A Black Student Union march headed to the office of the new university president, who was busy in a staff meeting.
The new president stopped the meeting — and joined the march.
It wasn’t your typical scene in this season of racial stirrings on American campuses. But it was the kind of scene Southern Connecticut State University’s new president intends to make common on his campus: the president engaged with his students, and pursuing social justice.
The new president is Joe Bertolino. Since moving from the presidency of Vermont’s Lyndon State College to take the SCSU job in late August, he has made a point of not getting stuck at meetings, and instead wading into campus life amid students and faculty.
“It’s about being present,” Bertolino, who is 52 and grew up in New Jersey, said during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
He described how he ensures that he’ll do more than talk about visibility: He carves hours into his daily schedule to roam the campus, pop in on classes, talk with students. Several nights a week he eats in the dining hall. (He particularly likes the stir fry.) He sits with students and hears what’s on their minds, from concerns about mid-terms to a desire for longer library hours and more mentoring in the dorms. He has set up meet-and-greets in the dorms to work on that.
He has also declared that he seeks to make SCSU, which has 8,100 undergraduate students as well as thousands of graduate students, the state’s premier “social justice” school. At campus gatherings, he has spoken openly of his 23-year relationship with his partner Bil Leipold, an administrator at Rutgers University. (The couple has purchased a home in New Haven’s Morris Cove neighborhood.)
The Black Student Union march occurred four weeks into the fall semester.
“I was very proud of how they conducted that march,” Bertolino said. He enlisted his top aides to join him on the student march. He said he agrees with the marchers about the need to speak openly on campus about concerns of black and Latino students. “I have been stressing since the day of my arrival that we will treat each other with kindness and respect” and that whenever a controversy arises, “we will meet it head on.”
“My partner and I have experienced injustice, discrimination and oppression” as gay men in America, Bertolino said. At the same time, he said, he acknowledges “the privilege Bill and I have as white men in prominent positions [at universities].... I will never know what it is like to be a man or woman of color in our community.” So, he said, his ears are open.
Click on or download the full interview with Bertolino on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.”
This episode of “Dateline New Haven” was made possible in part thanks to support from Yale-New Haven Hospital.