SCSU inaugurates its 12th president in New Haven

NEW HAVEN >> Joe Bertolino, the 12th president of Southern Connecticut State University, jokingly apologized to anyone expecting “a traditional ceremony with gravitas” Friday at his inauguration ceremony.

For almost three hours, representatives of stakeholder organizations and former students and colleagues of Bertolino spoke of the new president, sometimes with a tone more closely resembling that of a comedic roast than a formal ceremony. The president himself entered the event at the rear of a procession of the SCSU drumline and dozens of enthusiastic students after screening a pre-taped musical video featuring Bertolino, known to students as “President Joe,” driving members of the campus community around the city.

Kalie Menders, president of the SCSU Undergraduate Student Body, said Bertolino threw himself headfirst into student activities since starting in August.

“His administration is participatory by design,” she said.

Bertolino said the students “haven’t been shy to welcome me” and that next week he will be “tie-dyed for charity.”

Lawrence DeNardis, who serves on the Board of Regents and was on the presidential search committee, said in the last eight months he has come to believe the committee chose “wisely and well.” Ugo Eze, a former student of Bertolino’s from his time at Queens College, said seeing Bertolino make time to sit and listen to a student, despite his busy schedule as vice president for student affairs, was an instructive moment in his own life.

“Your position doesn’t define your ability to touch someone,” he said. “People matter. Relationships matter. Relationships have value.”

Although Eze and others Bertolino had met over the course of his career spoke fondly about what he had done, Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, said the future for the university will be a challenge given the state’s deficit.

All the same, Ojakian said despite being an outsider to the world of academia, he “knows people” and was impressed by Bertolino in his interview for his visible passion, which went beyond giving answers he thought the hiring committee might want to hear. Ojakian said once he visualized Bertolino on SCSU’s campus “there was really no other option.” Additionally, he said Bertolino did a good job on following through on his promise to listen to the campus community before enacting a vision out of step with what the community itself needed.

On Bertolino’s mission to make SCSU a university that takes social justice seriously, Ojakian said it’s important for there to be leaders “to not only say the words ‘social justice,’ but to mean it,” and he is confident Bertolino is that person.

Following Bertolino’s investiture, he turned to the students, who had been acting as his cheer section throughout, and addressed the concerns Ojakian raised about the university’s future.

“Southern is here, we are up to the challenge and Southern is ready to lead,” he said.

Bertolino said he believes SCSU is “a working class university, a university of the people,” and it would remain important to him for the university to remain a place where students could get an affordable education.