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Selfies, Seminars and Showing Up

John Petillo has a unique approach to his role as SHU President: Be uniquely approachable.

by Timothy Deenihan

Editor’s Note: Sometimes stories present themselves to us in a way that cannot be ignored. Such was the case here, when both faculty and students came to us expressing a desire to talk about their experiences with Sacred Heart President, Dr. John Petillo. In keeping with “Dr. P’s” own commitment to the students, how could we say no?

In quantum physics, it’s referred to as superpositioning – the bizarre ability of an electron to exist in every possible position around the nucleus of an atom at the same time. It defies our natural understanding of things, but it’s true. The electron is literally everywhere, all at once.

So is Dr. Petillo – or President Petillo or “Dr. P.” or even just, “Please. ‘John.’” He’s everywhere.

“Seriously. Everywhere.” Amy Vegliante finished her undergraduate degree last year, but remains in Fairfield as she continues to work towards her doctorate at SHU in physical therapy. “I’m not even on campus that much, anymore,” she says, now that her studies have her spending the bulk of her time at the Center for Healthcare Education, a state-of-the-art facility opened two years ago nearly a mile down Park Avenue. “And still I see him all the time.”

Deanna Aliperti is a senior from Queens, graduating this year with a degree in social work. She’s a student ambassador and resident assistant who was told by extended family and friends that one of the things you’re supposed to do at college is try to get a picture with the president of the school. “Evidently that’s a rare thing at other colleges,” she says, with a grin so wry you can hear it.

Turns out, at Sacred Heart it’s rare not to have your picture taken with the president – perhaps to text home to your parents or to upload to your Instagram feed, perhaps for the president’s own Instagram feed (@shuprez, of course) or, like with Ms. Aliperti, as part of the president’s weekly On Common Grounds interview where he chats with students about their studies, their taste in coffee, their favorite spot on campus and the best word to summarize their experience at Sacred Heart.

He lives across Park Avenue (“Everyone knows his house,” says Angelina Dinota, a junior majoring in advertising and public relations and herself a student ambassador. “Everyone knows Dr. P.”) but he eats nearly every meal in either the dining hall, 63’s, or one of the campus cafés. He’s a fixture at sporting events, art openings, plays, spiritual moments and basically any other instance one can imagine when the campus might be compelled to gather, in whole or in part. He says hello to most of the people he passes in the hall, not out of mere courtesy (though he is, of course, the model of courtesy) but because he seems to have at least some connection to just about everyone. “He would ask me about my mom,” recalls Jordan Valez ’18, “or about life in general. But never about school. He never asked me about school – he asked me about me.

“I believe in a pastoral approach to this job,” Petillo says when asked just what it is that drives him to make himself, well, not just accessible, but, so accessible. “Presence, to me, is as critical as competencies. This is a family. No one of us is any better than any other. If I’m to get people to understand that, they need to see it.”

And they do. It’s an amazing thing, actually, this degree of walking-the-walk that is fundamental to the man who, at the same time, is responsible for genuinely unprecedented growth at the university in his relatively short tenure in office. Since being named the sixth President of Sacred Heart University in 2011, Petillo has overseen the addition of 13 new buildings to the campus, the acquisition and renovation of the West Campus (formerly the worldwide headquarters of General Electric) – not to mention the addition of the Colleges of Education and Nursing, the Schools of Computer Science and Communications, Media & Arts and numerous new programs added at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

He doesn’t talk about any of that, however. In fact, one gets the feeling he talks about very little. Instead, he listens. Whereas the stereotype of a university professor may be someone deeply in love with the sound of his own voice, Dr. Petillo seems to be someone deeply in love with the voices of his students and the student body at large. One has to ask him directly why he does a thing to get him to talk about the thing he does at all. He’d much rather talk about the kids. He mentions an online review that observed, “They hold doors for you at Sacred Heart,” almost as if he were a proud parent telling you about his son or daughter’s Good Citizen Award.

Life for John Petillo, educator, university president and bowtie-rocking Instagram star, is an opportunity to model Living. Less is more. No need to talk the talk if you’re willing to walk the walk. Tap whatever cliché you want, Petillo somehow manages to fill it with its original truth simply by the authenticity with which he lives it.

President Petillo and Michelle Loris’ CIT course

He is extraordinary in his dedication to and care for and about the students in general,” says Michelle Loris. She would know. She co-teaches alongside Petillo in a section of the year-long Catholic intellectual traditions (CIT) seminar, a sort of “Great Books” survey of Western Culture and its impact on Catholic teaching throughout history and into the present-day lives of the students themselves. “He asks them the most riveting questions,” she says. “He wants them to be knowledgeable, educated, self-aware, reflective, critical thinkers. He’s interested in their whole development. He wants them to take their place in the world.”

Devin Gavigan, a student in Loris’ and Petillo’s section of CIT, notes, “Having a president who is not only so intelligent and driven towards the wellbeing of the university, but also so engaged and devoted to the growth of the individual student, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and blessing.”

Or, as junior theatre arts major and student ambassador Justin Weigel puts it, “He’s just such a normal guy.”

Because that’s just it: Dr. Petillo’s – President Petillo’s – normalcy is specifically what is so abnormal, and knowingly so. That’s not to say it’s a performance. Indeed, quite the opposite. He is a teacher fully aware of the outsized influence of his actions and opinion on his students. His validation not only validates their work, it validates them. His appearance in their dining hall doesn’t reduce his stature, it elevates theirs. His questions are compliments, the very act of asking being itself an invitation to the table.

That desire to inspire, to reassure the question – and thus the curiosity – is the teacher at work, always. That visibility, the captain-in-the-trenches, leading from the front, is the president setting precedent.

“This isn’t 13th grade,” he says, with a frankness so blunt it’s hard to tell if he means it as an inspirational challenge or a warning shot, though probably it’s both. He may be approachable. He may be warm. He may be supportive. He may be nurturing. But he will also accept nothing less than one’s best. Engaging and exacting are not mutually exclusive traits, and few wear both at the same time better than John Petillo.

That sense of balance is in just about everything he does. It’s unmistakable, even to wide-eyed freshmen who might otherwise feel intimidated by having the university president teaching part of their core curriculum. “It’s typically considered a job of overlooking the University,” says Trevor O’Brien, one of Dr. P’s Catholic intellectual traditions students, a seminar of the great works of both the Catholic tradition and western culture for consideration and discussion. “But Dr. Petillo is able to find time to connect and learn with his students because that is something he believes is paramount: getting to know his students both socially and academically.”

At most,” Dr. Petillo tells incoming students as early as their first orientation visit, “50 percent of what you learn at Sacred Heart will be in the classroom. At most. That’s where you’ll learn your facts. But the rest – the other fifty-percent-plus – what you learn about living, about the world – that will be in your discussions, in your volunteer work, in your clubs.”

Thus it’s no surprise the University President puts such emphasis on connecting to what he sees as the larger, and indeed more impactful, classroom. To focus solely on the grade work – the exams, the papers and even the accolades – is to miss the greater opportunity to truly shape the University, its students and, of course, his legacy. It’s simply the most efficient way to both check the pulse of the University and to set it.

When a visitor sees the president holding the door for a janitor, they know everyone here has a job to do. When a professor sees the president sitting in the dining hall, they know the classroom has no walls. When a dean sees the president stopping by to cheer a track event, they know the student is but one facet of the person, just as the college is but one facet of the university.

And when a student body sees the president risk political fallout in favor of a challenging conversation (as was the case when Sacred Heart welcomed the sometimes controversial Father James Martin, S.J., to campus to talk with the students), they see that courage lies in the open mind rather than the closed heart, and that integrity speaks silent priceless volumes.

He was once asked in an interview (an interview he was conducting, it should be noted, where the student felt comfortable enough to turn the tables and ask him the final question), “What do you want to be remembered for?” Would it be the growth in numbers or in stature for the University? The new buildings? What?

Petillo answered without hesitation. “I told her, ‘I want them to say, He cared.’ I hadn’t really even thought of it. It just came out.”

His interviewee-turned-interviewer smiled. “We know you care,” she said.

Indeed, the evidence is all around.

For if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then when a president sees a student body at the memorial mass of one of their own, sitting silently as one – long after the last hymn – or when he sees three burly fraternity brothers stand in support of a friend coming out, or when he sees the students lead the standing ovation for a priest bearing Christ’s message of inclusivity in humanity, he is witnessing more than a collection of small individual acts of courage and caring.

He’s witnessing a legacy.