Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2014


Katherine Bergeron, Connecticut College's 11th president. Photo by Harold Shapiro

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A New Voice

A New Voice
Photo by Harold Shapiro

The College's musically accomplished new president, Katherine Bergeron, has struck a chord with people everywhere she's been. Her new challenge: orchestrating the future of a beloved institution.

A few months after Katherine Bergeron was selected as president of Connecticut College, Pamela D. Zilly '75, the chair of the College's Board of Trustees and chair of the presidential search committee, came across an article in The New York Times. It was titled “Is Music the Key to Success?” When she finished reading it, she thought to herself, this explains a lot.

She was thinking, of course, about Bergeron, an acclaimed musicologist who oversaw undergraduate education as dean of the college at Brown University from 2006 until she took office as Connecticut College's 11th president in January.

The article pointed out that musicians can be found at the top of many fields. It cited examples like Condoleezza Rice, who trained to be a concert pianist; Alan Greenspan, once a professional clarinet and saxophone player; and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who plays guitar.

The author of the article, Joanne Lipman, theorized that music teaches qualities such as collaboration, the ability to listen, a way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas, and the power to focus on the present and future simultaneously (I'm playing this now, but I need to be ready for that coming up later in the score.)

If those sound like essential qualities for a college president, you are on the same page as Zilly. The board chair says that in the many conversations she had with Bergeron after her selection, she could almost hear a symphony of analysis and conjecture playing behind the president-elect''s eyes.

“She has this ability to take something somebody has said or an idea, muse about it in a thoughtful way, and say, ''Perhaps if we did this … how would that work?''”

Wherever they come from, Bergeron's talents for weaving together disparate ideas — and the other attributes Lipman connects to music — have carried her far.

And now … almost back home.

A daughter of southeast Connecticut

Bergeron grew up 15 miles southwest of campus in Old Lyme, Conn., in a family of French-Canadian and Irish ancestry. While her immediate family was Americanized, she remembers being fascinated by her French-speaking relatives. At the first opportunity, she began studying French in school.

Her father, Edward, now deceased, studied chemistry at the University of Connecticut and became a manufacturer's representative in the rubber and plastics industry. Her mother, Kathryn Fallon, was an amateur artist who earned an associate''s degree from Larson Junior College, a private women's college later absorbed into Quinnipiac University. She worked for several years before marrying Edward and then spent most of her life as a stay-at-home mom.

Now 86, Kathryn Fallon Bergeron still lives in Old Lyme. At a gathering last September in Palmer Auditorium to introduce her daughter as president-elect, she sat front row center.

“I can't tell you how moving it is for me to be standing here right now,” said the daughter before acknowledging her mother.

The new president says her family has always been the most influential presence in her life. She grew up in a traditional-size mid-century Catholic family with five children. Katherine was the middle one. Her siblings today work in a range of professions: a chief engineer at Xerox, an Ursuline nun with a law degree, an associate director of a major art museum, and an art teacher who works with at-risk youth.

Mrs. Bergeron taught her daughter oil painting and signed her up for art lessons (some at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum) to go along with her flute and piano instruction. She continued to study both art and music throughout high school and college.

At Lyme-Old Lyme High School, Katherine wore her long dark hair in braids, toted her flute case from class to class, and excelled academically. She was valedictorian of her 100-person graduating class in 1976, winning nearly every student honor possible in disciplines as disparate as music, French, English and physics.

“She was serious, she was spirited and she was smart,” recalls her former English teacher Alice Burbank, now retired.

For all her awards, however, she never came across as overly competitive or aloof, says classmate and Connecticut College alumna Lucia Santini '80, now an investment manager. “She was a very hard-working, serious student but also a lovely person with the greatest sense of humor,” Santini says.

Following graduation, she enrolled at Wesleyan University, only 25 miles from home but a whole new world for her. She has described the experience as “mind bending” because of the way Wesleyan's liberal arts curriculum introduced her to new ideas and ways of thinking. Taking advantage of the music department's focus on world music, she delved eagerly into new forms of musical expression. Music professor Dick Winslow, now retired, remembers that she mastered a form of Indian drumming and, in a physics class, wrote a scholarly paper that a physics colleague considered publishable.

Bergeron graduated with highest honors in music and then joined the teaching staff at the elite Phillips Academy boarding school in Andover, Mass. After two years, she left for a doctoral program in musicology at Cornell University.

“I never had a better student,” remembers Don Randel, Bergeron's academic adviser at Cornell and later president of the University of Chicago.

Bergeron's doctoral dissertation was on the revival of Gregorian chant in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Randel says he appreciated her slightly irreverent attitude toward the staid norms of musicology. While she was researching solemn religious music, he recalls, she also performed alto sax in a jump-blues band called The Fabulous Rhythm Method.

The eager young music professor

In 1989, with her freshly minted Ph.D., Bergeron secured her first tenure-track appointment, at Tufts University in Boston. Jane Bernstein, the university's Austin Fletcher Professor of Music, was department chair at the time. She says Bergeron''s job application stood out from hundreds of others.

“She had amazing recommendations. She was a very eclectic musicologist, she was very diverse in her scholarship, she was extremely creative, and to top it off, she was an amazing musician,” says Bernstein, who would later serve as president of the American Musicological Society.

The young faculty member proved an imaginative teacher as well. Bernstein recalls that for one assignment in an introductory music appreciation class she had students write reports on a composer of their choice and then come to class and converse with one another in character.

She made friends fast within the department, too, by always being eager to help. Every day in the music department, Bernstein says, would begin with the junior faculty member dropping by the department chair''s office and saying, “Hi, what can I do?”

When she left Tufts four years later to join the prestigious music department at the University of California, Berkeley, it was a traumatic event, Bernstein says.

“We cried, the students cried. I've never seen anything like this in my life,” she says.

The opportunity at Berkeley was too good to pass up. During her tenure at Tufts she had served a year at Berkeley as a visiting assistant professor. Now she became the first female tenure-track faculty member ever in the department's preeminent musicology Ph.D. program.

Early in what turned out to be 12 years at Berkeley, in San Francisco's Bay Area, she met her future husband, Butch Rovan, a composer and performer who specializes in electronic music and multimedia. The couple got to know each other in a free-improvisation group in which she was singing and he was playing saxophone.

“He was working on his Ph.D. in a different program, and I was a young assistant professor,” Bergeron says. The relationship turned into a long-distance one when Rovan left the Bay Area for Paris to continue his doctoral training. He earned his Ph.D., and they married, in 1999. By that time he had returned to the United States, first to teach at Florida State University and then to direct a center for experimental music at the University of North Texas.

They weren't able to live and work together until he was recruited to fill a newly created faculty position in computer music composition at Brown in 2004. The Ivy League school also offered a position to his spouse, the heralded musicologist from the neighboring state of Connecticut. But she would not remain in the background for long. A year after joining Brown's music department, Bergeron was appointed department chair.

A year after that she was dean of the college.

On the fast track at Brown

In selecting her to head the undergraduate program, Brown Provost David Kertzer, who had just come into office, passed over candidates with more administrative experience and more time at Brown. Among the points in her favor, he says, was that she had come from a liberal arts background, which he thought would make her a strong advocate for Brown's open philosophy of liberal education.

“I also believed she had the intellectual heft and moral qualities, dynamism, charisma and could stand up to pressure, he says. “It was the first decision I made as provost and one I'm very happy about.”

Kertzer recommended her appointment to his boss, then-President Ruth Simmons, who formally approved the appointment. That was in 2006.

Simmons had come to Brown five years earlier from Smith College, a private liberal arts college for women in Northampton, Mass. Simmons, who stepped down as president of Brown in 2012, says the key reason Bergeron got the appointment was her dedication to high quality and rigorous standards. She says Bergeron ended up having to weather more difficult cultural issues than virtually any other administrator in her senior leadership team.

Her initial challenge was to improve the operation of the Office of the Dean of the College itself. Bergeron brought in consultants to examine the operation and make recommendations. Not all the changes she embarked on were popular, says Simmons, who was impressed by how the former music professor was not deterred in the face of criticism.

A thornier issue involved a comprehensive review, in 2007, of Brown's cherished open curriculum, which gives undergraduates a free rein in building their general education programs. It was the first such review of the curriculum in about 40 years and was done in preparation for Brown's 10-year accreditation review.

Many people think of the unconventional open curriculum as the defining element of Brown's undergraduate education, Simmons says. And many of the undergraduate program's fans feared the review would be used to scuttle it. At the same time, Brown, like every institution in higher education, was facing increasing skepticism about academic accountability. Were the increasingly expensive diplomas worth the investment? A do-it-yourself degree can raise eyebrows.

Observers say Bergeron dealt with these concerns by conducting an inclusive review that reached out to all segments of the college community: faculty, students, staff, even alumni. The resulting plan, as Bergeron describes it, was designed to strengthen the college experience while keeping the unique curricular philosophy in place. In her words, the review process did not so much change the open curriculum as “renew it to its original ideals.” The best indicator of its success, Brown administrators say, is that in 2009, when the University underwent its 10-year reaccreditation process, the visiting team raised no questions about the open curriculum. That hadn't happened in 40 years.

Among other results, the review led to a complete transformation of the four-year advising experience. One of Bergeron's proudest accomplishments, the overhaul included the creation of a Faculty Fellows program, a new drop-in advising center at the heart of the campus, and the introduction of new online tools that improved access to advising information and tracked student progress across four years. The tools also give students a way to create a virtual portfolio of their college work and experience that they can access even after graduation. Another innovation was a center for career readiness called CareerLAB (for “Life After Brown”).

Applause from different audiences

Life as dean of the college wasn't all reviews and restructuring, however. In addition to her administrative responsibilities, the dean pressed ahead with her musicology research. Her fourth book, “Voice Lessons: French Mélodie in the Belle Epoque,” published in 2010 by Oxford University Press, won the American Musicological Society's Otto Kinkeldey Award, the society's highest book honor. Bergeron considers herself a historian, and the book traces the origins of a hybrid of poetry and music that emerged as an art form in France in the late 19th century. Purchasers of the book can access recordings online of Bergeron herself singing the music.

Like most senior administrators, Brown's dean of the college also often participated in raising money for the university. Almost all of Brown's gifts come from grateful undergraduate alumni and parents of undergraduate students, and Simmons says those donors needed to be reassured that the undergraduate program remained the treasure they remembered. The personable dean of the college proved a compelling ambassador, the former president says.

“She'll be an excellent fundraiser,” Simmons predicts.

Such endorsements carried anvils of weight with the College's presidential search committee. Trustee DeFred G. Folts III '82, a member of the committee, says one of the factors that set Bergeron apart from other top candidates was that she had served under the famously demanding Simmons for an extended period of time. And that Simmons gave her the tough assignments.

“At the end of the day,” says Folts, “you're also hiring the person's mentors, and Ruth showed faith in her.”

At Brown, the dean of the college is the face of the university to undergraduate students. Brown's undergrads seemed to not only appreciate the structural reforms she was implementing but at least some were captivated by the style of the energetic dean.

A search of the archives of the blog of the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper, reveals a substantial number of good-natured images of “KBerge” (“our favorite administrator”) with her face Photoshopped onto the bodies of pop-music megastars.

There are also photographs of her singing in public, which is a common occurrence. Bergeron once delighted students by making a surprise appearance as a backup vocalist in a student band during a baccalaureate ceremony. She has also been known to break into song during meetings and conversations.

Another curiosity at the Daily Herald blog is an otherworldly video of her dressed in black, hair pulled back severely, and singing in German. Above her, abstract images flicker on a screen. She's performing one of her husband's avant-garde experimental compositions, “vis-à-vis,” which she also performed at a Connecticut College Ammerman Center for Arts & Technology symposium in 2003.

A few years ago Bergeron and her husband fulfilled a long-held promise to each other by jointly teaching a class in songwriting. Ben Nicholson, who graduated from Brown in 2011, took the course as a sophomore and as a senior served as their teaching assistant.

He says Bergeron's generosity and compassion often were in evidence in the class. One student, he recalls, had never written a song before and was so shy about singing that she was unable to make eye contact while doing it. She had to read lyrics looking down at them on her cell phone. With Bergeron's encouragement, she not only was able to make a recording of an original song (the final project in the course), but she is now pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter in Nashville.

Nicholson, who now works for TuneIn, a Web-based radio service, says students felt comfortable telling her that they were struggling. She would often stay after class to help them work though their fears.

“She has an amazing capacity to be aware of things and invest in people,” he says.

Such qualities came through during the presidential search process too. People who met with her say they noticed how she makes people feel at ease, that they can express themselves openly to her, and they don't have to be guarded in any way.

Zilly, the search committee chair, however, says she is more than just empathetic as a leader.

“There's a real spine there in terms of understanding that decisions need to be made, things need to get done. The nice thing about Katherine is that she understands that but also understands that you can't simply make decisions on your own, there must be shared governance.”

Says fellow search committee member Folts, “I think you're going to get someone who is very creative, analytical and rather practical. She's been in administration long enough to know that to get from an idea to implementation of a successful initiative requires two different skills … and she's very adept at both. She's definitely someone to whom you can say, ''Here it is, the good, the bad and the ugly,'' and she'll say, ''Great, I see a lot of opportunity, let's do this.''”

Works in progress

Exactly what will she do? It's too early to tell. The president-elect was, understandably, more focused on listening and learning than on vision sharing in the months leading up to her taking office. In two weeks in December she met individually with more than 35 academic department heads.

She has given a few clues, however. In a short speech at the end of the welcoming event last September in Palmer, she talked of “reclaiming the pioneer spirit” of the College's first leaders. She said all liberal arts colleges need to reframe the value of what they do so more people understand that value. Liberal arts colleges should reaffirm a commitment to both diversity and to the public good, she said, and they should invest deeply in their academic and teaching mission.

People will be watching to see how she approaches those imperatives at Connecticut College. It's a challenge she appears to relish.

At an informal welcoming reception last summer, immediately after her selection was announced, Bergeron told well-wishers gathered in Shain Library that it felt like a homecoming. What made it more special, she said, was coming home to a school dedicated to the kind of “eye-opening, mind-bending” liberal arts education she had experienced as an undergraduate.

“Everything that I have achieved in my life,” she said, “can be traced back to that.”

Filling in the blanks

Favorite singer: Sarah Vaughan

Favorite song: “Every Time We Say Goodbye” by Cole Porter

Favorite composer (classical): Claude Debussy

Favorite composer (pop): Ben Gibbard of the alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie

Favorite key: G minor. “It is both bright and dark at the same time, like twilight.”

Favorite book: “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner

Last book read: “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a memoir by Joan Didion

Favorite movie: “Found Memories” by the Brazilian director Júlia Murat. “It''s an intensely beautiful film, with almost no dialogue, about the afterlife of a photograph.”

Person from history you''d most like to meet: Eleanor Roosevelt

First question you'd ask: “What did it feel like to draft the first Universal Declaration on Human Rights? Also, what do you remember most about your visit to Connecticut College in 1942?”

Person or people who influenced you most: my family

Motto you live by: “Keep your commitments”

Favorite sport: swimming

Your worst course in high school or college: none. “I loved them all — honestly!”

Your high school hangout in or around Old Lyme: White Sands Beach

Favorite thing about Connecticut College: the people

“Hardly anyone knows that I … recorded a talking book for children” (“Hip Cat” by Jonathan London)

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