bertolinoFocus: Raising The Profile and A Commitment To Community

Dr. Joe Bertolini, a boyish looking 52 and  a native of southern New Jersey, is the new president of Southern Connecticut State University. SCSU serves more than 10,000 students with 440 full time faculty and 1,100 staff. Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system and former chief of staff to Governor Dannel Malloy, led the search that chose him. Bertolini has an extensive administrative background in higher education. His most recent job was president of Lyndon State College, a small Liberal Arts college [1,500 students] in the Northeast Vermont community of Lyndonville. He was a VP at Queens College in New York and a Dean of Community Development at Barnard College of Columbia University in addition to holding administrative positions at colleges in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and SUNY on Long Island. Bertolini has a doctorate from Columbia’s Teacher’s College, a Master in Social Work from Rutgers, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Scranton.

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We’re going to start with a somewhat different question than might be expected, but Southern has had a growing tradition and strength in Sports and many of us look forward to the day that Owls’ Basketball teams best UCONN. Where does sports fit into the future as you see it at the University?

I think they [sports] are very important. At Lyndon I would say sports were very important. I don’t think I realized how important it would be until I got there. Primarily because there was nothing else there, it was the primary way for a small rural community to bring the student community together. Mostly centered on basketball, but hockey was also [big]. 

Prior to my Lyndon experience, I would certainly not classify myself about any sport whatsoever. And when you’re in a New York City school, people talk about professional sports.

When I went to Lyndon, it was very important to me to be supportive of the students, whether it was sporting events or any other event, for that matter.

So we’ll see you at sporting events for sure.

At the last football game, I was shooting the shirt canon. I’m not quite sure I’ll get to the Blue and White paint, although the students are anxious for me to do that. I did just go to the hockey game and drop the first ceremonial puck. 

If we went back fifteen or twenty years, we didn’t see the involvement of Southern in the wider New Haven community that we have under the previous two Presidents. 

At Barnard, you had the position of community development, what does that mean for us here in New Haven?

It’s certainly multi-faceted.  We’re part of the neighborhood and we need to be a good neighbor. You walk out of this parking lot, you make a right and you’re in the suburbs of Hamden. You make a left and you’re in the “projects.” We want to make sure that people know about us, that people are utilizing the resources that are here for the community and that we increase the number of New Haven residents coming to the University. 

[We push] community development by insuring that we’ve raised the profile that we’re involved in. Any way we can be with the community volunteerism initiative in the city, and that we’re partnering with the city, that we’re partnering with the chamber and business leaders, that we’re partnering with non-profit leaders—it is my job to build those relationships and ask the question how can Southern help you and serve this community? I want us to be a resource.

Is there a lesson you learned in Vermont that you can apply?

Nothing I didn’t already know. At the end of the day, relationships matter.  As a University, you have a responsibility. In that case, it was coming down from the hill to be part of the town and to make sure the folks in the town decided to come up the hill.  

I need us to be willing to go down Fitch and I need to be sure that folks are willing to come up Fitch and Crescent.

Nothing could be better for Westville than to have more integration with the Southern Community. There’s an historic barrier, perhaps it’s a perception of safety?

We have a responsibility to figure out how to bridge that.

In my day, there were not very many peaceful days for a college president. And for most of the past twenty years, things have been very quiet on campuses. In the last two years, however, that has changed. There haven’t been any incidents of protest really at Southern, but it could certainly happen any day. 

What did you see with students?

I think that students are socially aware. A lot of that centers around social media. Because there is a broader communication, students are seeing more in real time.

Is that making the job harder?

It runs both ways. It has the potential to incite certain behaviors, but at the same time, it also provides an opportunity for students to be really informed and to take up issues that are important to them. For us as an administration, is to know what is happening and to be able to respond quickly and to provide help, support and resources [more so] than we could have done a decade ago.

Now with [our] communications, we’re not just watching the newspaper, we’re keeping tabs on social media, on twitter. 

What was the communicating? This is the mission, we the University system, the state, that we’re looking for from the hiring group? What are you coming in thinking you were told should be the mission and what do you think it is?

I don’t think the board or President Ojakian gave me a directive, we need you to do X with this institution, that wasn’t the case at all. It was here’s where Southern is and share with us what you can do?

The three things that stand out was that first I am a relationship builder. There was a perceived disconnect between faculty and the administration. It was clear that disconnect existed. It was an opportunity to have someone with a different style, a less traditional style.

I did point out in my drive here, there wasn’t a whole lot that I saw that highlighted Southern, even in the signage, until I got to the door.  It became clear the profile of the institution needs to be raised. I think I expressed a concern that as I read all the materials, I can’t give you the elevator speech.

There are lots of wonderful things happening, but you can’t be all things to all people in this market and try to sell yourself as the traditional comprehensive university. You need to pin down who you are and what you stand for.  

So the challenge I presented during the interview process is why should a student come here versus, Eastern, Central, Western, UCONN. What’s the distinction?

Is it too early to say?
Front and center for me is the concept of social justice. In a lot of institutions, social justice is not in the mission statement, it is here [and has been here].  An access institution that is focused on social justice and serving the public good, that is a powerful statement to me. I think it means a lot where 42% of your students are from under-represented groups, that is a big number. Sixty percent of students here are Pell eligible, last year our food pantry gave out 7,000 meals, and it wasn’t just to students. I think that speaks volumes about the student population we are serving, and the role we play.

When I hear UCONN does x or Yale does x, but we are in many respects the working class public University of Southern Connecticut. We want our students to leave here with a good education and we want them to leave here with a strong skill set and we want them to leave here with a job.

For a while this has been controversy, especially from educators, that schools were doing too much training and not enough educating. When I was going to college during the Mesolithic Era, there wasn’t much discussion about education toward a job.

I think controversy is too strong a word. Certainly in the context of the traditional academy the needle has moved on this issue. We are training students for jobs that don’t exist; we’ll train them for a job that exists as soon as they leave.  The reality that they are going to have a decade from now, there is a good chance that for half of our students doesn’t exist yet, just like these things [pointing to iPhone] fifteen years ago. You are really training students for both, employers are looking for all soft skills; I need someone who can be trained, who can think, who can learn, who can write, communicate, who can represent themselves. 

The advantage for a place like Southern is we can train you to have all those soft skills and we can train you to have professional skills, so as soon as you walk out the door, you have a complement of both.

My sense of Southern students is our students don’t take for granted what they have here. As a result, they have a stronger work ethic and work harder, and they are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Employer after employer will tell me, when in interns from XYZ, they’re good but interns from Southern aren’t afraid to take out the trash and do their jobs.  BNH