No one can accuse Sacred Heart University President John J. Petillo of sitting back and overseeing a static school.
Since June 2016, the university has had a stellar year, adding four master’s programs, establishing a school of computing, taking over Bridgeport’s St. Vincent’s College, partnering with Newark-based Seton Hall University School of Law on a new program aimed at prospective law students, launching an online certificate program in digital marketing and moving into General Electric’s former headquarters in Fairfield.
And when asked what he plans to do for an encore, Petillo responded with a loud laugh and the proclamation, “Relax!”
But that might be easier said than done. Not far from his office, Petillo can view the construction of a student-housing complex on the 15.6 acres of land that Sacred Heart bought from neighboring Jewish Senior Services in 2014. And this new building phase could not have come at a better time.
“We are going to be about 9,000 students for the fall,” he said. “Six years ago, we were at 5,100.”
Petillo, who became president in March 2011 after serving as interim president since October 2010 and dean of the university’s Jack Welch College of Business since March 2009, was not eager to see Sacred Heart grow into a mega-school. “We’re not looking to be much larger than we are,” he said, adding that an increased population has not changed the basic character of the campus.
“What is unique here is that despite our growth, it is still a very warm and welcoming community,” he continued. “Some of the college guides make references that students at Sacred Heart hold doors for you. When I first saw that, I thought it was silly, but I hear it all the time. I teach a course in business and I always call the class over one at a time. I had one young man and I asked him how he liked college. He said, ‘I hold doors for people. I never held doors for people, but around here everyone holds doors and I don’t want to be the odd man out.’”
Petillo said that Sacred Heart was also holding a figurative door open to St. Vincent’s College, a 763-student school whose curriculum is limited to associate degree programs in nursing, radiography and general studies and three online bachelor’s degree completion programs in nursing, radiologic sciences and health care administration.
“We will strive to keeping the mission of St. Vincent’s College intact by providing access to students who may not have been able to get into our college,” Petillo said. “We will prepare them to get their associate’s degree there and then have them come over.”
While St. Vincent’s and Sacred Heart are both centers of Roman Catholic education, Petillo stressed that his university was cognizant of the diversity in today’s student environment. He noted a recent sophomore class elected a hijab-wearing Muslim female as its class president, while a conference on LGBT issues was capped by a gay freshman who outed himself publicly during the event, to the support of his fraternity brothers in attendance.
“We are a Catholic institution deeply rooted in those traditions, but we don’t proselytize,” Petillo said. “Those traditions say, ‘Let’s have discovery, let’s have dialogue, let’s have tolerance.’”
From an academic perspective, health-focused studies have been extremely popular with students.
“Nursing is very competitive to get into,” Petillo said. “You need a 3.7 or 3.8 (GPA score). For our master of physician assistant studies, we’re allowed by the accreditor to have 32 seats. Last year, we had 28 seats with 700 applicants. This year is 32 seats with 1,800 applicants.”
Business studies, particularly finance and accounting, are also sought by students at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Yet Petillo was worried that students are flocking elsewhere once their studies were over. He recalled a conversation with technology company executives who relocated their businesses out of state because they had problems attracting young graduates that were eager to work in Connecticut. Petillo was also discouraged at how Connecticut’s state government viewed higher education.
“We have been cut tremendously over the years,” he said. “We’re down to a couple of thousand dollars, when years ago we were at a couple of million. I find it astonishing that Connecticut doesn’t take care of its own students. I think it is shortsighted, and then they wonder why people leave the state. We’re finding more and more of our students will stay in Connecticut if they find a job here. The state needs to understand the positive impact that higher education can have on the economy and not have a brain drain.”
To stanch that flow of young people out of state, the college will create an “innovative campus” at GE’s old headquarters, which it bought for $31.5 million. “We wanted more space to the things we’re doing,” Petillo said.
The college will experiment in mixing diverse educational departments including education, computer engineering and computer game design into an incubator-style environment on the 66-acre site.
“I want to try to get a lot of synergies done by getting them out of the silos,” he said.