Fall 2021 State of the College
October 2, 2021
Good morning everyone! I am so happy to be here with you on this perfect October morning and to be able extend my warmest greetings to our Camel family. I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to have you back on campus—in person—for this special, outdoor, families-only Fall Weekend.
There is no doubt that we have all lived through some challenging days, an era that would have inspired Dickens: the best of times and the worst of times. In the past year, there were dramatic highs and lows, disappointment and loss, and at the same time, incredible achievement. You know the expression: “It takes a village.” Well, it took the entire Camel village—students, staff, faculty, parents, trustees, and alumni—to get us to today. And here we are, fully in-person and enjoying Fall Weekend on our beautiful campus for the first time in two years. That is why I am so glad to have this opportunity to be with you this morning, to tell you about the state of our College in this second year of the pandemic.
And I have to say: There are quite a number of good things to report. We are continuing to break records in Admission. We are becoming a national leader in innovative liberal arts education. We are attracting and supporting top faculty talent. We are turning out award-winning students. And we are exceeding all expectations in fundraising. I want to touch on all these topics in my time with you this morning.
Leading in the liberal arts
Now, the past year had to be one of the most difficult environments imaginable for recruiting a first-year class: Our campus was closed to visitors for a 12-month period. But even with that constraint, we saw the largest applicant pool in our history. From a record 7,770 applications last year, we brought in an exceptional group of young people. The Class of 2025 is one of the strongest, most diverse, and most talented in our history, with 500 students from 33 states and 25 different countries: 23 percent are students of color, and one out of six are the first in their families to attend college. Move-in day this year was truly something special.
One of the drivers of this success is Connections, our 21st-century reinvention of the liberal arts. We did a quick survey of our incoming class, and 94 percent agreed that Connections was the main reason they had chosen to come to Conn. And I have to say, the program’s unique Pathways are attracting not just new students but also leaders within the higher education community. College presidents call me all the time to ask not only how our program works but, more importantly, how we managed to get it done. Last year, I was invited to speak about Connections at events organized by the Association of American Colleges & Universities and by the Ashoka University Exchange. And something must have clicked, because this year, based on views of higher education leaders, Connecticut College was ranked No. 16 among most innovative colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
Strategic capital projects: Palmer, Waterfront, Cro
If you look around, you’ll see for yourself: Innovation and renewal are happening all over this campus. And I’d like to tell you about some of our recent capital projects. I’ll start with the most ambitious: the transformation of Palmer Auditorium into the Athey Center for Performance and Research. It’s a project that comes out of our strategic plan and the goal of achieving pre-eminence in the arts. And, with all the COVID restrictions on indoor gatherings, last year was a perfect time to take the building off-line. It’s the first major renewal Palmer has seen since it opened over 80 years ago.
Some of you may know that this art deco auditorium was conceived by the same architect who designed the Empire State Building—and the renovation takes care to preserve its historic character while introducing needed improvements. Among them are a new theater classroom, a seminar room, and two areas for collaboration and study; an office suite for theater faculty and staff; a new entry hall; and finally, after 80 years, an elevator that makes the building fully accessible. The hall itself will have a new stage; a brand-new sprung floor for dance; and new seating, lighting, and sound. It will even have restored windows, original to the building, that will bring back natural light—an incredible asset. Major gifts from Nancy Athey ’72 and Preston Athey and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation are making it all possible. Construction will be finished this semester, the theater department will move in during the winter break, and a formal ribbon cutting will take place in the spring. 2022–’23 will be a grand-reopening year. So, more to come!
Another area ripe for restoration is our waterfront, a goal of both our strategic plan and our action plan for athletics. Conn is the only NESCAC school located right on the water. We cherish our distant view of the Long Island Sound, but this campus borders the Thames River. At the beginning of the pandemic, when students were forced to return home, our grounds crew took on the considerable task of clearing the hillside to make the river visible again. And that work inspired a leadership gift from champion rower and Athletic Hall of Fame member Jess Archibald ’95 to make the property even more accessible. Work got started this summer: There is now a giant bulkhead on the beach, with new ramps and a new dock for sailing. We will install a second, larger dock as soon as the department of environmental protection gives us the permit. And that will be followed by a new road, new lighting, and sidewalks taking us all the way down the hill. This project will not only transform our sailing and rowing programs but will also support other water-based recreational activities, as well as our growing marine science program. We anticipate it being complete by next summer.
And, for those of you who entered campus via Williams Street, you will have seen the results of another road improvement project, completed in partnership with the City of New London. This also includes miles of new sidewalks from Waterford to Hodges Square. But the centerpiece is a special, raised crosswalk in front of the Arboretum to slow traffic and enhance pedestrian safety, along with a dedicated footpath to and from the College. The work, just completed, vastly improves both pedestrian and bike traffic, along with our connection to the city.
The next strategic project on our agenda is the revitalization of the College Center at Crozier-Williams. Before the pandemic, you may remember, the Board of Trustees approved the architect’s concept: an open floor plan with fireplaces, study areas, a café, a pub, and a large meeting and performance venue. Fundraising is still ongoing, and we hope to start work sometime after the Athey Center is complete. This reimagined space will not just shine a light on our amazing community but also enhance the vitality of interaction and engagement among students, faculty, and staff—all the more necessary in our pandemic times.
In fact, all of these capital projects, focused on building connections, speak to one of our governing principles: what we like to call “full participation”—the vision of a residential community where all people can thrive, reach their greatest potential, and contribute to the flourishing of others. It’s a central priority of our strategic plan. Our Equity and Inclusion Action Plan spells it out in detail. And this past year of pandemic deprivation and racial reckoning has made it even more urgent. We cannot talk about the state of the College without talking about full participation.
Our new program on intergroup dialogue has been key. Democracy depends on citizens prepared to communicate across social differences with empathy and resilience, and Connecticut College is uniquely poised to foster this education. The last time we gathered in person, in fall 2019, I told you about a generous gift from Agnes Gund ’60 that allowed us to create The Gund Dialogue Project. During the past year, that project has done so much good. We trained more student leaders in the art of facilitating difficult conversations. We created a new student podcast, called In Connversation. We supported important public discussions on voting rights and community policing, as well as three summits on racial equity attended by hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni. We participated in an important intergenerational task force on policing in New London. And we launched Elevate, our first conference on social justice, which we intend to host annually and will mount again this coming January.
These efforts led to other good things. We expanded, for example, our partnership with the Posse Foundation and brought our second group of Posse students from New York City this year, to join our longstanding Posses from Chicago. And, in a historic vote, our trustees appointed Debo Adegbile ’91 as the new chair of the board, the first African American to hold that post at Connecticut College.
I see all these developments as a reflection of our mission—of teaching our students to focus their energy where it matters, and to put the liberal arts into action. And so I want to shift focus for the next few minutes, to report on some notable examples of our mission at work. I will begin, as I always do, with faculty, because they are the models for educational excellence.
Every year our faculty receive accolades for their work in many fields, and this didn’t stop even during a global pandemic. Professor Bruce Branchini, for example, from our Chemistry Department, received yet another award from the Air Force this year to support his research on bioluminescence—amounting to a half-million dollars in total funding the past few years. The National Science Foundation has been equally generous to Peter Siver, professor of botany and environmental science. He has been studying the 80-million-year evolution of microscopic algae. In fact, just this August, the American Phycological Society bestowed on Professor Siver its highest honor, the Award of Excellence, for his life’s work.
Among our newer faculty scientists, Assistant Professor of Biology Taegan McMahon was granted $300,000 from both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to study a pathogenic fungus that is eradicating amphibian diversity. And Assistant Professor Jeff Moher has been supporting students through a $350,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health for his cutting-edge research on the neuroscience of distraction.
Our faculty in the social sciences and humanities are just as impressive. Amanda Russhell Wallace, assistant professor of art, received support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts for her photographic investigation of the Great Migration narrative. Leo Garofalo, chair of history, just received funding from the Gerda Henkel Foundation for his research on Africans and their descendants in the Andes under Spanish colonial rule. Sarah Queen, also a professor of history, received $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 500 years B.C.E. David Dorfman, professor of dance and founder of the internationally known David Dorfman Dance company, was named a United States Artists fellow for 2020 and more recently received the award of Artistic Excellence from the State of Connecticut. And Hubert Cook, the Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr. Assistant Professor of English, was awarded a prestigious Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Institute for Citizens & Scholars to complete his book, Empathy’s Dark Labor, on Black writers at the turn of the 20th century.
No wonder our students are inspired! No wonder they have been winning so many of their own awards as well! I could begin by mentioning just a couple of our student-athletes: Matt Carter ’23, for example, was recently named NESCAC Men’s Cross-Country Runner of the Week. And Jarron Flynn ’24, of our men’s basketball team, was chosen to represent the northeast on the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Division III Student-Athlete Development Coalition.
Other students are pursuing development in other ways. Alireza Mohammadi ’22 and Camila Adrianzén Yndigoyen ’23 won $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grants, each with an ambitious agenda: in one case, to start a library and mentorship program for children in Kabul, Afghanistan; and in another, to build relations between the local Peruvian community and a Venezuelan migrant community in Lima, Peru. Incidentally, Alireza, who is also a member of our men’s soccer team, was just invited to join the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group at their New York office to work as a summer analyst in their Global Markets Sales & Trading division.
The U.S. Department of State recognized two of our students this year with its most competitive scholarships. Emily Hackett ’23 and Devon Rancourt ’21 both won Critical Language Scholarships to continue their studies of Russian language and culture. Three Connecticut College students—Ismael Mora ’21, Nefertari Pierre-Louis ’23, and Shawnia Yon ’24—received prestigious internships at Christie’s in New York to learn about the art world this summer. Three more won Fulbright Fellowships: Dominique D’Onofrio ’18, to teach English in Romania; Abigail Schmitt ’21, to teach English in Spain; and Jessica-Lyn Sweet ’21, to teach English in Brazil. And five students were awarded Gilman Scholarships to pursue research abroad in the UK, in Russia, in Greece, and in France.
Continuing with international recognition, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation invited Connecticut College to become an institutional partner in their high-profile Watson Fellowship, which provides a full year of funding to support a postbaccalaureate international interdisciplinary research project. This year, two of our seniors were named Watson Fellows: Tashayla “Shay” Borden ’21 will visit five different countries—from Canada to Burkina Faso—to pursue a project about Black women, art, and empowerment. Jack Rider-McGovern ’21, will travel to nine countries to study disappearing languages and efforts to preserve them. And in the best fellowship news of the year, Ann Monk ’21—a Newman Scholar, a double major in International Relations and Arabic, a scholar in our Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts, and the founder and president of the Student Refugee Alliance—became the first person in Connecticut College history to win the Marshall Scholarship, which provides three years of funding from the British government for graduate study in England. Ann is now in London pursuing her research on the international refugee crisis. That’s putting the liberal arts into action.
None of this would be possible, of course, without the support of a large Camel family. And I want to close this State of the College with a heartfelt thank-you. From the emergency funds for our students during the pandemic to your support of our strategic priorities, you have made this pandemic year a year of historic fundraising. The Class of 1970 broke records for Reunion giving, raising a total of $4.3 million in honor of its 50th reunion, with more than half of it dedicated to endow the director of our nationally recognized Academic Resource Center. Our annual fund broke another record, with $6.4 million in new gifts. And last spring we celebrated the largest single gift the College has ever received: a gift of $30 million from Rob and Karen Hale to support financial aid, athletics, and campus infrastructure.
That was a moment of joy in a pandemic spring. I’ll never forget the 1,000 people gathered here on Tempel Green to hear the news. The Hales’ extraordinary act of philanthropy not only signals great confidence in the College and hope for our future, it also marks a new milestone in our campaign. In all, the College saw its best fundraising year ever, with a total of $54 million in new gifts and commitments. The Connecticut College endowment, too, grew during this period—by a record 35 percent—to surpass $430 million for the first time in our history. When we conceived our strategic plan in 2016, we had a goal of doubling the size of our endowment in 10 years—from $250 million to $500 million. We are now more than 80 percent there!
In three weeks, we will celebrate the trustee launch of the most ambitious campaign this College has ever known—one that will both strengthen and redefine Conn as a leader in 21st-century liberal arts. After this historic year—when we witnessed Camel generosity, creativity, resiliency, and conviction in all their glory—I have no doubt 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. I have to say, when I get to spend time with parents 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 helps us flourish. So, let me thank you once again. Thank you for sending your thoughtful, talented, compassionate, and beautiful children to Connecticut College. Thank you for the invaluable support you have provided them and us during this historic year. 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 weekend.