The Way Forward for Arts and Sciences

Dean Joanne Berger-Sweeney is setting out her goals and priorities—and keeping her hand in neuroscience research

Joanne Berger-Sweeney

Joanne Berger-Sweeney recently completed her first full year as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. She sat down with Tufts Now to talk about her priorities for the school, the challenges and opportunities she’s faced, diversity on campus and her own research.

Describe your first year at Tufts.

I feel that it was spectacular. I have found aspects of absolute greatness since I’ve been here. I have discovered faculty, students and staff who are just spectacular, and I was quite pleased about people’s willingness to try something new.

I came from Wellesley College, an institution that is quite strong and quite traditional, and it feels as though Tufts is a less traditional institution, more willing to take risks. I’ve found that this environment has allowed me to be more creative than even I expected of myself.

What are some priorities or goals for the school, and for you, in the coming years?

Last semester I started developing vision statements and strategic goals for the school, and I made it pretty clear to people as I shared these ideas and these documents that I considered them to be relatively short-term goals. Given the fact that we have a new president and will soon have a new provost, I wasn’t trying to set a 10-year strategic plan, or a five-year strategic plan. But at the same time, I wanted to be sure we weren’t treading water while waiting for a new administration. This semester I shared these priorities with faculty governance committees.

What are some areas you are focusing on?

These are our overall guiding principles, and some of the overarching goals:

·         Strengthen a dynamic, innovative faculty, and enhance our research mission;

·         Support undergraduate and graduate students with purposeful curricula;

·         Provide transformational student experiences;

·         Support a diverse and inclusive environment;

·         Reevaluate the needs of the Graduate School;

·         Develop a strategy for our communications needs;

·         Develop a sustainable financial model;

·         Maintain accessibility in financial aid;

·         Build a transparent leadership model; and

·         Build collaborations beyond Arts and Sciences.

You have said that one of the ways to improve the student experience is by maintaining accessibility. What are some ways of doing this?

One is a strong focus on fundraising, and the Beyond Boundaries campaign contributed significantly to the number of scholarships we are now able to offer students. We aren’t as far as we’d love to be—we’re not need-blind—but we came a long way in the recent campaign. I think that fundraising will continue to be a focus.

What else stands out for you in the strategic goals?

One is cluster hires, which refers to hiring faculty around a theme to support some of our interdisciplinary programs. The first set of cluster hires that we authorized is in environmental studies; most of the individuals will join the faculty in the fall of 2012. The Department of Economics will hire an environmental economist; geology will hire someone specializing in climate change; anthropology will hire an environmental anthropologist; and a new hire in philosophy will specialize in environmental ethics.

These individuals will have a departmental home and a departmental base, but some of the courses they teach will contribute to and be cross-listed in the environmental studies program. We are also asking the faculty members who are part of the cluster hires to create senior capstone experiences for students. And we are joining with Tisch College to look at how we can create capstones that focus on societal challenges in environmental studies. Our idea is to provide a transition for the students from what they are learning in the classroom to beyond Tufts’ walls.

In September you announced a new program, in response to community concerns about the lack of Africana studies. What led to your decision?

I started looking at what the students were requesting and thinking about where our faculty strengths are here at Tufts. I read the report by the Task Force on Africana Studies; I consulted with some external advisors, and started talking with faculty members with expertise related to some of these areas. I also studied other institutions that I think are on the cutting edge of some of these issues.

Based on all of that input, we developed this idea of focusing not solely in Africana studies, but more broadly on race and ethnicity, and Africana will be an important component.

Many institutions that I think are on the cutting edge put Africana, Latino and Asian American studies together under umbrella programs, and some also include gender, sexuality and urban studies. More broadly they consider how a number of these issues intersect.

Given our strength here at Tufts in international relations and the enormous student interest in that, I think we can also consider adding a global, transnational focus for examining identity, race and some of these social constructs. I think we have the possibility of creating something quite strong, and at the same time quite unique to Tufts.

What’s been the response?

Overall the response has been quite good, but it’s not that everyone has accepted that this is the right path. Some students who believed very strongly that an Africana studies department was the way to move forward might have been disappointed. But broadly, I have found enormous support for this idea, both within as well as outside of Tufts.

I understand you’re still doing neuroscience research.

I’m a neuroscientist who studies developmental disorders. I’ve been working for the last eight to 10 years on Rett syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder. It is the only autism spectrum disorder for which we know the associated genetic mutation. And since we know the genetic mutation, we can model it in mice.

The focus of my research has been on trying to understand what this genetic mutation does to the animal: what kinds of deficits it causes and how it leads to changes in the overall phenotype of the mouse—how the animal looks and behaves. And then, obviously, how do we reverse or rescue that phenotype?

This summer we submitted from my laboratory three research papers, which is quite high productivity for anybody’s lab, and considering that I have a day job, too, I’m extremely proud. I had two undergraduates working in the lab, Nico Gomez and Dan Zhen, who are fabulous. Not just good, they are fabulous.

If you identify this particular genetic area, how would that help advance treatment for Rett syndrome?

If you begin to understand the output of the genetic mutation, you start to understand how you might treat it. Here’s an example, though nothing is as simple as this: If you have a genetic mutation that leads to an altered protein, and the altered protein leads to changes in muscle, you’re starting to understand why this genetic mutation might result in alterations in walking, because the muscles are not formed as well.

So when you begin to understand the underlying metabolic, biochemical changes and how they begin to alter the animal, you start to understand how you can intervene, whether you’re intervening at the symptom level, or way back with what went wrong originally. Understanding the steps allows you to come up with better, more precise interventions.

Are you working with other Tufts scientists?

I’m very interested in understanding how nutrition impacts Rett syndrome. We have already begun collaborations with nutritionists at the HNRCA, and have started to do some experiments together.

In addition, I was just having a conversation with Karen Panetta in the School of Engineering, and found out that she is working on software to track autism. I invited her to participate in a neuroscience symposium in Hawaii in June.

Tufts has been great for my administrative career, and it has also been spectacular for my scientific career.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at


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