Riding to success

Ten years ago, college executive John J. Petillo promised to take Sacred Heart University on a ride as its new president. Even through Covid, he’s kept the school going “full steam ahead.”

John J. Petillo knew exactly what he would do once he became president of Sacred Heart University, a private, Roman Catholic school in Fairfield founded in 1963 by the Diocese of Bridgeport.

“I clearly remember when the board offered me the position,” he says. “One of the board members was Bill Mitchell of (Connecticut’s) Mitchell stores. He asked me, ‘What do you think you’ll do?’ and I replied, ‘Buckle up. We’re going for a ride.

“It was a matter of bringing an entrepreneurial spirit,” he says, to his vision for the campus and the expansion that the school — one of the fasting-growing Catholic universities in the nation — has enjoyed during his 10-year tenure. This includes adding 20 new buildings (the latest is the Martire Family Arena for hockey and skating on the West campus) and driving the enrollment numbers from roughly 3,000 to more than 9,000 today.

With 33 Division I varsity teams and more than 100 clubs prior to Petillo’s arrival, it was the university’s sports teams that served as a major focus in its recruiting efforts. Since assuming the presidency, Petillo, who has had footholds in both the academic and business communities, has shifted more focus to undergraduate and graduate studies and has worked with his team to build the infrastructure on campus to support many of the new initiatives.  

While the top five undergraduate majors are nursing, psychology, exercise science, marketing and finance and business economics, Petillo — or “Dr. P,” as he’s known around campus — is proud of the performing arts program that has also benefitted from his leadership. 

“Our director is a Broadway producer,” he says, “and, because of him, a number of our kids are inspired to pursue careers in theater, not just acting, but in costume design and writing.”  There are also six choirs — Dr. P sings in the Gospel Choir — and he also teaches a two-semester course “Catholic Intellectual Traditions,” “a thinking class, not a catechism class,” as he describes it.

To this and everything he does he brings a defining characteristic— presence.  “I am a fanatic on presence. I’m a firm believer (that it) makes a difference in the quality of the life and the quality of the learning and it’s also a part of the yearly evaluation of officers here. My definition of presence is that you are at the things you don’t have to be at.” Deborah Noack — executive director of communications, who sat in on our one-on-one with Petillo, along with Gary MacNamara, chief of public safety and executive director of government affairs — attests to Dr. P’s attendance at community-wide events, games, theater productions and daily student lunches around SHU (pronounced “Shoo”), as the university is affectionately called.  

Leading by example

Another hallmark of SHU is its service to community and others. One of its best-known initiatives is its affiliation with Westport’s Horizons National, an organization serving 6,000 students across 19 states with educational enrichment programs in partnership with community educators from public, charter and independent schools as well as colleges and universities.  Petillo says that SHU was one of the first universities to pledge participation.  

It was the headmistress at Green Farms Academy who first introduced the program to Petillo during the search for a school for his daughter when the family relocated to Connecticut from New Jersey. Participating children, kindergarten through high school, receive growth-inspired programming from the university’s students on campus once a month during the school year and then for six weeks in the summer.  “We’ve had great retention in the program and it provides an opportunity for our kids to work,” Petillo says, adding “I read to the kids and we give them an SHU T-shirt when they graduate.  One of the current Horizon students will be an incoming freshman with us this year.”  

Other programs include Upward Bounds, which provides SHU mentors to children from the sixth grade right through the middle-school years, enabling them to have the same mentor throughout. 

Soon, the university will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at a 100-year-old building that it renovated in the center of town.  Petillo says that a member of the faculty has composed a work of classical music for the celebration, noting how hard it is to fathom that most of the university’s students had not even been born at that time.

But for SHU, charity also begins at home. There is an internal campus program, SHU Shares, whereby students are able to donate unused meal swipes available on their meal cards to other students. “We started it this past year and gave out something like 900 meals last semester to kids who needed assistance paying for food,” Petillo says.

Here the ever-present Dr. P again leads by example on a separate SHU email account just for correspondence with students. He gets many, frequent updates from them, including from one who’s had three heart transplant surgeries (one while at SHU) and another who asked for meal assistance. He responds to them all. Small wonder that he’s been invited to eight alumni weddings.

A familiar face

A proud son of Newark, New Jersey, Petillo was no stranger to SHU when he assumed its presidency. He had served on Sacred Heart’s board from 1984 to ’89 while he was chancellor of Seton Hall University.  

Petillo had earned his Ph.D. in counseling and personnel services from Fordham University and served several corporations and organizations in positions of executive leadership before Jack Welch — the late chairman and CEO of General Electric — approached him to become dean of SHU’s Jack Welch College of Business & Technology. Petillo agreed, coming on board in March 2009 amid the Great Recession, just when the business school was about to embark on a three-year accreditation process, an important step that required the experience he could bring to it.

Just 18 months into that successful process, Petillo accepted the interim presidency of the university in October 2010 and was formally appointed March 2011. Together with his wife, Sabina, a medical internist, and his daughter, Ariana, the family assumed residency of the president’s house on campus and instantly engaged with the SHU community.

That kind of engagement would prove crucial when Covid struck. 

“We started preparing immediately when the first case was announced at Arizona State University,” says MacNamara, co-chair of the university’s Covid task force, who served in the Fairfield Police Department for 30 years. “We were always at the forefront — messaging, testing weekly and managing those who were ill by utilizing the former GE guest house on the West campus.”  

The committee met daily via Zoom, then biweekly and eventually weekly during the height of the crisis and issued statements twice weekly at least, then weekly to students and parents. Fortunately, there was never a large outbreak and the response from the community was tremendous.  “The educational mission never stopped,” McNamara says.  “We knew early on that we had a responsibility to manage it.” 

Last fall, the students were back on campus, save for two weeks around Halloween, and returned for the full second semester. MacNamara says that students have been ever more diligent since, respecting and abiding by campus-wide mandates, known as the Pioneer Promise, Pioneer being the name of their sports teams.

Before the end of last semester, the university had a tribute to first responders in the chapel, wherein students, faculty and staff read aloud the names of all 6,000 Connecticut residents whose lives were lost during the pandemic, ending with those with ties to the SHU community.

At the close of the spring semester, the university held four graduation ceremonies outdoors, the first for the class of 2020.  “We expected a few hundred and we had over 900 kids come back, Petillo says. “Of course, we had parents, too, and they applauded the dais party and just said ‘thank you.’

Taking advantage of their spacious setting, school officials also set up a mass vaccination site on campus, not only for the SHU community but for the greater surrounding area, administering some 18,000 vaccines in an effort managed by Hartford Health. (The school is part of the federal government’s Covid-19 College Vaccine Challenge. See story on Page 10.) “We were never spectators,” Petillo says, “and we were fortunate not to lose one student (to the virus).

“They (the students) come here because of the sense of community, but because of the faculty, they stay. Retention has moved up considerably. The faculty guidance and advisement have played an important role.” In the fall, SHU will have its largest incoming class. Adds Petillo: “We were more selective, but (still) have 1,900 coming in the fall. Last year it was 1,600.” 

Clearly for SHU, as with other campuses, everyone is looking forward to the return of annual celebrations like Homecoming and Family Weekend.  Says the man who promised the university the ride of its life 10 years ago, “We are counting on going full steam.” 

Sacred Heart  University at a glance

  • In a nutshell: Sacred Heart University is a private, Roman Catholic university in Fairfield, founded in 1963 by the Most Rev. Walter W. Curtis, bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport. It is known not only for its academic programs but also for its social interactions and social activism, with 33 Division I athletic teams, more than 100 student clubs and organizations, a robust sorority and fraternity life and more than 110,000 hours of community engagement performed globally by students, faculty and staff.
  • President: John J. Petillo 
  • Students: 9,000-plus undergraduate and
    graduate students
  • Faculty and staff: 1,500-plus
  • Operating budget: $234 million
  • Endowment: $190 million
  • Tuition per year: $44,960 per year
  • For more, visit sacredheart.edu.
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