A Commuter School Remakes Itself
By RITA PAPAZIAN  Published in the New York Times: May 26, 1996

PROSPECTIVE freshmen and their parents recently gathered at a groundbreaking ceremony for the William H. Pitt Health and Recreation Center on the Sacred Heart University campus, which straddles the Fairfield/Bridgeport line.

The ceremony coincided with Pioneer Day, an annual event for high school seniors making decisions about college. The day also marked a new plateau for the university, now in the throes of a second five-year plan reflecting its goal of making Sacred Heart a leading Catholic university. Under Dr. Anthony Cernera, who became the institution's fifth president in 1988, Sacred Heart has become the third largest of 22 four-year Catholic institutions in New England (behind Boston and Providence colleges) The university has campuses in Derby, Stamford, Danbury and Lisbon in Connecticut as well as an M.B.A. program in Europe.

The freshman class is expected to number more than 600 this fall; in 1989, when it was still a commuter school, freshman enrollment was 384; last fall it was 632, the largest in the school's history. The university is also now one of just two dozen nationwide requiring each incoming freshman to have a laptop computer.

In 1963 the diocese of Bridgeport opened the school with 175 commuter students, ad today total enrollment is 5,418, full and part time, graduate and undergraduate. The faculty has grown from 85 in 1988 to 135 in 1996.

While other educational institutions have been retrenching, Sacred Heart has been aggressively developing not only enrollment and academic programs but also its physical plant. For the school year '94-'95, revenues were $41 million, with $34 million coming from tuition and fees; a $9 million fund-raising campaign is underway for the Pitt Center. The athletic department has gone from 8 teams in 1990 to 29 this academic year. Today, the university, which won the 1986 national Division II Men's Basketball Championship, is considering applying for Division I status.

In 1992 the university built its first on-campus residence hall, followed in 1993 by a $1.3 million artificial turf athletic field and running track, a second residence hall and, in 1994, six tennis courts and another residence hall. In the near future, there is the Pitt Health and Recreation Center, to be built in large part through a $3 million gift from William Pitt of Greenwich, the founder of the Stamford-based real estate company bearing his name. The building will include a 2,000-seat basketball arena, a five-lane running track, four squash courts, two racquetball courts, a fitness center, classrooms, lockers, offices and a physical therapy clinic. "They are doing a great job here," said Mr. Pitt, 69, a widower with no children who says he enjoys making contributions that benefit young people.

Beginning with the founding of WSHU-FM (91.1) in 1963, now a National Public Radio affiliate, and continuing this year with a venture into publishing with its own university press, Sacred Heart has gained notice rivaling that of longer established institutions.

But the university's growth has not been without problems. A four-year building boom has all but landlocked the college. The recent purchase of a 1.3-acre property including a vacant single-family house at 4940 Park Avenue for $600,000 (to build a 10-story residence hall), a contract to buy another home on 3.7 acres at 5252 Park Avenue (for another residence hall), as well as solicitation of nearby homeowners, have drawn the ire of the university's neighbors who feel the college is eroding the neighborhood. Doreen Nicholas, 79, who with her now-deceased husband, Michael, bought 43 acres of land off Park Avenue in 1950, is among angry neighbors. The couple sold lots to buyers who built their own houses, and for more than four decades the area has been a tightly knit group of neighbors, many of whom are retired and want to remain in their homes.

"I told the university, 'I'm going to go to Religion 101 and see what kind of spin you put on the 10th Commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods,' " Mrs. Nicholas said. "Most of us are widows and we all like it here. I like my house. I like my neighbors.

"I'm old enough to tell everyone what I think. I have to get it off my chest before I die. When you get to my age, you don't want to move. If you get sick, you call up your neighbor and say, 'Take me to the hospital.' "

Dr. Cernera, the Sacred Heart president, acknowledged that "when there's building, conflicts between colleges and their immediate neighbors is a fact of life."

But, he said, "Our commitment is to work as well as we can with people. Long term, the option for growth and development is to purchase property across the street. With better cooperation from the city officials in Bridgeport, there is a way for that to be done in everybody's best interest."

Housing more than 1,300 resident students this fall is the university's challenge, and officials are considering Avalon Gates, an unoccupied apartment complex on Old Town Road in neighboring Trumbull as a dormitory for 150 senior and graduate students.

With the $18 million, 143,000-square-foot Pitt Center, due to open in the summer of 1997, the university will be able to offer a master's degree program in physical therapy, which would be the first in Connecticut to be licensed by the state's Department of Higher Education.

"This licensure is an extremely important milestone," says Dr. Michael J. Emery, director of Sacred Heart's physical therapy program. He noted that the program would allow students to complete three years of undergraduate study followed by three years of graduate work, with a bachelor's degree earned in the fourth year and a master's degree after six.

In the next three years an occupational therapy program is to be added, giving Sacred Heart the strongest concentration of health science programs among Catholic colleges in New England.

In addition to physical therapy and health sciences, Sacred Heart's focal points include international studies, international business, global studies, accounting and computer science. Matching institutional focus to societal needs has become the object of the university's strategic plan in Dr. Cernera's presidency.

Dr. Cernera, who had been vice president for college advancement at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and the trustees put together a 23-member committee of faculty, students and administrators who spent a year making a plan.

"Financially," said Paul Madonna, vice president of finance for Sacred Heart, "we are a benchmark institution with zero deferred maintenance. I don't know anyone else who can say that. The key is a team approach to management. We do everything together as a team. We have a strategic plan that is real, not something that was done by a consultant and put on a shelf."

During Dr. Cernera's first year as president, he said, he learned that students felt a high degree of faculty and staff presence and commitment to helping them. The 45-year-old president, who was born in the Bronx and majored in theology at Fordham University, continues to keep in touch with students by teaching a theology course each semester. Community service is also part of the university's declared mission. Phyllis Machledt, the director of service learning and volunteer programs, said students teach English at a women's center, work in day care centers for children and at a center for elderly people as well as visiting a social club for mentally ill people.

"There is a general concern across the country in how to prepare young people to be good citizens," Dr. Cernera said. "We are here to prepare people to live, work and make a contribution. As academicians, we are aware that real learning takes place in the real world. Through service learning, students appreciate the value of what they learn in the classroom."

Community service is required of athletes, who have tutored children, done errands for elderly men and women, and performed anti-drug skits in middle and high schools. "It's one thing to understand the x's and o's of sports, but instruction in the academics and in life is also important," said the university's athletic director C. Donald Cook.

"This is a time for breadth and understanding," said Dr. Cernera of undergraduate learning in general. "Too often parents want their kids to get focused from day one in college. Students need a broader liberal arts education; it's a critical foundation for their success, both professionally and personally."