The Trinity Reporter Fall 2003
Professor Borden Painter chosen as interim president

by Drew Sanborn


Borden W. Painter, Jr. ’58, ’95 Hon., professor, scholar, and administrator, has been appointed by the College’s Board of Trustees to serve as Trinity’s acting president. Painter, who also served in this role in 1994-1995, is the 20th president of the College. Currently a professor of history as well as director of Italian Programs—including the Rome Program and Elderhostel in Italy—Painter came to Trinity in 1964 as an assistant professor of history. He has served as History Department chair (1974-79 and 1989-93), secretary of the faculty, and dean of the faculty (1984-87), in addition to his previous term as acting president. He has also been the chair of the Admissions Committee, coordinator of the Freshman Seminar Program and the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program, and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Cesare Barbieri Endowment for Italian Studies. He currently serves as secretary of the College’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. An honors graduate of Trinity College with a B.A. in history, he received his M.A. (’59) and Ph.D. (’65) in history from Yale University and his M. Div. cum laude from General Theological Seminary, pursuing a dual calling as an historian and an Episcopal priest. The author of numerous publications and papers, he received the Mead History Prize in 1955 and was honored by Trinity College in 1995 with an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Painter will serve as acting president until a permanent president has been recruited by the Board of Trustees. He was interviewed for the Reporter by Drew Sanborn.

Can an elite liberal arts college fundamentally recast its approach to liberal education?

Trinity has always been a part of Hartford. But the College’s relationship with its home city has sometimes been ambivalent. And during the closing decades of the century, as the Frog Hollow neighborhood immediately surrounding the College fell into decline, the relationship with Hartford became increasingly distant.

You served as Trinity’s interim president in 1994-1995. What lessons and insights did you gain then that will serve you and the College in the coming year?

As one would expect, I learned a lot in that year, and everything I learned will certainly help me this time. Also, the three years I spent as the dean of the faculty from 1984 to 1987 are helpful. As a member of the faculty, I had already done some work in development over the years, but as president I learned a great deal more about it. That certainly was a very important experience, which I will bring with me this time. Also, I had a chance to travel, both for development and for alumni programs. That is another important part of the job, and it’s fun for me because I enjoy meeting alumni all around the country, many of whom are former students.

In coming to this job from the faculty, I am always concerned with the core mission of the College, with its focus on high-quality undergraduate education. My background as a faculty member gives me a good sense of how the needs of the College’s academic programs connect with other aspects of the president’s job.

That is the single most important thing about being in the president’s office—understanding how everything needs to connect with everything else. Development, for example, has to articulate the messages of the College, so that people will support Trinity. You have to find those connections between the College’s needs and alumni interests, whether it be a curricular proposal, a building, financial aid, or any of the other things that make Trinity work.


You spoke in 1995 about the “common cause” of Trinity and the need for all parties to work together for the good of the College. How would you describe our need for a common cause today, and what form should that take in 2003-2004?

The common cause is the College, it’s as simple and basic as that. As obvious as that sounds, we need to keep in mind that, inevitably, people will disagree on particular priorities and on what to do next. We need to remind ourselves that we do indeed have a common cause and that we can’t do everything at once.

What I have found particularly important in reaching consensus is that how you do things is just as important as what you do. People want to be sure they have been heard. So I listen—that’s very much part of my job. If you do that, then, when you finally reach a decision in a particular matter—even if some people do not agree with that decision—it helps that they understand it and that they have been heard.

Trinity has gone through many changes in the years since you served your first term as interim president. From your unique perspective, what observations can you share with the alumni about where their College is heading?

We all know that the major innovations Evan Dobelle accomplished came about in part because the Board understood that neighborhood and city matters were things the College needed to address. Tom Gerety had paved the way with greater neighborhood involvement and by bringing Eddie Perez ’96, who is now mayor of Hartford, to campus as director of community relations. In addition to the Learning Corridor and other neighborhood initiatives, some of this also applies to our educational mission and how we define ourselves and our curriculum as a small liberal arts college in a city. After Evan left, the Board and faculty agreed that we needed to keep the city initiatives going, but that in doing so we would address ourselves more directly to the core mission of the College. The curricular discussions that are going on now are very important—any attempt to change any aspects of the curriculum is always a major step in the life of an institution.

One of the most critical changes is the situation with regard to the overall economy. With the downturn lowering the value of the College’s endowment, the financial situation is much, much tighter, so we have to be good and careful stewards. This makes financial aid a major issue. It’s very simple—the more endowment we have, the more financial aid we can offer, which means that students we want to have at Trinity can afford to come here.

This is a challenge many schools face, but we have our own particular version. We have a good endowment, if you look at liberal arts colleges across the country. But on the other hand, if you look at our competing institutions in New England, you can see that while we weren’t that much different in endowment 20 years ago, we are now. Many competing schools have moved ahead of us. We are still in a good position, but there is work to be done.

The College is in the midst of two major initiatives—increased interaction with the city of Hartford and a full-scale review of the curriculum. Why are these two initiatives important to Trinity and what will your role be in maintaining momentum on these two fronts?

Much of the curricular review is likely to concentrate on the non-major programs that take place during a student’s first two years. And there are discussions about the advisability of offering more minors. We currently have some very good interdisciplinary ones, but it may be an advantage for more departments to offer minors. Many students would find it very attractive to be able to major in one discipline and minor in another. There’s some academic structure to that, it goes on their transcript, and there is still room for them to explore more generally in other courses and disciplines.

Certainly the curricular review is connected with the city initiative. Some courses have a community service component, and because of that, we are attracting more students who like the idea of community service. I suspect we are getting more students who have done service in high school and therefore this makes Trinity attractive. We have students who are working at the Boys & Girls Club and some who are doing work at the city’s magnet schools. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them. It gives them responsibilities and gives them a lot of confidence.

We have a lot to build on as we plan for the future of the College. Both these initiatives are essential to strengthening the quality of our academic programs, and I intend to keep them moving ahead during my time as president.

Another important recent effort has been to broaden and strengthen the College’s commitment to multiculturalism and diversity. Do you anticipate further movement in that direction in the coming year?

These terms often simply become buzzwords, but behind them are very important issues that we need to address. The challenging part is translating them into programs that work. One of the things I will certainly be doing is talking to people across campus to encourage continuing discussions and positive action. These matters are on everybody’s agenda, and they ought to be. To me, that’s a given.


From your perspective as the past chair of the admissions committee—and knowing that last year the College received an all-time record number of applications—to what do you attribute that growth and what do we need to do to maintain the momentum?

Trinity continues to enjoy a good reputation, and we are working on some ideas to make the College even more attractive to students. Our admissions staff is top-notch and experienced, and I am very confident about our ability to attract highly qualified applicants.

Financial aid is crucial, though. We have to continue to work hard so we don’t scare people off when they see the tuition prices and so we can, in fact, have a diversity of students, despite economic need. We have no options or choices if we have no financial assistance to offer. We definitely do not want to lose well-qualified students who are interested in Trinity because they decide they can’t afford us and go to a state school.

Are there ways in which your background as an historian helps you in your current position?

First of all, Trinity has a lot of history, and I’ve been here for a chunk of it myself! I relate the history question to what I think of as the identity question. Every school has a history that helps identify the institution. Therefore, it’s not to be tossed aside. On the other hand, what is important at Trinity is the combination of continuity and change.

We have been in existence for a long time, and we have been in Hartford for a long time. As with many schools, we began with a religious affiliation, which has changed in many ways, although it’s still there. The name makes that pretty obvious.

But institutions, like people and languages don’t thrive unless they change. While I may have been around here for a long while, I understand very well the need for change. I was here when we became a coed institution. It was a good change, and one that Trinity did very quickly. I was here in the ’60s when black students were admitted in appreciable numbers. I was here when we began to shape our hiring policies to include women on the faculty. All of these are good changes and, on some of these, Trinity was ahead of the curve. We went coed before many other schools, for instance. The result was that we attracted a lot of top-notch female applicants, which improved the student body academically. Change is always taking place, whether it’s buildings, the curriculum, the faculty, or the student body. It is essential. It’s important to understand that change is both good and inevitable and that the College must be ahead of things and on top of issues.

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