In two years as president of Trinity College in Connecticut, Joanne Berger-Sweeney has shown no fear of sharply changing course.
Since starting at Trinity in July 2014, Berger-Sweeney has guided the 2,400-student private liberal arts college in Hartford, Conn., through a series of policy changes and course corrections large and small. Most recently, Trinity struck a deal to sell a closely scrutinized five-story building -- less than two years after purchasing the facility as a potential downtown foothold and possible location for graduate programs.
The building sale comes after the college put in place highly publicized admissions changes in the last year, dropping standardized test requirements, emphasizing applicants’ qualities like curiosity and persistence, and adding optional essay prompts. The college has also moved to end a recent history of freshman classes creeping larger and larger -- a move coming at a time when many liberal arts institutions are scrambling to try to bolster incoming classes. And as debate over enrollment levels played out, administrators cut spending to close a budget deficit.
It's a lot of change for Trinity, which is known as one of the socially elite "Little Ivies" but does not have the same sway or resources as some of its larger, storied competitors. The college is ranked lower than top private liberal arts institutions like Williams College, Amherst College or Swarthmore College, and while many institutions would be happy to have Trinity's half-billion-dollar endowment, it still does not have the billions in funds of its competitors.
Berger-Sweeney -- who is a neuroscientist -- admits all of the changes haven’t always received immediate buy-in from constituencies on and off campus. Still, she defends them as either the most pragmatic decision or necessary moves to position Trinity for the future.
“That buy-in, it’s ongoing,” she said in a recent phone interview. “There are always going to be some people who disagree with a strategy or a particular thing that’s happening. But I guess I’m pleased with how many alums, trustees, students and faculty members and staff are on board with the strategy that we’re moving forward.”
Moving forward looks in some ways different today than it did just two years ago. Berger-Sweeney announced in a Nov. 18 letter that Trinity had struck a deal to sell 200 Constitution Plaza, a 135,000-square-foot building in downtown Hartford, less than three miles from the college’s campus. The president had discussed the possibility of selling the building previously, but the sale still represented a quick change in strategy after Trinity bought the building with a bid of just over $2 million in an auction in at the end of 2014. At the time, college leaders listed potential uses including graduate studies, studio space and collaborations with other higher education institutions in the area.
Today, Trinity still plans to have a downtown presence -- but it will be a lessee, not a landlord. As part of the sale deal, Trinity will lease back about 21,000 square feet of space split across two buildings near the one it owned. The college is still considering uses for the space, including using it for entrepreneurship studies, expanded graduate and certificate programs, internships, and a "liberal arts action laboratory" that would have professors and students acting as consultants for city residents who stop in to discuss problems. Administrators plan to open downtown in the fall of 2017.
The college will recoup the amount it paid for 200 Constitution Plaza in the sale, along with the cost of minor capital improvements, according to Berger-Sweeney. She did not to share exact financial details, saying they could not be made public until the deal officially closes, which is likely not for several months.
Trinity purchased the building after an alumnus, whom she declined to name, recommended it as an interesting opportunity, Berger-Sweeney said.
Berger-Sweeney said she believed it was important for Trinity to have a footprint in Hartford’s central business district, particularly as the University of Connecticut moved its local campus downtown from West Hartford. But after the purchase, Trinity decided it did not need all the space it had acquired. It was approached by groups interested in purchasing the building.
“They were interesting in buying the building, and we would have the option to lease back space,” Berger-Sweeney said. “We started to explore that idea of being able to have our presence downtown and do all of those exciting things that we had been thinking about but not having the responsibility for the full building.”
The downtown space could end up being one small cog in a much larger shift at Trinity -- a shift in its enrollment strategy. Part of that strategy is exploring new graduate and certificate programs that would be housed downtown.
Controversially, the enrollment strategy also includes a move away from trying to grow freshman enrollment annually in order to plug budget gaps. At the same time, it includes bringing in more undergraduate students from different parts of the country, bringing in more international students, bringing in students from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, and shifting away from what some saw as an overreliance on students drawn from boarding schools.
Trinity’s freshman classes had increased by about 100 students over 15 years when Berger-Sweeney took over, she said. Where incoming classes were 490 students before, expectations for new classes had swelled to more than 600. Trinity enrolled 611 new students in the fall of 2014, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Berger-Sweeney believes that admitting classes that grew consistently without building out additional infrastructure was taking its toll.
“We went out and made this case to the trustees, to the faculty, to the staff and to our alumni,” Berger-Sweeney said. “We think Trinity grew too fast, too quickly, and that we were doing it primarily for the purpose of balancing the budget -- and the quality had suffered.”
Berger-Sweeney went on to explain that growing too fast can lead to larger class sizes and changes to the student-to-faculty ratio. Not growing the pool of applicants can also lead to a decrease in student body quality, she said.
Trinity and its vice president for enrollment and student success, Angel Pérez, have drawn national attention for the way they changed admissions practices. Specifically, the college reintroduced optional essays on its application, prompting students to write about the college and Hartford. It did away with requirements that undergraduate applicants send SAT or ACT scores. Its admissions office started to examine traits deemed important to success in college, like grit, persistence, creativity and curiosity.
Some of the changes, like the additions of essays, meant Trinity was going to lose applications, Pérez said. Applications to attend this fall dropped 20 percent year over year to 6,079. But Pérez argued against focusing on the number of students who apply for admission, instead saying the college should work to draw more quality students who were a good fit and wanted to attend its campus. In theory, those students would be more likely to accept admission and stay past their first year.
This year, at least, the change seems to have had an impact. Trinity’s yield rate -- the percentage of students accepting admission -- jumped from 22 percent to 30 percent, even as its admission rate stayed at 33 percent.
Trinity is not the only college that has talked about rightsizing its classes. Some institutions change enrollment levels because they have stretched their campuses thin, said Peter Farrell, managing director and senior principal at Royall and Co., a division of EAB that specializes in enrollment. Trinity is a client of another EAB branch, but Farrell isn't involved in their work and was commenting generally on enrollment management. Other institutions try to improve key metrics when they try to change class sizes, Farrell said.
“The best circumstance that I’ve seen has been with schools who’ve been able to successfully bend their demand curve in a favorable direction so that they can enroll the number of students they want, but at a lower discount rate,” Farrell said. “They’re getting a manageable number of students with the right revenue. That leads to a sustainable campus.”
That wasn’t quite the case at Trinity, though. The discount rate for the college’s incoming class rose from 36 percent last year to 42.9 percent this fall.
Last spring, some alumni were unhappy with the new direction as it was rolled out by administrators. For instance, when Trinity posted in January on its Facebook page about its new admissions philosophy and a Harvard Graduate School of Education report on reforming admissions practices, several fired back with comments.
“I wasn’t really popular with certain segments of the population, because I was making changes and change is really hard,” Pérez said. “For some alumni, they want Trinity to continue to be rooted in its history and tradition of who it brings to the institution. But Trinity is changing, the world is changing and we should really rise to the demands.”
The blowback came as Trinity was already facing worries about its budget and enrollment, because freshman enrollment dropped more than administrators expected in the fall of 2015. Freshman enrollments dropped by about 50 from 2014 to a total of 563 last fall. The drop contributed to a $5.25 million hole in Trinity’s $135 million budget last year.
Administrators were forced to cut about 4 percent from the budget for the fiscal year. Cuts included reducing contributions to reserve funds, suspending equity adjustments to salaries, trimming special events, cutting printing costs and lengthening the replacement cycle for equipment like computers and servers. Staff members also had to review vacant positions before filling them.
No one was laid off, though. The college managed to end the fiscal year with a small budget surplus.
This fall, freshman enrollment is back up to 572 -- a more sustainable level, according to Pérez. In the future, he expects to target 600 students accepting each year before the summer melt period. He also hopes the focus on freshman enrollment numbers fades.
“Class size was such an obsession,” Pérez said. “We’re not looking to drop the class size tremendously. There were rumors about us cutting the classes by a huge amount and people losing their jobs. None of that was true. The only thing we said was we can’t continue on this trajectory.”
The college is also attempting to diversify its student body, Pérez said. It is trying to bring in students from different parts of the country, bring in more students from other countries and shift away somewhat from students who attended boarding high schools.
“Trinity had a bit of a reputation … [of] overreliance on boarding schools, private boarding schools,” Pérez said. “Joanne and I felt it was also important to open the doors pretty widely to public high school students.”
This year, the college’s geographic spread increased, with the number of freshmen from California, for instance, jumping from 20 to 42. The population of first-year students of color increased from 16 percent of the incoming class to 18.5 percent. International students rose from 10 percent to 12 percent.
Some faculty members and students have questioned the administration on everything from facilities planning to transparency. Alden R. Gordon, a professor of fine arts, criticized the brick-and-mortar presence downtown and the planning process on campus in a March editorial appearing in the student newspaper The Trinity Tripod. The same month, Berger-Sweeney wrote to the student newspaper to attest to her administration’s dedication to transparency. She wrote in response to an editorial -- which cited unnamed sources -- that alleged a “pattern of opacity” by college leaders.
The downtown building and budget situation were both sources of controversy, said Leslie G. Desmangles, a professor of religion and international studies.
“People are also complaining -- ‘Maybe the faculty should be paid better and we shouldn’t have spent that money buying this,’” Desmangles said. “Other people are saying we need more equipment, more lab stuff. People are going to complain about all sorts of things.”
Desmangles has been at the college for 38 years -- he was one of several longtime professors former president James F. Jones Jr. used to call and consult from time to time. But Desmangles was relatively unconcerned by the level of debate on campus about recent changes.
“By nature, faculties at various schools always complain,” he said. “This is what we do. We have to critically analyze anything.”
Many have also supported Trinity’s admissions changes. When the college posted on Facebook in May about its incoming class, reactions were generally positive.
It’s also worth noting that Berger-Sweeney’s tenure has not been all about new strategies and changes to Trinity’s identity. Last year, she reversed a policy put in place before her presidency that would have forced Greek organizations to become coeducational. Many on campus opposed the plan, fearing it would kill fraternities and sororities.
But Berger-Sweeney, who is the first African-American president of Trinity and the first woman to hold the role, maintains that Trinity needs a long-term vision to position itself for the future. Relying on larger freshman classes drawn predominantly from the Northeast was not going to work, as demographics indicate the number of high school students is declining in the region, she said. So she thinks Trinity needs more diverse revenue streams including students from outside New England, a downtown presence and graduate programs.
Graduate students are traditionally a small percentage of Trinity’s enrollment, about 100 students. The college has 2,264 undergraduates this fall.
“We might be able to attract different kinds and numbers of students,” she said. “It really is all part of the vision that I see for making Trinity College sustainable for the long term.”