Southern Connecticut State University was established over 125 years ago as a teacher’s college. In the intervening years, it has become a comprehensive regional university awarding bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees, drawing students from cities and towns across Connecticut, as well as other states and countries. It has maintained its excellence in teacher preparation while expanding its education programs and simultaneously building other programs devoted to public service, including nursing, social work, and public health. While building programs and curriculum, Southern has also developed a strong research and scholarship base that represents the diverse expertise of our faculty and supports experiential education for our students. In keeping with this history of preparing students for public service, the university states its mission as, “Southern Connecticut State University provides exemplary graduate and undergraduate education in the liberal arts and professional disciplines. As an intentionally diverse and comprehensive university, Southern is committed to academic excellence, access, social justice, and service for the public good.” 1 Under the leadership of President Bertolino these past four years, the university has continued to emphasize academic excellence, access and service for the public good as ways to advance social justice as its primary focus, emphasizing the values of dignity, respect, kindness, compassion, and civility. 2 These characteristics serve the university well, especially as we face the national inequities revealed by our current national challenges.
As an institution, Southern is integrally connected with the workings and future of concentric circles of broader communities: the city of New Haven, the region, the state as a whole and the nation. Located within the greater New Haven region, the community mirrors the face of the United States. 3 The university is fortunate to enroll a diverse student body. Such diversity is an outgrowth of its commitment to public access and the elimination of barriers to full participation in outstanding higher education. The university values its student diversity and celebrates the wide-ranging perspectives that it engenders. Students build their sense of belonging by participating in rich co-curricular experiences as the university maintains its commitment to a student-centered approach. Many students are commuters; many work either on or off campus; and many provide support to their families. Because of the competing demands of these roles, students often struggle to maintain a balance between school, work, and family. These life circumstances create a moral imperative to provide excellent higher education, professional credentials, and research and networking opportunities to best prepare them for their next academic steps and careers. Our faculty advance the academic reputation of the university by being actively engaged in traditional and forward looking research with active student participation, creative activities, the advances in best practice in teaching and learning, and participatory-action research within our surrounding communities, developing both public and private partnerships. Although Southern follows best practices in recruiting diverse faculty and administrators, it shares a common problem of recruiting and retaining these colleagues. Furthermore, the university faces other struggles common to all colleges and universities: declining enrollment due to changing demographics and the exigencies of a global pandemic. In addition, as a state institution, it is confronting financial restrictions brought on by limited state budgets. In the face of these constraints the university remains united in supporting its primary role in educating the state’s future citizenry.
In that civic role, the university aspires to become a premier social justice institution and pursues that in a number of ways. First, one aspect of being a social justice institution is providing an excellent education for every student. In order to empower students to achieve their potential, faculty are actively involved in advising students, integrating them into research, and providing accessible high-quality instruction within the classroom. The relatively small classes (85% under 25, few with more than 40) allow students to build personal relationships with faculty members thus nurturing deep mentorships. Second, in order to support students’ academic accomplishments, the university takes a holistic approach to nurture their physical, emotional and social wellbeing, through systems like a newly revamped “neighborhood” advising program and an award winning financial literacy program. Third, the university proactively seeks to build relationships with the surrounding community through internships, clinical work, field experiences, and other outreach programs including our Visiting Scholars Program in K12 classrooms and an early college program. Fourth, embracing the global 21st century economy, Southern does more than prepare students for jobs; we prepare them for a future where they will innovate, become entrepreneurs, and adapt to changing technologies. We envision a synergy between innovations in the university and the economic and social development of the community, a synergy dependent on our aspiration to transform lives—the lives of our students, their families, and the members of the communities they go out to serve. We feel our efforts during the intersecting pandemic, economic and social equity crises pay tribute to our intentional and dynamic pursuit of these aspirations. Although we are successfully making a difference in many lives, more work is needed to nurture our students with an ever more inclusive campus climate and support them throughout their studies, until they successfully complete their academic program. In fulfilling our aspiration of being a social justice university within a comprehensive framework, we continually strive to bridge the gaps faced by all of our students, including students of color, those from low income families, and first generation students. We are passionate about using education to transform communities by embracing every member of our community with respect and dignity.