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Trinity College Leader Sees Diversity as Stemming the Alcoholism Tide

Chion Wolf WNPR
Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney.
The same type of pressure that may drive students to drink could be reversed in a more diverse cultural context.

Alcoholism and sexual assaults on college campuses continue to make headlines across the country, but for one college president, part of the solution could involve simply increasing diversity among the student body.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College in Hartford, told WNPR’s Where We Live that by actively creating an environment that reflects the diversity of the state’s capital, students would be exposed to different values that might alleviate some of the social and cultural pressures that lead to alcohol and drug abuse, as well as sexual misconduct.

“We have to try and break the culture of privilege on our campus,” Berger-Sweeney said. How does she plan on doing that?

“I think we do that best by making sure that we have a diverse campus of students that come" to Trinity, she said. "Because when you let a particular class dominate — as if they are the entire social scene — I think that’s when you have the problems.”

Trinity has not traditionally been recognized as a diverse school, although the percentage of white students dropped from 73 percent to 65 percent between 2001 and 2015, according to the college’s Office of Institutional Research. The percentage of Hispanics attending Trinity dropped by half during that time. This happened while the Hispanic population in Hartford jumped by over 3,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of the change in demographics involved people identifying themselves as an “other” race or having multiple racial identities, school data showed.

As the student body diversifies, Berger-Sweeney suggested that some social problems could be alleviated. The same type of pressure that may drive students to drink could be reversed in a more diverse cultural context, she said. This means that students would be pressured to avoid drugs and alcohol, though she suggested that this method works better for alcohol abuse than it does for drugs.

Parties and Campus Culture

Known as a “Little Ivy” due its high academic standards and $40,000 in-state tuition price tag, Trinity has also earned a reputation as a party campus. This status was likely intensified by allegations last year regarding a college fraternity that faced “serious alcohol violations,” according to an email from the school’s interim dean and obtained by WFSB News.

Berger-Sweeney acknowledged the connection between class privilege, alcohol/drugs and sexual misconduct, and noted that one of her first priorities upon taking the role of Trinity’s president last summer was to establish a task force to focus on sexual misconduct prevention, which she chairs.

“It’s not just a legal issue, this is moral issue,” she told Where We Live. “I have an 18-year-old daughter who will go to college next year. I care about these issues a lot. I care very much that we are, at Trinity College, on the cutting edge of some of these issues and not just following.”

Sexual assaults tripled on Trinity’s campus between 2012 and 2013, according to a Hartford Courant analysis. This happened while Berger-Sweeney was still at Tufts University. The college certainly has a responsibility to handle these allegations appropriately, she said, but preventing and handling these incidents takes cooperation. Law enforcement agencies are also on the hook for pursuing claims with vigor, which is sometimes not the case, she said.

“I understand that Hartford Police, as well as all police forces, are doing their best, but it’s not that police forces have a perfect record of reporting and adjudication of sexual assaults,” she said. “I just think that we have to be mindful that when we on campuses are turning over issues to our local police, it is not that people think that adjudication and investigations in those settings are perfect.”

At the end of the day, Trinity is a place of learning, and it looks to broaden its reach. With the recent purchase of the former Travelers Education Center on Constitution Plaza for $2 million, Trinity is poised to not only expand its footprint and student offerings, but lead the way toward a less dangerous undergraduate educational experience, Berger-Sweeney said.

“When you have a diverse set of students bringing diverse values, and you make sure your campus is as inclusive as possible, where there are opportunities for people to learn outside their culture — it’s becoming more and more essential that our students learn that before they go out in to the working world.”

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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