities and to identify the specific steps we will take to achieve them. We used the trustee meeting as a focus group for a Bicentennial Planning Commission. 
  • Trustees were joined by faculty members, students, and staff to discuss whether we were asking the right questions for the College’s future.  Although my intention was to focus on establishing the right questions for upcoming strategic planning discussions, more than 50 people engaged in actually answering questions about Trinity’s mission, leadership, partnerships in Hartford, global perspectives, curriculum and co-curriculum, financial sustainability, and facilities and environmental sustainability.  Conversations were lively and forward thinking.
  • Based on feedback that I have received from multiple constituencies on campus, we will begin our strategic planning process with a focus on the College’s mission.  Look for opportunities in April to participate in these discussions.  Beginning our strategic planning with a focus on Trinity’s mission and vision will dovetail nicely with the self-study work we are doing related to reaccreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), a process that happens every 10 years.

Academic Excellence and Renewal

Since its founding, Trinity has been regarded as a selective liberal arts college.  Members of our faculty have always been at the core of our success as an institution.  To remain strong academically, we must ensure that our faculty members are supported and recognized for their many contributions to the College.
  • The trustees reviewed promotions to full professor and new faculty hires that ensure our continued renewal.  As announced to the campus community in February, the following have been promoted to full professor, effective July 1, 2016: Jack Dougherty in Educational Studies, Anne Lambright in Language and Culture Studies, and Peter Yoon in Computer Science.  Additionally, we reviewed new faculty hires that have been approved for the following departments: Classics, Computer Science, Environmental Science/Biology (joint position), Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion.
  • The trustees authorized exploration of an improved faculty retirement incentive plan that would provide senior faculty the opportunity to plan for retirement while maintaining close ties to the College.  Such a policy would place Trinity College more in line with its NESCAC colleagues.  You will be hearing more from Interim Deans Cardenas and Stein about this idea.
  • The trustees engaged in discussions of the 11,000-square-foot Crescent Street building in support of our academic mission.  They heard the many suggestions that were shared by the campus community at the open forum on February 18 and in multi-constituency group meetings with Deans Stein and Cardenas.  The emerging consensus is to pursue an integrated design planning process to support using the Crescent Street building for the Neuroscience Program, an art creativity corridor, an area supporting student success, and a shared common area space.  The next step will be for Deans Cardenas and Stein to form subcommittees and to determine costs of the various options.

Financial Sustainability

For Trinity to thrive in the 21st century, its financial model must be stable and sustainable.  The Board of Trustees is laser focused on the current state of the College’s finances, recognizing the importance of this critical component of our success.
  • Trustees authorized the refinancing of a College bond that will result in annual debt service savings.
  • We are on target to achieve a balanced budget for FY2016.  We have cut expenses while keeping our personnel – faculty and staff – whole, and we continue to move forward important projects such as the Bantam Network, replacing athletics fields, and completing the Trinity Music Hall.
  • Compared with last year at this time, unrestricted annual fund donations are up 6 percent in dollars and 7 percent in the number of donors.  Restricted gifts are up more than 25 percent.  In addition, trustees made generous new commitments this weekend of close to $750,000 to support our future.
  • A big success in February was the Bantam Athletics Challenge Week, a new fundraising effort for current use support of athletics.  At last count, the dollars raised totaled more than $250,000, in addition to the original Challenge Fund of $150,000. The more than $400,000 total raised for our student-athletes speaks to the commitment of our athletics volunteers and donors.
The trustees also discussed the long-term financial sustainability of the College on a more granular level.  Everyone recognizes the current challenges presented by the recent past practices of increased entering student class size, increased debt, increased tuition, and growing deferred maintenance, among other things.  If Trinity is to end this current cycle and begin to spiral upward, we need to improve student retention and diversify revenue sources to become more sustainable.  These are long-term solutions, and dedicated strategic planning will help us set this course.  However, short- and medium-term needs are still looming.  Foremost in the short term are (1) maintaining the quality of a Trinity College education, which includes enrolling the brightest and most engaged students, and (2) developing a financial bridge to a more sustainable future.
In support of these priorities and our short- and medium-term needs, we are continuing to listen to ideas and feedback about immediate expense reductions and revenue enhancements that do not harm our core mission.  Expense reductions will include renegotiation of contracts and the exploration of consortial arrangements with our peers for economy of scale.  Revenue enhancements are anticipated to include the strategic sale of College-owned properties; closing sizable gifts to the College for new support our short-term needs; and, importantly, using the talents of a significant pool of smart people who are passionate about this College and are focused on short-term solutions.  With this combination of resources and dedication of personnel, I am confident that Trinity will improve its financial situation and do so in a manner that is rational and sustainable. 

Looking Ahead

I want to underscore that while we have some current challenges, our College’s future remains bright, and I am optimistic about the work ahead.  You, the members of the Trinity community, are an important part of Trinity’s future, and, as always, I invite you to share your feedback, join me in conversations, and participate in the on-campus opportunities for collaboration.  I also look forward to seeing many of our alumni friends during my travels this spring, and I encourage you to participate in receptions and other events sponsored across the country by our Alumni Relations Office and the Trinity clubs in your area.  Additionally, I hope you will be among the many alumni and parents who will return to campus during Commencement Weekend on May 21-22 and Reunion Weekend on June 10-12.
Joanne Berger-Sweeney
President and Trinity College Professor of Neuroscience