A Neuroscientist Named to Lead a College Will Get Another Kind of Lab

Tufts U.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney
June 02, 2014

"When I started as a researcher at Wellesley College, when I had my own little research lab, I realized pretty early that if you wanted to have a successful laboratory, you needed to motivate the people around you to do their best work," says Joanne Berger-Sweeney. "Fundamentally, that’s what administration is also."

Ms. Berger-Sweeney, a neuroscientist who studies developmental disorders, won’t continue her lab work when she becomes Trinity College’s president this July. But that won’t stop her from taking a scientific approach.

"I care about the data and the facts that lead to making good rational decisions," she says. "I like showing things graphically because that’s so much of what I’ve done as a scientist."

Ms. Berger-Sweeney, 55, has been dean of Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences for more than three years. Previously, she spent 19 years as a neuroscience professor and eventually as an associate dean at Wellesley, her alma mater. Becoming a college president at this point, she says, "felt like the natural evolution."

At Trinity she will lead an institution that has been trying to shake its party-school image and change the social atmosphere on campus. In late 2012, a committee recommended a series of reforms, including making fraternities and sororities co-ed—a declaration that drew a local firestorm. At the time, Trinity had dropped in college rankings, from 22nd place among U.S. News & World Report’s top liberal arts-colleges in 2004 to 37th place in 2012. Trinity is now at No. 36 in that ranking.

Ms. Berger-Sweeney says she doesn’t want to walk into the college set on a specific vision. Instead, like any scientist, she plans to spend her first several months observing and listening to what students, faculty, and staff want Trinity to be. "It’s not the No. 1 liberal-arts college," she says. But "it has a strong image now, and I think it will only get better."

She will succeed James F. Jones Jr., who will retire this year after 10 years at the helm.

Among Ms. Berger-Sweeney’s priorities are creating a strong, inclusive social environment on the campus, developing a long-term plan for financial stability, and building connections with the city of Hartford. The college’s urban location was part of its appeal: "I grew up in Los Angeles, and I thought I needed that to survive."

Ms. Berger-Sweeney will be the college’s first female and first African-American president. "It’s not an unusual place for me to be," she says. "There are not very many African-American neuroscientists who are full professors at research institutions in the country. I’m kind of used to being different."

Even so, she says, she has gotten many notes from students and faculty that read: "It’s about time."