When asked what makes him most proud in his work as president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Dr. John Petillo doesn’t mention the record growth in student enrollment or the impressive number of first class buildings and programs the university has unveiled in the last five years.
“The involvement of the students and the sense of community we’ve built here,” he says immediately from his office in the Thomas Melady Administration Building. “We have a close-knit student body and a culture of friendship, service and tolerance.” Dr. Petillo, who often takes time to stop in the cafeteria and have lunch with students, has also been deeply moved by their compassion for others and the way they pull together as a community in good times and in crisis.
What’s remarkable about Sacred Heart’s sense of community is that it has thrived alongside the explosive growth of the campus, which has led the Chronicle of Higher Education to rank it as one of “the fastest growing Roman Catholic colleges in the country.” The university now numbers more than 8,500 students who are seeking degrees and certificates in a growing number of undergraduate and graduate programs in arts, business, education, health, communications, computer gaming and other areas of study.
“We’re a very serious learning community,” says Dr. Petillo, who noted that this year’s commencement ceremony numbered more than 2,000 grad and undergrad students. “We filled Webster Bank Arena,” says Dr. Petillo proudly, “and for the first time, we had more graduate degrees than under-grads. That’s a significant move forward for the university.” Based on the university’s strategic plan, Dr. Petillo would like to see enrollment grow to 10,000, and he believes that goal is within reach in the next couple of years.
While Sacred Heart had its origins as a commuter school, the contemporary student body is largely residential, living in a growing number of dorms on campus and in off-campus settings.
Bergoglio Hall, the new dorm named for Pope Francis, is popular with students and bookends the award winning Martire Business and Communications Building on the corner of Park Avenue and Jefferson Street.
Today, fewer than 30 percent of the students are from Connecticut. The remainder come to Sacred Heart from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and other states in the region.
Equally impressive is the more than 270 acres that have been added under President Petillo’s leadership, bringing the total to 350 for the main campus and other properties.
Two major acquisitions propelled Sacred Heart into the news and caught the attention of the entire community: the purchase of the 150-acre Great River Golf Course in Milford in October 2015, and perhaps most notably, the announcement earlier this year of the purchase of the 66-acre GE corporate campus.
Describing the acquisition of the coveted GE campus as “transformational,” Dr. Petillo says “it will be one of the most significant events in the life of the university for the next twenty years.” Now known as “West Campus,” the former headquarters has been put to immediate use by Sacred Heart and will soon be the home of a new innovation center, performing arts, education offices and many other programs.
Acquiring two large parcels in Fairfield County, one adjacent to the main campus, has signaled the dynamic growth and creative leaps that are moving the university into a new era.
The university is also moving ahead with new dorms on the 15-acre parcel it purchased from the Jewish Home for the Elderly in 2016, and is about to unveil its stunning new Center for Healthcare Education, which sits on Park Avenue just below the main campus. Also nearing completion is the new home of WSHU Radio and Public Safety building on Park Avenue at the entrance to the main campus.
President Petillo credits Michael Kinney, senior vice president for finance and administration, for his considerable money management skills and outside the box thinking in acquiring properties without substantially increasing the debt. In fact, as the university has added more academic buildings and dorms, its bond rating has strengthened. Sacred Heart is now one of only four universities in the state to receive an S&P “A” bond rating. It shares that distinction with Yale, Wesleyan, and Trinity.
Likewise, Moody’s has upgraded Sacred Heart’s rating to “A3,” primarily driven by the university’s strong student demand and robust enrollment and tuition revenue growth, along with “program diversity and capital investment that has modernized the campus.”
Dr. Petillo is quick to point out that all of the growth of the campus has a spill-over effect on the local and state economy. Sacred Heart is now one of the area’s largest employers, creating an estimated 5,500 jobs, while its students and faculty pump more than $56 million into the local economy each year.
The pace of growth at the university has been so rapid that graduates of the 1990s campus would have a hard time recognizing the place, let alone one of the 69 alumni of the first class who recently returned for a reunion.
However, while much has changed, one thing remains the same. Dr. Petillo emphasizes that the university, founded in 1963 by Bishop Walter Curtis, was created out of the energy, innovation and spirit of Vatican II, which will forever be part of the DNA of the institution.
“The Catholic identity is at the core of who we are,” he says, noting that all students take core courses in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, which he describes as a 2,000-year ongoing conversation between the Catholic community of thinkers, writers, artists and the cultures in which they have lived, “asking fundamental questions about God, humanity, society, and nature.”
Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, who recently received an honorary doctorate from the university, got a firsthand look at the spirit and faith of the campus when he visited last fall. A standing room only of over 300 students filled Schine Auditorium and gathered around him on the stage as he discussed Catholic Social Teaching. The bishop thanked the young people for service and told them to “never stop trying to change the world.”
President Petillo agrees. He’s proud of the fact that the student body performs more than 50,000 hours of community service each year and that the university is engaged in many community activities that support non-profits, the environment, and local business.
“We’re mission driven and we celebrate values of tolerance personal conscience, and reflection and opportunity to explore belief in this human journey,” he says.
(Sacred Heart University, the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, offers more than 70 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its main campus in Fairfield and satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland. For information visit www.sacredheart.edu.)