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May 06, 2014

Joanne Berger-Sweeney will take over as president at Trinity College in July (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH).

Last month, Trinity College, a predominantly white, elite, liberal arts school in Hartford, Connecticut, appointed its first African-American and female president, Joanne Berger-Sweeney. Berger-Sweeney’s appointment has drawn attention to a somewhat dismal statistic.

The number of women who lead colleges nationwide has increased, although the numbers are few. And the number of presidents who are people of color has actually declined slightly, only 13 percent nationally. Berger-Sweeney feels the pressure. 

Hear our full interview with Joanne Berger-Sweeney here:

"There are some people who will be excited -- that will think, 'Oh my goodness, fantastic that there's a woman president, that there's an African-American.' And others will be skeptical, so I will always have that in the back of my mind," said Berger-Sweeney. 

Berger Sweeney is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, and she launched a bridge program for students transitioning from under-served communities. She admits her new post comes with certain expectations.

"It's hard sometimes to think that you're a role model, but I have to recognize that I am," said Berger-Sweeney.

In every announcement and introduction since Berger-Sweeney has been selected the word "historic" has been used. Berger-Sweeney says she does see it that way.

"It is something different," Berger-Sweeney said. "And how better can you signal that you want to move in a new direction than with an appointment like this?"

There aren’t too many role models for Berger-Sweeney as she will become only the fourth black female president in New England, joining leaders at Cambridge College, Wheelock and the University of St. Joseph outside Hartford.   

Over at Simmons College in Boston, President Helen Drinan is urging higher education to change quickly to more accurately represent the population by bringing in both women and ethnic minorities. She spent 20 years in the banking and health care industries before working in academia and says colleges could learn from the private sector. 

"You've got to move fast. You can't wait for five years, ten years for somebody to come along that's just the right person," Drinan said. "Because this is a competition so get out there and compete for the talent you want…This takes discipline and process and commitment."

And with women making up only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, Drinan admits this problem isn’t isolated to colleges and universities. 

"It's an evolutionary, social change. It's not just in higher education," said Drinan.

Jim Sirianni is with the American Council on Education. He says one reason minorities and women are underrepresented as college presidents is that provosts are generally groomed for those jobs, and most provosts tend to be older, white men. But, he says, that is changing.

"Increasingly, institutions are beginning to look at chief student affairs officers, chief diversity officers to become their new presidents," Sirianni said. "That's one key way that institutions can broaden their view and identify terrific talent across their institution."

Sirianna also feels that changes in the racial makeup on campus will have an impact. 

"As time passes and more female and underrepresented minority students attend college then we'll start to see more and more individuals of those groups serving at higher and higher levels," said Sirianni.

Trinity's Joanne Berger-Sweeney says seeing diverse leadership will inspire those who want the top job.

"It's very hard to talk about the range of options when you only see one option in front of you. I think it's critically important that the academia diversify," said Berger-Sweeney.

Berger-Sweeney will take the helm at Trinity in July, and she's already setting her agenda to open up the school and to make it more affordable and accessible for low-income students.

college president, diversity, Tufts University, Trinity College

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