The Year of COVID

Remarks by President Bergeron
Founders Day 2021
April 5, 2021

Hello, everyone! Today, at 12 noon, the bells in Harkness Chapel tolled 110 times to mark the founding of Connecticut College for Women 110 years ago, on April 5, 1911. I’m so pleased to see so many of you here on this gorgeous spring afternoon as we continue the celebration and inaugurate The Dune, our brand-new stage on Tempel Green designed to showcase the talent of the great Connecticut College community.

We celebrate birthdays to mark the passage of time and to recognize the gift of a life. And that’s what today is about: we want to remember the college’s longevity and our own good fortune in being part of a remarkable living institution. We’re going to do that by telling the story of our founding: how we got started as a College and how that past defined our future. It’s a great story, one that I always love retelling and one that, I think, is even more important to remember after the year we have all been through, a year in which we, like our forebears, have been tested in countless ways. 

So let me take you back to beginning... to 1911. That was a time when roles and expectations for women were changing. Across the globe, women were demanding the right to vote. And so many women were seeking access to higher education that the demand, frankly, began to overwhelm the supply.

Here in Connecticut, there was one college for men that had begun to admit a small number of women in the late 19th century. But as the number of smart female applicants started rising, the competition for male admission slots naturally rose with it. And soon enough (the story goes) the Trustees of that institution felt they had no choice but to go back on their promise and stop admitting women. Which is exactly what happened in 1909.

As you can imagine, the women were outraged. One of them, Elizabeth Wright, was so incensed that she rallied friends in the local suffragette club to start a college of their own.

They mounted a competition to find the best city. Colin Buell, the headmaster of a women’s preparatory school in New London, The Williams School, was a local champion for the cause. New London citizens donated a sizable parcel of land, “the finest site in the world for a college,” as some called it. After raising 135 thousand dollars in cash, a local philanthropist, Morton Plant, donated a million dollars for an endowment. And with that, the city of New London won the bid for the State’s newest institution of higher education and Elizabeth Wright and her cohort succeeded in founding Connecticut’s very first college for women.

From the start, then, Connecticut College was a school born in passion and a school born with a mission. The visionary first president, Frederick Sykes, had big dreams: he imagined a totally modern college for students who would change the world. The progressive ethos was evident in the hilltop location,

which encouraged students then (as it does now) to look beyond themselves. It was also evident in the first curriculum, which intentionally combined the traditional academic disciplines with practical training in order to produce graduates who would step confidently into the world to make a difference.

It took a few years for the College to be ready. When it finally opened its doors, it had a small but impressive group of men and women faculty who did everything. One out of five had international credentials, often holding one or more advanced degrees from a university abroad. The point is: from the very beginning, this new school on the hill embraced a broad and encompassing vision of higher education.  

And that’s the vision that remains with us today. It’s with us in our mission of educating students “to put the liberal arts into action as citizens of a global society.” It’s with us in our curriculum, Connections, whose mix of academic rigor and real-world experience puts global and local engagement at the center. It’s with us in our strategic plan, with its institutional commitment to full participation. And it’s with us in our community: In our impressive faculty of internationally known teacher scholars; in our students committed to making a difference in the world; and in our staff who exemplify the tradition of hard work on which this College was founded.

And now, as we begin to see light at the end of this dark pandemic, that encompassing vision, our origin story, becomes all the more cogent. In the past year, I have found myself thinking about those 17 faculty and 125 students who gave “all they had of brain and hand and heart,” to use the words of President Sykes, to build a new College where there once was none. Our faculty, students, and staff have done the same thing this year as we worked together, like our founders, to build a college to meet the challenges of the moment. Then as now, it is a story of persistence in the face of adversity; a story of creativity and innovation; and a story of resilience.

So, this is the point to remember. We celebrate our founding because a very important kernel of who we are is lodged here: our commitment to progressive, engaged, and equity-minded education, an education that has always defied boundaries. We should all be grateful for that. And we should never forget it. I know you will all do your part to carry this legacy into the future. So, let me end by saying: Happy Founder’s Day to all of you and Happy Birthday, Connecticut College!