Remarks by President Bergeron
2020-2021 State of the College
June 11, 2021
A Year Like No Other
Good afternoon, everyone. I am honored to be here today to offer this State of the College Address, which, I think it’s fair to say, will be one for the history books. In every way imaginable, this has been a year worthy of a Dickens novel: the best of times, the worst of times. It has been dramatic year, a challenging year, a year of loss, and a year of great achievement. It has been a year of living through history and a year of making history.
I have said it before: the greatest honor of my life has been the opportunity to lead this College. I never felt that more keenly than this past 9 months. 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 where we are today. And that is why I am so glad to be with you today to tell you about the state of our College in the year of the pandemic.
The story starts, of course, back in the Fall, as we took the steps needed to open the College safely. Where many institutions tried and failed, Connecticut College prevailed. The intrepid class of 2024 arrived in August ready for a brave new world. Masks were the new fashion and our 750-acre campus provided an inspired setting for social distancing. But we took many more measures to keep the community healthy. For one thing, we established a partnership with Hartford Healthcare, the biggest health care provider in the state. Then we opened and ran our own testing center that allowed us to test everyone in residence twice per week.
We also worked to reduce the number of people living and working on campus, while we found ways to revise every single aspect of our residential experience—from dining, to the academic calendar, to the way we delivered instruction, so that we could accommodate students wherever they were in the world. By October, we had managed to mount live dance and theater outside: the first performing arts of the pandemic. And by November we pulled off our second annual All-College symposium, the culminating event of Connections, with 200 students doing virtual presentations on how they had put their education into action. The online format only made the students more impressive, heightening the sense of professionalism and accomplishment.
Students went home at Thanksgiving, and by the time they returned in February, everyone knew the drill. So we were even more successful in the second semester. After the initial quarantine, in fact, we jumped right to “alert level GREEN” and never left it for the rest of the year. From Feb 1 – May 20, our total COVID prevalence rate was near zero: just 5 hundredths of 1 percent. The Head of Infection Prevention at Hartford HealthCare went on record to say that our COVID protocols were among the best in the country. In April, the College went further, setting up vaccine clinics so the majority of our students could be vaccinated before returning home. Just last week we joined the White House Vaccine challenge to promote vaccination for everyone before we begin again in the fall.
All these efforts, of course, made a difference in what we were able to do together. And we did a lot. Conn led the way in the return of NESCAC athletics in the spring, and I am proud to say that for the first (and probably the last) time in College history, we managed to support a season in which all 28 varsity teams were engaged in NESCAC competition at the same time!
The arts were well supported, too. Visual art and film held impressive end-of-year shows. And we built a beautiful outdoor stage in the middle of Tempel Green, which students called “The Dune,” on which we saw music, theater, dance, improv, and more, produced every day from April 1 through the end of the term.
It was on this stage, too, that we experienced another history-making event, one that turned the College in a new direction. On April 28, I announced the largest single gift the College had ever received: a gift of $30 million from Rob and Karen Hale to support financial aid, athletics, and campus infrastructure. More than 1000 people gathered on Tempel Green to hear the news—it was an incredible moment. The extraordinary act of philanthropy not only signaled great confidence in the College and hope for our future, but it also marked a new milestone in our campaign.
Now, one joyful day deserves another, and we got it a few weeks later: a beautiful in-person Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021. It felt like a miracle. Tempel Green was again filled with grateful attendees. Faculty and staff who had been meeting via Zoom for so many months had a beautiful in-person reunion. Ethan Brown, ’94, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, received an honorary degree and gave a wonderful talk about finding your voice and founding a company. Fritz Folts ‘82 was awarded the College medal for leading the College during a pandemic. And parents, so thrilled to be present, honored the proceedings with a standing ovation.
2. Strategic capital projects
Those parents had a good view of what is certainly the most ambitious project we undertook during the pandemic: the renovation of the Palmer Auditorium into the Nancy and Preston Athey Center for Performance and Research. It’s a project that comes out of our strategic plan, Building on Strength, and a goal of achieving pre-eminence in the arts. And, with the COVID restrictions on in-person gatherings, this was the year to do it. It’s the first major upgrade since Palmer opened over 80 years ago.
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, 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; new seating, lighting, and sound; and restored windows for natural light. Major gifts from Nancy Athey ’72 and Preston Athey and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation are making it all possible. Construction is on schedule, with a grand reopening planned for October.
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 on the water. Yes, we love our view of the Sound, but the campus actually touches the Thames River. A year ago, after students departed, our grounds crew took on the months-long task of clearing the hillside to make the river visible again. And that, in turn, inspired a leadership gift from champion rower and athletics hall-of-fame member Jessica Archibald, ’95, a gift that will allow us install a new array of floating docks for sailing, rowing, and recreation, as well as a new road, sidewalks, and lights to make the space a true destination. Work is commencing this summer. We anticipate the project to be completed by spring 2022.
A second road improvement project now underway is a collaboration between the College and the City of New London: we’re building new sidewalks along Williams Street from Waterford to Hodges Square. This project, conceived several years ago, just got started in May, and features 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 will improve our connection to the City, and will be complete before the start of the Fall semester.
We are continuing to raise funds, too, for the next major capital project on our agenda: the renovation of the College Center at Crozier-Williams. Before the pandemic struck, 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. The goal is ultimately to catalyze student collaboration and connection in our post-pandemic era. We foresee this project as next in line once work on Palmer is complete.
3. Full participation
All these capital projects, focused on enhancing connection, speak to a central priority of our strategic plan: 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. This past year of pandemic deprivation and racial reckoning has made it an even more urgent priority. We cannot talk about the state of the College this year without discussing what full participation means.
Our focus has been a new program on intergroup dialogue and anti-racist education that we call The Dialogue Project. Democracy depends on citizens prepared to communicate across social differences with empathy and resilience. Connecticut College is uniquely poised to foster this education. In 2019, a generous gift from Agnes Gund ’60 allowed us to create The Dialogue Project, and during the past year it has generated so much good work. It has trained more student leaders in the art of facilitating difficult conversations. It has spawned a new student podcast called “In Connversation.” It has supported important public conversations on voting rights and community policing as well as three summits on racial equity attended by students, faculty, and alumni. It has enabled the College to participate in an important intergenerational task force on police reform in New London. And it has allowed us to launch Elevate, our first annual conference on social justice, created last January.
Other good things came of this work. We expanded, for example, our partnership with the Posse Foundation, bringing two new Posses from New York City, this past year and next, to join our longstanding Posses from Chicago. We admitted the largest number of students of color ever to the Class of 2025 this spring, from a record number of applicants. And, in a historic vote, our Trustees appointed Debo Adegbile ’91 as the next Chair of the Board, the first African-American to hold that post at Connecticut College. This was a very meaningful way to conclude a momentous year.
I see all these developments as a reflection of our mission—of teaching our students to focus their energy where it matters, by putting the liberal arts into action. And to close this report I want to report on some of the notable achievements of the year. I will begin, as I always do, with faculty, because they are the great models for student excellence and achievement.
In the Fall, I told you about Carla Parker-Athill, one of our newest assistant professors in Biology, who had won a seed grant from the Sloan Scholars Mentoring Network to advance her research on cortisol exposure and the biological impact of trauma on child development. Mara Suttmann-Lea, assistant professor of Government, also won a highly competitive fellowship from the Social Science Research Council for her work on the use of social media in voter education. And Anna Vallye, assistant professor of Art History and Architecture, received a Fellowship at the University of Basel to complete her book on German modernist architects and the American welfare state.
In the spring, David Dorfman ’81 received an Artistic Excellence Award through the state of Connecticut’s Artist Fellowship Program. And Hubert Cook, the Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr. Assistant Professor of English at Connecticut College, 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 twentieth century.
Our students, too, have been richly rewarded for their excellence. Alireza Mohammadi ’22 and Camila Adrianzén Yndigoyen ’23 won $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grants to pursue ambitious agendas: in one case, by starting a library and mentorship program for children in Kabul; and in another, by working to build relations between the local Peruvian community and the Venezuelan migrant community in Lima.
The U.S. Department of State recognized two of our students again this year with its most competitive scholarships. Emily Hackett ’23 and Devon Rancourt ’21 have both won 2021 Critical Language Scholarships to continue their studies of Russian language and culture. Three Connecticut College students——Isma Mora ’21, Nefertari Pierrlouis ’22, and Shawnia Yon ’23—received prestigious internships at Christie’s in New York to learn about the art world this summer. Three more won prestigious Fulbright fellowships: Dominique D’Onofrio ’18, to teach English in Romania, Abigail Schmitt ’21, to teach English in Spain, and Jessica Lynn-Sweet, to teach English in Brazil. And five students were awarded Gilman scholarships to pursue research abroad: Catja Christenson in the UK; Emily Hackett in Russia; Mohammad Alqudah in Greece; Payton Ferris in the UK, and Zion Martin-Hayes in France.
Continuing with international achievements, last year, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation invited Connecticut College to be an institutional partner in their high-profile Watson Fellowship, which provides a full year of funding to support a post-baccalaureate international interdisciplinary research project. This year, two of our seniors were named Watson Fellows: Tashayla “Shay” Borden ’21 and Jack Rider-McGovern ’21 will be visiting five different countries—from Canada to Burkina Faso—to pursue a project about Black women, art, and empowerment. Jack Rider-McGovern ’21, will be traveling to 9 countries, from Bolivia to Japan, 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 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 will be attending both the School of Oriental and African Studies and the University of London to pursue her work on the international refugee crisis. That’s what I call putting the liberal arts in action.
None of this would be possible, of course, without your help. And I want to close this pandemic-year 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 a year of historic fundraising. The Class of 1970 broke a record for reunion classes, 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. Overall, we are poised to have the best fundraising year in College history: with a total of $53 million in new gifts and commitments raised so far. And speaking of endowment, just last month the Connecticut College endowment reached an incredible new milestone, surpassing $400 million for the first time in our history. When we conceived our strategic plan we had a goal of doubling the size of our endowment in ten years——from $250M to $500M. We are now 80% to goal.
Our greatest endowment, of course, is in you, our alumni, who show every day the enduring value of a Connecticut College education. So I’d like to close now by paying tribute to the winners of our most treasured alumni awards and prizes from the last two years. You will find a longer story about this in the spring issue of your CC magazine. For now, I will just recognize the winners:
Harriet Buescher Lawrence ’34 Prize — for leadership in public service went to:
Mary-Jane Atwater ’70
Katherine O'Sullivan See ’70
Lois Olcott Price ’71
John W. Walters ’71
Mach Arom ’89 Award — for distinguished professional achievement
Alexandra Felfle ’10
Adrianne B. Capaldi ’06
John W. Meade, Jr. ’11
The Agnes Berkley Leahy ’21 Award — for outstanding commitment to the College
Gwendolyn H. Goffe ’70
Ronna Reynolds ’71
Anne Maxwell Livingston ’71
Alumni Tribute Award — for extraordinary service over many years
Eric J. Kaplan ’85
Deborah Nichols Losse ’66
The Goss Award — for their enthusiastic and ongoing participation
Anne-Marie Lott Lizarralde ’91
Congratulations and gratitude to you all for your inspiration, your leadership, and your love and loyalty to Connecticut College during this historic year. I look forward to celebrating in person in 2022 and wish you, for now, a splendid continuation of this extended at-home reunion! Thank you.