State of the College Address 2022
June 4, 2022
We are Conn
Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our second day of this beautiful Reunion weekend, our first in-person celebration since 2019! I am thrilled that you are here. I always love having this opportunity to talk about the State of the College. This past year, we saw the public launch of the Defy Boundaries Campaign, the most ambitious campaign in our history, with a goal of $300 million. And I think the theme of “defying boundaries” very much captures the spirit of this whole year, and the State of our College, as we pushed past the obstacles of yet another year living with a pandemic to achieve a number of notable firsts.
Here are the headlines: We have continued to break records in Admission. We are becoming nationally known for our innovative approach to the liberal arts. We are attracting and supporting top faculty talent. We are turning out award-winning students and championship athletes. And we are, importantly, exceeding all expectations in fundraising. I want to touch on all these topics in my time with you today.
Leadership in the Liberal Arts
Two weeks ago, we held our 104th Commencement on a beautiful summery day right out here on Tempel Green, and the word of the day was “honor.” You may know that this year marked the one hundredth anniversary of our honor code. Conn is one of just a few schools in the country with a completely student adjudicated honor code. And at the ceremony, I talked about the collective sense of obligation that this code creates—with its expectation to live by honor and to encourage others to do the same—and I expressed my gratitude to our faculty, our staff, and the 422 graduates of the Class of 2022 for doing just that during past two years of the pandemic, online or on campus, in masks or in person. I really wanted everyone, especially our families, to know the honor they brought to the College for supporting our educational mission through one of the most challenging periods in our history. Today, I am pleased that this convocation will also recognize a group of stellar alumni who have honored the College in exactly the same way.
Our speaker for Commencement was Deborah Bial, founder and CEO of the Posse Foundation—an organization that supports underrepresented student leaders in gaining admission to the country’s best colleges and universities. This year was a milestone year for the Posse organization, as they graduated their 10,000th scholar, and it was a milestone for Conn, too, as we graduated our 10th cohort of Posse scholars from Chicago—with a stunning 4-year graduation rate of 100%! Our partnership with Posse Chicago goes back to 2008; we added a second cohort from New York City in 2020, which means that, by Fall 23, we will have almost 90 Posse scholars in our student body. It's just one part of our strategy to build and support a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community.
Now, as I speak about our growing number of Posse scholars, I should also mention another noteworthy feat of our admissions in this past year. We saw the largest applicant pool in our history, with almost 9000 applications for the Class of 2026. And from that record pool, we also had another record. A record enrollment of over 660 students! We knew predictions would be difficult given the uncertainty of the past two years, but this result defies all odds. But it’s more than that: The Class of 2026, is also one of the most diverse and talented ever, coming from 36 states and 25 different countries: 26 percent are students of color, and almost 1 out of 7 is the first in their family to attend college.
To what do we owe this success? I think it’s a sign that our strategic investments over the past several years—in our curriculum, in our career program, in global education, in athletics, in the arts, and in equity and inclusion—are making a difference. And I can tell you, that feeling was palpable during our two Camel Days for admitted students in April, where almost 2000 students and their families visited the campus to see what we had to offer.
A key driver of this momentum is our new core curriculum—called “Connections”—which we launched in 2016 to reinvigorate the liberal arts for the 21st century. 94% of the Class of 2025 said that Connections was the main reason they chose to come to Conn, and, judging from the interest we saw on Camel Days, we believe that will hold true for the Class of 2026. The news is obviously reaching beyond our students, too, because, for the last four years, based on the opinion of higher education leaders, Connecticut College has been ranked among most innovative colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
That sense of innovation and renewal, of making things new again, has been a focus for the past few years now, and this year was no different. Let’s take capital projects, where the accent has been on renovation. One of the most impressive projects we accomplished in the past year is the building you are sitting in right now: our new Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Auditorium, which was officially opened to the public this spring.
This is a great Art Deco building—designed in 1938 by the architect of the Empire State building. And one of the things we wanted to do was to preserve its historic character while making some needed improvements. Which we did. There is a better stage floor for dancers. More natural light in the building. Better sightlines. Improved acoustics. Larger lobbies and convening spaces. More classroom space. More energy-efficient everything. And an elevator making the whole building accessible for the first time in over 80 years.
The first major event we held here was our spring musical—a fabulous student production of Cabaret. Then Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash joined me as our President’s Distinguished Lecturer for a deeply moving conversation about art and life. Our strategic plan has a goal of Conn achieving pre-eminence in the arts and this building has advanced that goal considerably. We are so grateful to Nancy Marshall Athey, of the 50th Reunion Class of 1972, her husband Preston Athey, and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for making it all possible.
And just as the Athey Center was being opened, we began work on another donor-funded project, which is to create a new home for our burgeoning film studies department. The Stark Center for the Moving Image will be housed in one of the oldest buildings on campus, Hillier Hall, right next to our black box Tansill theater. Construction for the Center, which will include both production and classroom spaces, should be complete by the Fall.
A little further east, a different summer project is underway: the revitalization of our Thames River waterfront. Conn is the only NESCAC school located right on the water, which is valuable both for athletics and for scholarship. Our strategic plan, our master plan, and our athletics action plan all envision us doing more with this asset, and, during the first spring of the pandemic, our grounds crew took a major step. With a suddenly empty campus, they cleared the hillside of 50 or more years of invasive tree growth and opened a view to the river. That inspired a leadership gift from Jess Archibald ’95, for her 25th Reunion, to complete the vision: a rehabilitated shoreline, new docks, a new road, sidewalks, and lighting all the way to the water. Last summer, we built a new bulkhead and dock for sailing as phase one. This spring, we received approval from the Department of Environmental Protections to do the rest: another dock for rowing and yet one more for recreation and research. Work has just started and is slated to be complete by fall.
Those of you who entered campus via Williams Street will have noticed the results of another road improvement project, completed in partnership with the City of New London. It includes new sidewalks from Waterford to Hodges Square and a special raised crosswalk in front of the Arboretum to slow traffic, along with a dedicated footpath to and from the College. That work was completed last August and it has vastly improved pedestrian and bike traffic to the City.
Our connection to the City has been enhanced in yet another way in just the last few weeks, as we embarked on a new project to bring Camels Downtown. With the unexpectedly bountiful first-year class, we were in the market for new housing opportunities, and a historic State Street building in downtown New London, now being renovated, became available. So the College has leased it, and we will be housing 60 some students there come fall, giving residential life a whole new dimension. We are excited about not only the new opportunities for community engagement but also about the contribution this initiative will make to the economic revitalization of New London’s historic center.
All of these projects are, in different ways, reflections of our strategic goal of sustainability. And we have much progress to report on that goal as well this year. The most exciting news is that the American Association of Sustainability in Higher Education awarded Connecticut College a GOLD ranking, an honor held by just 15% of colleges and universities in the country, and by very few of our NESCAC peers. We celebrated Earth Day in April with a pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030. And there is a long list of projects now underway to reach that goal, which include transitioning to electric vehicles, installing new LED lighting and solar arrays on campus, and implementing an environmental, social, and governance approach to the College’s investment strategy.
I see these developments as a reflection of our mission—of teaching our students, in a time of great disruption, to place their focus on what matters and to put their liberal arts education into action. So let me change course now to give you some examples of that mission at work. And I’m going to start, as I always do, with faculty, because they are models for educational excellence.
Fourteen stellar new faculty will join the College in the fall in the departments of Botany, Computer Science, Economics, Education, English, Film, French, Government, History, Human Development, Music, and Psychology. And more than half of these new hires, I am proud to report, are faculty of color. They are joining a group of very productive scholar teachers who have been winning all kinds of accolades in the past year.
In the arts and humanities, for example, Amanda Russhell Wallace, assistant professor of art, received support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts to support her photographic investigation of the Great Migration.
Leo Garafolo, chair of history, received funding from the Gerda Henkel Foundation for his research on Africans and their descendants in the Andes under Spanish colonial rule.
And Sarah Queen, also a professor of history, was awarded $200,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities—a huge sum for her field—to complete a translation and analysis of a rare Chinese commentary on Confucius from 500BCE.
In the social sciences, Jefferson Singer, Faulk Foundation professor of Psychology, and Nakia Hamlett, William Meredith Assistant Professor of Psychology, have been awarded $275,000 to work with community partners in New London in understanding and repairing the long-term effects of systemic racism. The work is part of a larger initiative sponsored by the Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan.
And Joyce Bennett, recently tenured in our Anthropology department, just received a prestigious Fulbright Scholar award to study traditional weaving as the intellectual property of Mayan women in Guatemala.
In the sciences, Peter Siver, Charles and Sarah Becker professor of Botany and Environmental Science, who has been at Conn for 32 years, received the highest honor bestowed by the American Phycological Society, the Award of Excellence, for his life’s work on the evolution of microscopic algae.
Another senior faculty, Marc Zimmer, Jean Tempel professor of Chemistry, has published yet another book, his sixth, called Science and the Skeptic, with the aim of giving young people a broad understanding of the scientific process.
But our newest faculty in the sciences have been gaining important recognition as well. Daniel Maser, an assistant professor of Physics, received an New Investigator grant from the American Chemical Society to support his research using broadband lasers to analyze the physical properties of benzene.
Mays Imad, who joined our Biology department this year, was just awarded a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to analyze the variety of diversity and equity initiatives now being used in STEM education in order to improve them.
And yet another new biology professor, Maria Rosa, has been receiving recognition for her work in rebuilding coral reefs destroyed by climate change. I was telling you earlier about the Thames River as a site for research, and Prof. Rosa is leading that charge. You may have read about the artificial reef balls she has been installing to rehabilitate the native coral population and restore the shoreline. But did you also know she has created the world's first 3D-printed biodegradable platforms for coral eggs? It’s a concept designed to accelerate coral larva development at the lowest possible risk. She collects coral eggs and sperm in the wild, fertilizes them in the lab, and implants them on platforms that are then returned to the wild. Traditionally, these platforms have been made of ceramic or plastic, but Maria figured out how to print them using wood, soy or algae, which will degrade naturally. She and her students will soon start trials in the Thames River before going to the Virgin Islands and Colombia to test them further. This is ground-breaking work that offers incredible hands-on learning opportunities for our students!
You can imagine just how inspiring it is for our students to be part of this kind of intellectual inquiry and discovery. And, not surprisingly, they have been imitating the success of the faculty by winning accolades of their own.
Let me start with Moriah Prescia, a U.S. Army veteran who transferred to Conn in 2020: she won a prestigious Watson Fellowship for next year to pursue international environmental activism through documentary filmmaking. There are others: Olivia Loo, from the Class of 2024, just won a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace to write a children’s novel addressing anti-Asian racism. And Emily Hackett from Class of ‘23, was chosen as one of just 16 students in the U.S. (and one of just 4 from a liberal arts college) to receive a highly competitive Beinecke Fellowship, which identifies students in their junior year and helps fund their future graduate education. Emily has been studying Russia and the Ukraine as an international relations major and a scholar in our center for international studies. Incidentally, the last time Conn won a Beinecke was in 1998! So this is a coup.
Continuing in the international vein, two of our students received Gilman International scholarships to study abroad in the UK and in Spain. Two more students won very competitive Critical Language Fellowships from the US State Dept: Jordan Westlake ‘22 will study Arabic in Morocco; and Julia Graham ’22 will study Russian in Muldova. And, in another dazzling display of excellence, we have nine Fulbright winners this year—the largest number in a decade—taking our students in the coming fall to Taiwan, Greece, Kazakstan, Uganda, Romania, Germany, and Bulgaria.
Moving now from individual to team accomplishments, I want to mention the group of six students we sent to Datafest 2022, a competition on big data and applied mathematics sponsored by the American Statistical Association. The Conn team won the award for “best business application.”
And let me tell you an incredible story about our brand new Arabic debate team. Yes, I said Arabic debate team, where the debating is done in modern Arabic. It was started by a first-year international student from Egypt, Maged Hassan, Class of 2025, who is working the Reunion this weekend. None of the students had ever debated before, but when Maged learned about a competition at University of Chicago, they decided to form a team, get a coach, and do what Camels do: work harder than anyone to reach their goal. And sure enough, the Connecticut College team ended up making it all the way to the finals, along with three more teams: from Harvard, Duke, and Georgetown! They will travel to Istanbul in two weeks for the championship. Wish them luck!
And as I say championship, I cannot end without mentioning the most astounding success of the year, the day our men’s soccer team, who represent some of the College’s best scholar-athletes, rose all the way to the top to become the division III national champions for the first time in College history. Head coach Reuben Burk and assistant coach Andrew Storton were named the 2021 NCAA Men’s Division III National Coaching Staff of the Year. I had the privilege of addressing the coaches and players and families two weeks ago as they received their championship rings during a moving ceremony here on campus. It was a special reunion for everyone.
I think this gives you a sense of the outsized impact of a Connecticut College education. And I have to say: None of it—Getting through COVID. Making this beautiful hall. Renewing our shoreline. Supporting our students and faculty in achieving excellence—None. Of. It. would be possible without your support. So let me end now by acknowledging the tremendous philanthropy of our community in the past year. I mentioned earlier that in October we launched the public phase of our Defy Boundaries campaign, and the name turns out to be prescient. The fiscal year is not yet over and we are on track to reach $48M in new gifts and commitments, which will be the third highest fundraising year in the College’s history. We started this campaign “silently” in 2017, and as we come to the end of year five, and enter our public phase, we have already reached $228M. That is 76% to the goal! Our last campaign raised $211M in a ten-year period; we have already surpassed that in just five. That’s defying expectations.
This campaign will strengthen and redefine Conn as a leader in 21st-century liberal arts. And following these last two years, when we witnessed the full extent of Camel generosity, and passion, and resilience, I have no doubt that we will achieve our goals. We are investing in Conn as never before, preparing the next generation of citizen leaders to challenge the status quo and do what Camels do: make a world of difference.
And we have you to thank for that. When I get to spend time with alumni on a weekend like this, I am lifted up, because you are making the same world of difference. Your ongoing commitment to this College is what is helping us flourish. So, let me thank you once again for your generosity. Thank you for leaving your legacy of talent, compassion, justice and HONOR to this great College. Thank you for the incredible support you have provided during this historic time. And thank you, above all, for your love and your loyalty to this very special place. As I stand before you on this incredible day, I am more convinced than ever: this College will continue to defy boundaries because of your belief and your strength.
Welcome home. I hope you have a splendid reunion.