'State of the College Address,' presented to Connecticut College alumnae and alumni
by President Katherine Bergeron
May 30, 2015
I hope you can appreciate how inspiring it is for me to experience a weekend like this: feeling all the love and devotion that loyal alumnae and alumni bring back to their alma mater. It is also a real privilege for me to be able to meet so many of you all at once — and to be able to see firsthand the long-term effects of a Connecticut College education.
And those effects are notable. A large number of you who are here this weekend have spent your lives in education, making a direct connection between your experience in college and your lives after College. Others of you are working the financial sector as bankers, investors and advisers; or as attorneys, marketing specialists, strategic planners, archivists, and analysts. We have an associate vice chancellor, a wildlife biologist, a geologist, a cardiologist, and even an enologist — a professional winemaker (someone you need to know!) And there are many of you, I know, who have spent your lives close to the arts, as voice teachers, dancers, designers, illustrators, photographers, museum directors, gallery owners, TV producers, and filmmakers.
I should also note that you have traveled here today from all over the United States, and from as far away as Hong Kong, Brazil, and Colombia. And there is someone who is setting another kind of distance record . . . Merion Ferris Ritter, from the class of 1935, turned 100 last August and is here today to celebrate her 80th reunion. Can you believe it? Marion, we are thrilled to have you here.
People often ask me if there have been any surprises for me since taking this job. And I would have to say: one thing I did not expect was the pleasure I would feel connecting with the talented and accomplished graduates, of all generations, who make up the Connecticut College family. You remind us all why we do what we do. Thank you so much for being here and for your support of Connecticut College.
We call this the "State of the College" address because it's an opportunity for you to hear about both where the College is and where it is headed at the end of this academic year. As most of you know, I just completed my first full year as president. And what a year it has been! It began with a historic event in the fall: when we welcomed our 100th class to Connecticut College, the class of 2018. But this was just the first of many milestones that defined the past 9 months. I’d like to tell you about some of the most important achievements, not only in the areas of teaching, research, and student success, but also on our campus and in our curriculum.
Commitment to teaching is one of the hallmarks of the Connecticut College faculty. Later in this convocation you will meet some of our finest teachers, celebrating their own milestones — faculty who have collectively given 275 years of their lives to the College . . . And their excellence has not gone unnoticed. This year the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching granted us yet one more "Professor of the Year" award. The award went to Hisae Kobayashi, a senior lecturer in East Asian Studies. Two of the faculty members celebrating anniversaries today — Steve Loomis and Marc Zimmer — were past recipients, as was Gene Gallagher, whom you heard last night. So this is the fourth time Connecticut College has received this award in 15 years: a record among our NESCAC peers.
Our coaches can be great teachers, too, and we racked up the honors this year in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. They bestowed “Coach of the Year” awards on not one but two of our own this year: Norm Riker for women’s soccer and Kristin Steele for women’s ice hockey. It’s wonderful to get this kind of recognition, especially when it’s richly deserved. I always say, I have been at many other fine institutions but as far as the dedication of our faculty to the teaching mission, Connecticut College is far above the rest. I’ve never seen anything like it.
You might think that, with all the energy spent on excellent teaching, our faculty would not have much left for their own scholarship. But that's not the case. Teaching and research always exist in a symbiotic relationship, and our faculty demonstrates this better than most. I took the time to go through our faculty data and learned that, last year, our 190 faculty completed 218 articles, 28 books and 114 exhibitions and performances — that’s an astonishing level of scholarly productivity.
They have also been successful in receiving competitive funding to support their work. This year alone, the College will receive a total of $4.4 million in support of faculty projects from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Mellon Foundation and other federal and private organizations.
Let me offer a few highlights: Professor Martha Grossel from Biology was awarded over $400K from the National Institutes of Health for her cancer research; Professor Anne Bernhard, also from Biology, was awarded $300K from Gulf of Mexico Research Foundation for her work related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and Professor James Downs, from the History Department, won $216K from Mellon Foundation to study epidemiology and medical anthropology at Harvard next year to understand better the role of cholera in post-Civil War America.
3. Student Success
This success has a direct impact on our students, who are frequently co-collaborators with faculty on their research. One of Jim Downs’s students, for example, had part of his honors thesis published on the History News Network. And I know that Professors Grossel and Bernhard — and many other faculty — have students as second authors on publications.
But our students have gained accolades in their own right, too. One of our seniors, Mo Smolskis, won a rare Women in Defense scholarship to support her own research on counterterrorism. Virginia Gresham, a sophomore, was the youngest invited participant in a national conference devoted to women in computer science. And Leah Fleming, a junior, won a very competitive Goldwater Fellowship for excellence in mathematics. And that’s not all: two members of the class of 2015 are heading out on Fulbrights this summer (Leland Sidle to Russia; Rick Hogoboom to Taiwan). And two very recent alums – Zoe Diaz-Martin ’12 and Aaron Feldman ’13 – have earned prestigious fellowships from the National Science Foundation to support their doctoral studies.
Our student-athletes have had a stellar year as well. Just a couple of weeks ago, Mike Clougher ’15, took first place in the men’s singles in the Dad Vail regatta in Philadelphia, beating out many Division I rowers. And you should know that Mike just graduated with a triple major at Conn (in Computer Science, Mathematics, and Economics) and that he will be training for the Olympics next year. In April, our women’s water polo team took home its third consecutive Eastern division championship. And, in the fall, our women’s soccer team won the first NESCAC championship in the history of the College, beating Bowdoin, Amherst and Williams to take the title. That was indeed a milestone. To top it off, 190 of our athletes were named to the NESCAC fall, winter, and spring All-Academic Teams this year.
Which means that our students were not just playing hard but also studying hard. And they now have an extraordinary place to do that. One of the most dramatic transformations of our campus landscape this year was the renovation of the Charles E. Shain Library. If you haven’t yet seen it, you should. It’s a miracle, really, that it is ready in time for your reunions: according to the original schedule, the library was not to open until August, but thanks to the superior skills of Ulysses Hammond, our VP for administration, along with our department of facilities management, and our excellent project managers, the job was completed 5 months early. You can’t imagine the uncontained joy of the students on its reopening in March.
The renovation literally raised the roof, and brought life and light into a distinctive mid-century building. It’s a brilliant example of adaptive reuse, which reinforces the College’s commitment to sustainability in all its forms. The new design features many collaborative study rooms; plenty of areas for quiet study; there is also a café that doubles as 24-hour work space; there are many more high-tech areas, including a very cool visualization wall on the lower floor that is being used both for classes and for other interactive installations; and finally, there is a brilliant new Academic Resource Center that provides service for all students to reach their highest academic potential.
The library is the most visible sign of a broader effort to make the education we offer at Connecticut College even more exceptional. And on that subject, I want to report on another major achievement of this academic year — probably the biggest of all: the complete rethinking of the Connecticut College curriculum. The faculty has been engaged over the past couple of years in some of the most important discussions of our time: about what students should learn, and how we should teach the liberal arts in the 21st century.
Let’s step back for a moment and think about what this means. The goal of a liberal education, as you well know, has always been to prepare students for lives of leadership in a free society. In order for a government by the people to succeed, we need educated leaders capable of making difficult choices about ever more complex issues. And those leaders, in turn, need an education that teaches them to learn how to learn under changing circumstances.
The faculty at Connecticut College has been thinking about precisely these goals. And they just ratified a new general curriculum for all students that will ensure that they achieve them. The new curriculum encourages students to develop higher order thinking by connecting disparate aspects of their work across four years. And for that reason the program is called "Connections."
Through the “Connections” curriculum, students will develop their curiosity, their ability to ask questions, their appreciation for different ideas and perspectives, their ability to deal with people who are different from themselves, and their ability to deal with the unknown. This is exactly how they will develop their ability to learn how to learn under changing circumstances.
The new requirements ask students to do a lot of things:
- They are going to sharpen their thinking, writing and communication skills
- They have to pose a critical question for themselves and then figure out a path to study that question from many different perspectives • They will learn a language and develop their intercultural competence through courses and other work experiences
- They will acquire practical understanding through internships, research, and work in local and global communities
- They are going to complete a piece of signature work, especially in their senior year, that demonstrates their ability to tackle complex problems
- And above all, they will integrate all these various components into a more coherent argument that will make them even more successful in the world beyond Conn.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the faculty passed the last of a series of votes to put this new curriculum into place. This, too, was a milestone: the first major change to our general curriculum in 40 years. The implementation, which will begin next year, will take a few years to complete. Once in place, the “Connections” curriculum will, I am convinced, solidify our reputation as one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the country.
This is a fully integrative approach to the liberal arts, as I said, and it’s designed to ensure the professional success of our students. And that’s last thing I want to talk about: what we have been doing to bolster support for our students’ lives after College.
Connecticut College has had an enlightened approach to career advising for at least the last two decades, distinguishing itself among its peers for its rigorous career preparation program, along with funding for summer internships. It’s not surprising that the Princeton Review named Connecticut College this year among the top 20 career programs in North America.
And that’s wonderful. But in the current climate, it’s clear that we must do more. And so we are doing it. This year, for example, we continued a new, in-house program for seniors called “Now Hiring,” a kind of boot camp for life after college. Students learn how to manage budgets, and how to work with spreadsheets; they hone their interview skills, practice their “elevator speeches,” and, most importantly, they work in teams to develop and present an enhanced marketing campaign for an actual local business. It has been a big success.
We just compiled the data for our most recent “one-year-out” survey and we learned that, within a year of graduating, 97% of our students are either employed in full-time jobs, in graduate school, or supported by competitive fellowships like Fulbright or Teach For America. That is a very good track record.
And continuing that record of success will be important not only this generation of students but also for this College. In fact, takes us back to the educational vision of this school at its very beginning. One hundred years ago, the founders of Connecticut College imagined a new kind of education for a new kind of woman at the dawn of a new century. So they combined rigorous liberal arts with practical training so that women could make a meaningful contribution to the world as soon as they graduated. That original vision is all the more relevant today. And, with the new “Connections” curriculum, we are committed to building on that deep foundation to make a Connecticut College education even more distinctive — and valuable — for our own time.
So, as you can see, these are exciting days, with a lot of forward momentum. And I want to end by thanking you for the additional forward push you have given us through your contributions to your class gifts and the annual fund this year. I cannot tell you how important this is for the College. The Annual Fund is still the most direct vehicle through which you can ensure that the College you love will flourish and thrive into its second century. So I want to thank you all again for being here. Thank you for the energy you’ve brought back to campus. And thank you for your love and your loyalty to Connecticut College. I wish you all a joyful conclusion to this Reunion weekend.