SCSU president: Finances better than expected, but ‘assume nothing’

NEW HAVEN — Southern Connecticut State University President Joe Bertolino made several promises about the future of the university Tuesday during an annual State of the University address.

The university will continue to expand its brand as a “social justice university,” as initiated by Bertolino, and it will create more flexible academic programs to meet the needs of potential students’ schedules, he said. He also promised to monitor an uncertain financial situation for the university, provided staff and faculty could uphold a promise to continue providing services to the student body.

“I’ll worry about Hartford and navigate that,” he said.

Funding for education in Connecticut has been a challenge at every level in recent years as the state goes through a budget crisis; earlier this year, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Board of Regents voted to consolidate 12 community colleges into one institution as a cost-saving measure.

Bertolino said that, since 2018 is an election year, changes could be coming to how the state funds education in the future. He reminded staff and faculty in the room to vote, and said they could remind their students to vote as well.

He said that, during his time as president of Lyndon State College in Vermont, he warned that changes, such as merging with another school, were possible. He said a longtime faculty member challenged that, and said things always work out. This year, Lyndon State College merged with Johnson State College to create two campuses of Northern Vermont University.

“I have to share with you: don’t assume nothing can happen because it hasn’t happened in the past — both the bad and the good. Just because we’ve got the dollars in the past doesn’t mean we’re going to get them again,” he said.

This year, a surge of enrollments from the GEAR UP program the university runs in collaboration with the local public school system pushed the student headcount ahead of what was expected, with an estimated total of just over 10,000 students, he said.

“That’s good news for our budget,” Bertolino said.

Beyond the numbers, though, Bertolino acknowledged that staff is “exhausted.” He said the university has had to do more with less.

“We ended 2017-18 with a modest surplus, so we enter the year with our reserves intact, and we will see what develops,” he said. “We paid a heavy price for that.”

Additionally, an overall decline in graduate programs at the university is a worry, he said.

“We were leaders in graduate education in the CSCU system,” he said. “Times have changed; our graduate programs have seen a steady decline of more than 40 percent in the last 10 to 15 years, and the drop off is not only in applications but, perhaps more troubling, the drop off is in the retention of our graduate students who do enroll.”

What Bertolino has heard from students who have opted for more expensive, private options such as Albertus Magnus College in New Haven and Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, is that those programs offer more flexibility in their scheduling for working students, he said.

“Too many of our programs are geared toward the full-time student,” he said. “We must be open to change. We must offer our programming at times and in formats that meet the needs of our working professionals we serve.”

With SCSU celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, Bertolino highlighted some accomplishments within the most recent year: this summer, ground broke for a new public school on SCSU’s campus named after former President Barack Obama, two other buildings for the university are in the design phase and the university introduced four accelarated bachelors and master’s degrees, allowing students to receive a master’s degree in five years. Additionally, he said the endowment has reached “almost $30 million.”

“I believe there are new sources of private and corporate funding we can engage,” he said.

Senior Matt Lockhart, 21, an exercise science major and also Bertolino’s personal trainer for the year, said he is optimistic about the state of SCSU.

In his department, he said, he feels professors and students are motivated, and grant money from the National Institutes of Health have allowed him to participate on a research project while in school.

“It’s all great,” he said.