Presidential attitudes: New Jersey’s openly gay college leaders are pleased that times have changed, and have risen to the challenges

It was that time again for Joe Bertolino. As he searched for his third college presidency, he felt once more a need to brace for questions about his sexual orientation.

He’s openly gay. Now and in the past … he expected that would pose problems.

“In fact, I remember speaking with search firms and saying, ‘I have a husband, we’ve been together for 30 years now, is that going to be a problem? Because if so, we can just move on — that’s fine,’” he said. “But, to be honest, it just has never been an issue.”

Bertolino was eventually selected for Stockton University‘s presidency, which he is filling in July after leaving Southern Connecticut State University. In this job search or any before it, he hasn’t encountered any outward pushback for being gay.

Instead, the college, and its lower-level staff and students, in particular, are often thrilled to have a member of the LGBTQ+ community placed at the helm. And, in New Jersey and elsewhere, more openly gay college administrators are finding themselves there as time goes on.

That’s a reality that’s still taking some getting used to for Bertolino. He’s pleased with it, of course. But there’s a history that explains some of that earlier job search anxiety.

“When I was coming up through the ranks in the ’90s, we were told, if you are out, do not in any way expect to get a deanship or a vice presidency or a presidency,” he said. “They called it at that time the gay glass ceiling.”

Richard Helldobler.

Bertolino and Richard Helldobler, president of William Paterson University, were among the nation’s first two dozen openly gay presidents of colleges. Today, there are around 190 openly gay college presidents in the country.

“Now, if you’re looking at about 4,500 institutions of higher education nationwide, that isn’t a huge percentage,” Helldobler said. “But, if you look back as recently as two decades ago, there was really only one. So, the number has significantly grown.”

That one trailblazer Helldobler refers to is the former president of Roosevelt University in Illinois, Charles R. Middleton. He became the first openly gay man to serve as a president of a university in the United States with his appointment back in 2002.

Helldobler, who is in his fifth year at William Paterson University, himself holds the distinction of being the first openly gay man at a public university in New Jersey. Helldobler takes pleasure in giving up being the first and also the only — with administrators such as Bertolino “adding to the ranks,” as he calls it.

Helldobler is also the president of the LGBTQ Leaders in Higher Education nonprofit, which recently rebranded to reflect that it would be supporting and mentoring all leadership-level individuals, and not just higher education presidents. That’s in service of the organization’s goal of steadily increasing the number of LGBTQ+ community members in top university posts.

Even at a time that Helldobler expects the swinging of the political pendulum could muddy progress on that in the South, there are encouraging signs of a landscape change — especially when compared to what Helldobler was told to expect not all too long ago.

“When I was an (American Council on Education) Fellow in 2005 and 2006, the then-director of the program told me it would be unlikely that I would succeed to a presidency because most boards wouldn’t hire you as an openly gay person,” Helldobler said.

Hudson County Community College President Christopher M. Reber, another openly gay college leader in New Jersey, agrees that change is very much underway. He anticipates the new acceptance of LGBTQ+ leaders in higher education will continue to head in the same direction, despite “the more alarming developments surfacing in certain parts of the country.”

That has been evident to him since his first steps on the Jersey City campus he’s president of.

“When I first did the interview here and walked into the campus for a tour, what I saw immediately in front of me was the gay pride flag,” Reber said. “It just had this concrete impact on me. ‘Oh my gosh,’ I said. ‘I think I’m home.’”

Reber oversees a campus that ranks among the most diverse institutions in the nation, with 87% of students being non-white. He’s looking to ensure the school is a welcoming environment for all marginalized groups. At the risk of getting too poetic, he said, the significance of being in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty isn’t lost on them.

Colleges across the country are advancing initiatives related to diversity, equity & inclusion, or DEI. To that end, these local leaders in higher education all agreed that coming from marginalized populations themselves is valuable from an empathetic and sympathetic standpoint.

They also all share a long-term optimism about the acceptance of LGBTQ+ community members into higher education leadership largely due to the students they’re stewards of. Simply put, they don’t have the same hangups as previous generations.

Bertolino said it’s important for it to be remembered that colleges aren’t hiring someone to be the gay president. They’re hiring someone who happens to be gay to be president of an institution. It’s just one facet of his identity, even if it’s an important part of his identity.

He expects that’s something the student body and the larger community understands and accepts.

“That doesn’t mean everyone is warm and welcoming all the time,” Bertolino said. “I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of homophobia and bigotry. In my role as president, I’ve occasionally received some nasty communications, usually confidential in nature. I don’t think I’m phased by it. I’ve navigated it all my life.”

Bertolino isn’t worried about that during the time he’ll spend as a college president in New Jersey. In what he’s heard referred to by Stockton University’s outgoing president, Harvey Kesselman, as a blue institution in the reddest part of a blue state, there’s always the chance that there’s some small measure of pushback, he said.

“But, as my husband, Bill, would say, ‘You be you,’” he said. “And that’s what I’ll do.”

Christopher M. Reber’s story

Every openly gay college administrator has their own very personal story of coming out. Believing it to be crucial in understanding him and his perspective on leadership, President Christopher M. Reber of Hudson County Community College wanted to share his with ROI-NJ:

Christopher M. Reber.

“When I grew up, in the late ’60s into the ’70s, there was just complete hostility — literally anywhere — toward being gay. It was widely considered to be a mental illness. Stereotypes of gay people were just horrible. I actually didn’t have the courage as a young person, and it’s my greatest regret in life, to admit to myself or anyone else that I was gay. I was incredibly afraid of taking a step like that. So, I convinced myself I was bisexual and perfectly prepared for a ‘normal’ heterosexual lifestyle. I went to college, met one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known, who I love to this day, got married and was married for 23 years. We had two children.

“But, as time went on, all this time working in public institutions, it became harder and harder to be someone I wasn’t. My wife and I loved each other, but there came a point where I had to come out. I wasn’t leading two lives or being unfaithful, but I was not being who I was or being honest with her. Our marriage started to become more brittle, and I knew it wasn’t fair to her or our young kids. The hardest thing I had to do in my life was come out to my wife. And she has, to this day, stood by me and supported me. I’m incredibly blessed to have had that experience.

“I moved to another town where I worked in a Pennsylvania campus in Oil City. It was considered Appalachia. It is deep, deep, deep red. One of the most conservative areas you’d ever be able to find. But, honestly, I had a wonderful experience there. Meanwhile, my wife and I divorced and were co-parenting. My son has had lifelong challenges: he was bipolar, combined with ADHD, anxiety disorder and manic-depressive behaviors. It has been a tough life. So, I didn’t want to come out to my kids, and him in particular, until they were ready. For about eight years, I was carrying this boulder on my shoulder. When the day comes and I tell them, how’re they going to respond? Are they still going to love me? And I wasn’t going to come out to anyone else until I came out to my kids, so I remained closeted. Then, one day, I was with my son, and the time felt right. What he said has forever changed my life: ‘It doesn’t matter, dad. I love you and I know how it feels to sometimes not be understood by other people,’ as he well did. My daughter had the same reaction.

“All of a sudden, I was feeling authentic for the first time in my life. When I had left home, left my wife, I was at the lowest moment of my life. I had reached out to people I had been friends with and lost touch with. That resulted in eventually making contact with someone who had a similar life experience. Today, we’re married. At the time, we were at a distance and he’d come and spend weekends. On a professional level, I was having this actually wonderful experience in this college in Pennsylvania, but, I thought, if I brought visibility to sexual orientation, it would make it impossible to continue to lead there. But, on the heels of coming out to my son, I was ready to come out to my colleagues … and what I got was an outpouring of support from colleagues. I got letter after letter saying things like, ‘Chris, I always liked you, now I admire you.’ In the larger community, it didn’t cause me problems.

“It made me a stronger leader. When you’re comfortable in your own skin and transparent, you develop trust. That’s the bedrock of being able to build an accepting community. I do feel for people who work in communities who aren’t that accepting, but I believe it’s becoming easier to be who you are and to be transparent. My experience taught me that, even if you were in a community where there are misunderstandings about the LGBTQ community, when you’re open and honest, people accept you for who you are. So, now that we’re in a spot where there’s several LGBTQ presidents in New Jersey, and a few who aren’t out yet, I do hope more college presidents and leaders feel comfortable to come out. But, ultimately, the decision to do that has to come from the individual.”