My First 100 Days at Trinity College

November 6, 2014

Dear Alumni and Friends of Trinity,

As I approach the completion of the first 100 days of my presidency at Trinity College, it seems an important time to reflect on my beginnings. I will start by saying that I love it here and continue to think that this is a great fit for me. Already, my family and I have a sense of home on the campus and in Hartford. During these first 100 days, I have listened, learned, and accomplished a lot. Let me name just a few things we have done.
  • We have begun to improve communications with all constituencies, and we will continue in this upward trajectory.
  • We have started the year off well with strong convocation and matriculation ceremonies along with my own investiture as your 22nd President.
  • I have had open office hours and meetings with a wide cross-section of members of on-campus communities, as well as hundreds of engaged alums and friends.
  • I have launched searches for the critical positions of Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Dean of Students, and an internal General Counsel.
  • We have started to articulate short-term working goals, laying the groundwork for long-term strategic planning. I have connected with key stakeholders in the Hartford community, including individuals and groups in the neighborhood, government, and industry.
Having made a good start on learning who and what Trinity has been, I am now focusing on the future. There is much to do, and, surprisingly, there is much that can be improved quickly. Other larger issues will take time to resolve.  

While there is much to disagree with in how U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) determines its rankings, I nonetheless have examined the data from the report and discovered that there are indeed some key areas where we need to improve the quality of a Trinity College education. And we need to ensure that our constituents are aware of these improvements as we make them. We are in an extremely competitive market and it is essential to clearly differentiate the value of a Trinity education! While I cannot guarantee that we will reach any particular rank in USNWR in three years, or even five, I can guarantee that we will choose and live up to metrics that will make a better Trinity education, and I believe improvement in the rankings will follow.

Based on our examination of the data, here are a few thoughts on a focus for the immediate future. We must improve our reputation. Whether we want to call it branding, re-branding, or creating a better vibe within and beyond campus, we must start doing things differently and learn to speak about Trinity with a new pride and enthusiasm.

First, we should consider the faculty. Because we are an academic institution, the faculty is a core part of the heart and soul of the institution and its mission. The faculty needs to feel empowered; faculty members need to take pride in the institution in which they work in order to do their best work. Faculty members perceive that they have been subjected to continuous financial cuts that have compromised the core mission of providing an excellent education to students and creating knowledge in their given fields of study. These two principles go hand in hand; you cannot have one without the other at a great college. 

One of the areas where we fell most in the USNWR ranking is Faculty Resources. It is true that Trinity’s salaries are at median levels, but we will need to make a full examination of benefits and all forms of compensation. Importantly, our student-faculty ratio is strong. We do, however, have more part-time faculty members than our aspirational peers. We need a plan to increase our full-time faculty and limit part-time faculty. Class sizes are also at issue; we have more large classes (> 50 students) and fewer small classes (< 20 students) than do our peers. All of these factors are reflected in the Faculty Resources category, and are items that affect the quality of a Trinity education. 

We should also consider creating more opportunities to ensure a variety of faculty voices are engaged in our governing processes. I think that we would all be surprised at how much faculty morale figures in reputational issues. A faculty is motivated by an inspiring and realistic narrative and wants to take pride in the place where it works. We are beginning to create a compelling narrative for Trinity College’s future. We cannot move this academic institution forward without moving and inspiring the faculty!

We should consider the students. An important factor in USNWR rankings has to do with the quality of the students who apply, are admitted, and choose to come to Trinity College. It is hard to attract the best students when our reputation with high school counselors and other academic institutions has tumbled; this is another factor in USNWR where we fell. We need our new Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid to create a strategy and inspire the team to carry out that strategy to admit the best students to Trinity College. The direction for this long-term strategy must involve increasing financial aid to enroll a strong, selective, diverse pool of students. Financial aid is where our most competitive peers have distinguished themselves and, interestingly is a key USNWR measure. Indeed, we have just launched a $10 million financial aid-matching fund initiative for endowed funds for student scholarships. I am very proud to report that the Development Office has already solicited and secured five new commitments for partial scholarships.

In the short term, we must build better relationships with high school counselors. We are inviting guidance counselors to campus in the spring to meet the new Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, faculty and staff members, and me. I expect that meeting a new dean and seeing new admissions materials will begin to make an immediate difference. Even more importantly, to improve our reputation we must be able to admit more excellent students regardless of their ability to pay. We will have to decide how to balance financial stability with undergraduate student quality.

Most importantly, we must convince those who think about, read about, and speak about Trinity College that exciting things are happening here. An important aspect of our reputation to students, parents, and counselors will include articulating a new social atmosphere on campus. This speaks strongly to the importance of co-curricular life, in other words, those things that go on outside of the classroom. Students are looking for a sense of community among their peers and access to the network of mentoring services they need to become competent adults. Many of these opportunities are provided through existing options, including our strong and active Greek-letter organizations. Other students are looking for more options and an alternative to the existing social scene, as well as a way to connect more meaningfully with Hartford. Just as important as counselors’ views will be what other students and parents are saying about Trinity College. Parents and students care about jobs, but I am sure that is not the only thing that they care about when choosing a college. We also need to create a compelling narrative around the social and cultural, as well as academic, life on campus. We need to articulate how Trinity College prepares our students for life (not just a job) beyond campus. “The liberal arts in an urban setting, preparing students for life” should be our motto. A new Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid will be a critical partner in creating and articulating this vision. You cannot have a great college without strong, diverse and engaged students!

We should consider our alumni. In USNWR, alumni giving decreased. Nevertheless, it is clear from my travels that there are a lot of alums awaiting their call to action to support and take pride in Trinity College again. The responses that I have gotten after sending the letter about the USNWR rankings have been overwhelmingly positive, thanking me for drawing attention to the issue, with many alumni offering to roll up their sleeves. The first and most important thing that our alums can do is “Speak Well of Trinity” and share our successes with anyone who will listen: a college counselor, a parent, a student, or a fellow alum. 

Here are just a few things of which we can all be proud.
  • We have a world-class faculty committed to developing well-grounded students and research that impacts our community and the world. 
  • We are launching a new mentoring network to support intellectual and social development of students outside of the classroom.
  • We have seen significant strides in student responsibility, accountability and behavior on campus this year. 
  • Our athletic teams continue to enjoy phenomenal success.
  • We have one of the most beautiful campuses in the country in a capital city at the nexus of Boston and New York.
How can you help? Stay engaged with Trinity. We are about to launch a new social media E-Ambassador Program that will enable you to send positive messages about Trinity on electronic platforms. In the meantime, please take every opportunity yourself to post a positive message on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or whatever is your favorite means of connecting with one another on the web.

I assure you that I could have written an entire letter on things that I could have done better in the first 100 days, but I have decided purposely not to make that the focus of this letter. Trinity College has had enough self-deprecation for the moment. We need to focus on and believe in our bright future and our ability to thrive in this very competitive market.

Sincerely,

Joanne Berger-Sweeney
President and
Professor of Neuroscience
Trinity College