FAIRFIELD -- When Ed Malin took a job as a psychology instructor at Sacred Heart University in 1970, few in the south Jersey neighborhood he came from had ever heard of the small commuter college that was on the other end of a pleasant drive up the tree-covered Merritt Parkway.
"They had no idea what Sacred Heart was," Malin said.
It wasn't on anyone's radar except in the Greater Bridgeport catchment of working-class Catholics it had been built to serve seven years earlier by Bishop Walter Curtis.
Malin's motive was simple. At 24 years old, he came with the goals of starting a family, finishing his dissertation and eventually finding a better place to work.
He succeeded only in the first two.
"I have never found a better place to work," conceded Malin, now an associate dean at Sacred Heart, a university that has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception 50 years ago.
Now, it's not only on the list of Malin's college-seeking Long Island nieces and nephews, but SHU is where 6,983 students from 49 states are matriculating this year. It is the second-largest Catholic university in New England, according to campus officials.
Once housed completely in what was a Catholic high school -- Notre Dame shared space with the fledgling university before moving to the other side of Jefferson Street -- Sacred Heart, at 50, has grown to include a library, chapel, recreation center, shiny new commons, five colleges, 10 residential buildings and soon, a new business school.
"The transformation is remarkable," said Michelle Loris, who graduated with the Class of 1970 and returned three years later as an adjunct professor. Today, Loris is associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and was just named Connecticut Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation. "I don't think there is a day on campus when something isn't going on."
Some things stay the same
What hasn't changed, said Loris, is the mission.
"What Bishop Curtis wanted to develop was an education rooted in the liberal arts and Catholic intellectual tradition, where social service and social justice were big parts of the university culture," she said.
Loris remembers, when she was a student commuting from her parents' home in Fairfield, going to a barrio in the South Bronx on missions of social justice.
Today, much of the same activity plays out on a regular basis in inner-city Bridgeport, where recently the SHU women's basketball team handed out Christmas toys. Read Full Article
"The energy is still there," said Loris.
Dave Bike, who enrolled two years after the university opened in 1965, remembers Sacred Heart as an institution built to give first-generation college kids from the diocese, like him, a chance.
It was low cost and run by laypeople. Four years later, he left with a math degree, only to return to become Sacred Heart's longtime basketball coach and athletic director. He is now in semi-retirement, serving as Sacred Heart's athletic business manager.
Bike had to stop and think when asked how comfortable he would have been going to Sacred Heart as it is today. Most SHU students now come from homes where college is an expectation. The average grade point average of entering freshmen is 3.30. About 60 percent of those who apply get in and 70 percent of undergraduates are residential students.
The academic rigor might be higher today, but Mike Kinney, who graduated in 1972, said the campus he remembers was intellectually alive, just the same.
"What was transformative for me was that a lot the faculty were young, vibrant, academic, scholarly people," said Kinney, now senior vice president of finance at Sacred Heart. "They had a commitment to Catholic social thought. Believe it or not, I spent a good deal of my social life and Saturday nights at Dr. (Maurice) O'Sullivan's house. A bunch of faculty would come together and a large group of students and we would read things like `Grand Inquisitor' or Noam Chomsky. (O'Sullivan's wife) would make dinner and we would all bring soda."
It was not unusual for faculty to gather and have debates about the Vietnam war.
"Students would be energized by that," Kinney said.
Malin said it was common for there to be an event on campus, and in the lobby afterward a group of people would come together and decide whose house they were going to end the night at.
"It was a lot of sitting on the floor on pillows and drinking cheap wine and solving the problems of the world," Malin said.
When Kathy Zelle-Duke enrolled at Sacred Heart University in the 1970s, she said she didn't look at any other schools.
"It was friendly. It was affordable," she said. "Back then, you went where you could afford."
Her mom worked at Sacred Heart and after her father died, Zelle-Duke said, she received a full scholarship to cover her last year in college. She graduated in 1978 with a bachelor's degree, on the same day her uncle received a business degree and her sister got an associate's degree. She would go back to SHU to earn an MBA and also taught there for a bit.
Some trying times
Over the years Sacred Heart grew, but there were also lean years. In the 1980s, enrollment waned, and without an endowment to fall back on, there were budget deficits. In 1989, shortly after Anthony Cernera became president, Sacred Heart developed a five-year plan and decided to offer student housing. At the same time, the University of Bridgeport, on the opposite end of Park Avenue, was going into bankruptcy, only to be saved by an arm of the controversial Unification Church.
"I can remember being in planning meetings for building residence halls, asking, `How can we avoid mistakes UB made?' " said Malin. UB, he said, overextended itself. "We were astute in building cautiously and achieving success in leveraging that success. To me, it is very clear at that point we had a choice of getting smaller or getting larger."
Sacred Heart chose to get larger, but cautiously. Its first residence halls were added in 1990.
There were also times when the faculty was unhappy. In 2000, seeking a greater say and more pay, there was a push to unionize, but the National Labor Relations Board sided with the university.
Within five years, a new governance system emerged. Today, there is a University Academic Assembly. Domenick J Pinto, chairman of the computer science department, is its president.
"The administration is more open, and I think our organization has a lot to do with it," Pinto said.
According to Pinto, faculty members today have a voice and use it to speak up when they need to. Faculty salaries are more competitive than they were, he said.
There is also a push to expand majors and programs, which Pinto said is necessary to keep the institution healthy, especially when Sacred Heart's endowment is still in its infancy.
Sacred Heart has about $125 million in reserves, according to university officials, and there is a goal of reaching $250 million in the next decade. The university's physical expansion -- beyond construction of a new academic building on the corner of Park Avenue and Jefferson Street to house its college of business and department of communications and media studies -- includes plans to build another academic building where Fitness 4000 on Park Avenue used to be.
Kinney said the university promised the city of Bridgeport it would not put a dorm there. Also planned is a small student success center across the street from its main campus.
Another ongoing project is Sacred Heart's reputation.
Loris concedes there are still neighbors in her Fairfield community who think of Sacred Heart as a rinky-dink place until they visit the campus and are wowed by the chapel, the renovated library or the 50,000-square-foot McMahon commons, with its wide-screen televisions, and glass walls.
More than physical things have helped Sacred Heart grow, said Jim Morley, chairman of Sacred Heart's board of trustees.
"The caliber of our faculty and the high quality of the programs, lectures and speakers are equivalent to those on the campuses of the nation's very best universities," Morley said in a recent email.
Officials consider Sacred Heart on par with Fairfield University and Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
What needs to happen next, Morley said, is for Sacred Heart's reputation to catch up with reality.
1963: Bishop Walter Curtis signs charter creating Sacred Heart University. First classes held Sept. 11, 1963, with nine professors and 173 students. First president is William H. Conley.
1964: SHU radio station, WSHU-FM (91.1), debuts.
1967: SHU's first commencement.
1971: Robert A. Kidera becomes second president of SHU.
1976: Thomas P. Melady becomes third president of SHU.
1986: Robert A. Preston becomes fourth president of SHU (only to resign 16 months later).
1988: Anthony Cernera, 38, becomes fifth president of SHU.
1990: SHU adds dormitories, first off campus. First on-campus dorm opened in 1992.
1993: In honor of its 30th anniversary, SHU community collectively volunteers 30,000 hours.
1995: SHU becomes one of first campuses in the country to give every freshman a laptop.
1996: SHU expansion off campus not welcomed by all, especially when 10-story dorm is built on edge of a residential Bridgeport neighborhood on Park Avenue.
1997: University's Pitt Health and Recreation Center is built.
1999: SHU athletic program upgrades to Division I status.
2000: SHU faculty try to unionize over low wages; effort is blocked.
2002: Campus becomes wireless.
2006: Business school named after Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.
2009: Chapel of the Holy Spirit is dedicated on campus.
2010: John Petillo, dean of the business college, named interim president in October upon the abrupt resignation of Cernera. Petillo is made permanent president the following March.
2012: The Linda McMahon Commons completed on campus.
2013: Ground broken on $30 million Welch College of Business, across from campus on Jefferson Street.
SHU then and now
Enrollment 173 6,983
Faculty 9 350+
Tuition $750 $34,800
Locations 1 *6
* -- Fairfield, Trumbull, Stamford, Griswold, Luxenbourg and Ireland
Kevin Nealon, actor
John Ratzenberger, actor
Paul Timpanelli, Bridgeport Regional Business Council president
Thomas Bucci, former Bridgeport mayor