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Educating Fairfield

Sacred Heart University’s Big Plans



The SHU Center for Healthcare Education is a three-story, 117,000-square-foot facility with 18 laboratories, eight classrooms, and a 140-seat lecture hall.

What’s with Sacred Heart University these days? The question is frequently repeated in gathering spots in Fairfield and for good reason. Even an occasional trip down Park Avenue, never mind a neck-snapping ride through the campus, will reveal a brand-spanking new building just put up yesterday. Oh yeah, and then there’s the acquisition of GE’s corporate headquarters for $31.5 million. Don’t forget the land from the Jewish Senior Services adjacent to the campus at $16.5 million. But wait, there’s more. The 150-acre Great River Golf Club came up for sale, and SHU bought that too, for $5.6 million.

The answer, in short: the university is on a mission to transform a local commuter college founded in 1963, which was bumping along as a lower-rung choice of any potential student’s list, into an attractive, must-see learning center that is every bit as much a cohesive community as it is a center of academic excellence. “In order to grow this institution,” says SHU president John Petillo, “we had to add first-class facilities and faculty and be all about student-focus, which would allow us to be much more selective in the students who come here. We’ve done much of that work and there are plans for more.”

While the student population, about 8,500, is made up of more undergrad students, there were more graduate students that graduated this year, a sign that specialty colleges within the university are on the rise. For example, the school of computing will make use of part of the 510,000-square-foot, new West Campus (the old GE HQ), focusing on innovative computer engineering. Some disciplines of the Jack Welch School of Business will also go there. Other specialties such as public administration are now being provided for, as are more new facilities for the business school and school of communications. Seventeen new graduate programs have been added in the last five years.

With such an emphasis on community life—“We have a mentoring program here that ensures no one is left out of the mix,” Petillo notes—it is natural that on-campus residential housing is an important part of the plan. The spectacular, not-anything-like-your-East German-dorm-of-old, Bergoglio Residential Hall features a gym and a video room that gives new meaning to Halo (a top-pick college student video game). There are plans to make use of the Jewish Seniors property for a 750-student residential village that will further encourage on-campus living.

Okay, so this is all well and good—but where’s the money coming from? According to Michael Kinney, senior VP of finance administration, the bulk of all this new investment in the university’s future comes alumni gifts, fund raising, and, of course, tuition—$38,000 a year for undergrads. 

Oh, and what about that golf course? Well, it’s an impressive track probably worthy of NCAA competitions and will support both the golf- and hospitality-management programs in the future. Besides, Yale has a golf course, doesn’t it?

The result of all this effort is that SHU now attracts students from all over the Northeast, although not as many men and minorities as they would like, but they see progress. And while you’re unlikely to see SHU athletics on TV anytime soon, they do boast about 1,300 students involved in some form of formal athletics.

For those who prefer to listen to classical music and sip martinis, you’ll be pleased to learn that WSHU is going to have a new studio built soon, one that replaces the glorified caddy-shack now in use.

When SHU bought the GE property, there was some consternation that the biggest taxpayer in town was leaving and being replaced by a tax-exempt organization. This, on top of other state woes, has brought on conversations about Florida among local residents. Says SHU finance SVP Kinney: Given the flight from the corporate-park model to cities, the GE property was nowhere near the valuation on the books when GE left. 

In fact, no matter who bought the property, they would have paid about two-thirds less than GE’s $1.8-million property-tax bill. The loss, he explains, is mostly offset by the payment in lieu of taxes (or PILOT) payment from the state to the town, which increases with the presence of educational facilities within a municipality’s borders. Fairfield, with two significant universities, reaps a goodly dose of PILOT money, and that increases as SHU adds property and buildings. In addition, they argue, few from GE went to shop or eat in downtown Fairfield, but students do all the time on shuttle after shuttle. 

There is no doubt that Fairfield, like any town with a university (or two), derives multiple benefits in addition to the mysterious positive effect of education on personal, family, career, and town life. SHU is helping to maintain Fairfield as distinctive, educated, arts and technology conversant, upwardly mobile, and therefore viable, place to live.

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