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New Conn College president focusing on curriculum reform, relations with city

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published April 01. 2014 4:00AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron, center, chats with sophomores Jessie Durning, left, of Chicago and Caroline Noonan of Boston Thursday during the reception for Bergeron at the Thames Club in New London. Both Durning and Noonan are members of Conn's a cappella group, The Shwiffs, which was set to perform later that night.
On the job since Jan. 1, Katherine Bergeron to be inaugurated Saturday

New London - As the new president of Connecticut College, Katherine Bergeron is guiding the school in the largest curriculum revision since the 1970s.

The college community has been re-examining its approach to general education and revamping its requirements for the past 18 months. Bergeron, whose inauguration is this Saturday, became Conn's 11th president on Jan. 1.

Professors Amy Dooling, who leads the Educational Planning Committee, and Stephen Loomis of the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee met with Bergeron on her first day to discuss the curriculum.

"She really cares very deeply," Dooling said. "She knows what is at stake and she has great ideas. It was clear it's going to be a priority for her."

Bergeron said she is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the faculty on "this very important project."

Among the things Bergeron would like to do on campus are invest in academic excellence, increase the diversity of the students and faculty, advance the financial aid programs and raise the college's national and international profile.

Bergeron said she believes students must become creative, sophisticated, flexible, entrepreneurial leaders who can contribute meaningfully to society.

"I like to think of it as resilience training. You learn how to become very adaptable in a changing world," she said. "… Life is about facing challenges, and a liberal arts education is, I think, one of the best ways to develop future leaders who are capable of facing challenges."

The new curriculum, Bergeron said, will require students to be engaged on a local and global level and will focus on developing intellectual and practical skills. Students will work more intentionally to design their courses of studies and will be given more opportunities to reflect, she said.

The general education requirements will be threaded throughout the four years instead of being completed primarily in the first year. The advising process will become more of a mentoring relationship between faculty and students, with better coordination among an advising team, Dooling said. The faculty could vote on the plan, which Dooling described as a "different paradigm," as early as this fall. It would be implemented in stages during the coming years.

Because Bergeron is new to Conn, Dooling said, she can "look at us in a way we might not be able to" and will be a great resource for the faculty.

"She is everything a faculty person wants in a college president," she said. "She comes out of the faculty. She's an intellectual. We are so thrilled to have her."

Bergeron previously worked as Brown University's dean of the college, the chief academic officer for undergraduate education.

Meeting the mayor

In her new role, Bergeron also is focused on the future relationship between the college and the city.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, has proposed a "Reverse PILOT" - Payment In Lieu Of Taxes - where nonprofit colleges and hospitals would no longer be exempt from local property taxes. These entities, and not municipalities, then could apply for state grants to offset a portion of the cost.

Conn College contributes about $12,500 a year to the city. If the bill passes, the college, with assessments of $213.9 million, could be taxed up to $5.8 million. Bergeron said it is important to remember the value that colleges bring to New London, from the activities and facilities they offer, to the visitors they attract, the people they employ and the students who get involved in the city.

"I think the State of Connecticut has had a very enlightened policy of helping to reimburse cities for that lost tax revenue," she said. "It would be unusual and perhaps deeply concerning to see that policy reversed in such a radical way."

Bergeron said she met with New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio in February and one of the things they discussed was the city's fiscal difficulties. Bergeron said the voluntary payments last through 2017. The college is not looking to revisit it at this point, but she acknowledged that it "will be an ongoing conversation."

Bergeron said she is committed to "deepening the partnership" between the college and the city. She said 500 students volunteer in the city each year. The first in a series inaugural events was a reception for the community at the Thames Club last week.

"I love the strong sense of community in the city. I love the arts and the working waterfront," she said. "I'm very, very moved by the number of engagements that we already have in the city, the number of programs students are already involved in. I think the way to build partnerships is by continuing to work closely with partners, and I'm really looking forward to coming to know more people in New London as I think more about our future."

On campus, Bergeron has met with hundreds of students, faculty and staff.

"It has been a wonderful learning experience, and I will have to say, it has left me with a very strong impression of the excellence of Connecticut College and also of the really high quality of our student body and the absolute devotion of the faculty," she said.

The qualities that distinguish the college, and the achievements of the college community, are not always well known, she said.

"This is a college that has been very quiet about its excellence, and I think it's time to get a little more noisy."

The college community and local residents will gather at 11 a.m. Saturday at Palmer Auditorium for Bergeron's inauguration. Ruth J. Simmons, president emerita and professor of Comparative Literature and Africana Studies at Brown, will give the keynote speech before Bergeron addresses the crowd.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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