Happy homecoming: New Stockton president discusses his fundamentals of leadership, ties to South Jersey institution

After years spent leading colleges in other states, New Jersey native Joe Bertolino stepping into the role of Stockton University‘s president is a return home in many ways — not least of which is because his mother graduated from the institution when he was a child.

You wouldn’t wear a necktie at home. So, the college leader doesn’t choose to wear one on campus, either.

But, that’s more reflective of the personality of the South Jersey college’s new leader than anything else. Since taking up the post last July, Bertolino has been sighted taking selfies with students and sprinting around basketball games waving flags bearing the college’s Osprey logo.

Bertolino is out to exemplify a new, more approachable style of college leadership. Maybe not every college administrator is going to, like him, spend time passing out cookies on campus (or, he’ll shyly add, play the accordion in his free time). …

But, those in a position such as his share a responsibility to uphold principles of compassion and dignity at a time when colleges’ diversity, equity & inclusion efforts are under attack, he said.

Less than a year on the job, Bertolino, also among the first openly gay presidents of colleges, admits he’s still getting to know the university’s community. But ROI-NJ spoke to Stockton University’s new leader about the unique approach he’s taking and what’s on the horizon.

ROI-NJ: Could you start off by talking about the mindset and the social justice influence you entered into the president role with?

Joe Bertolino: My entire philosophy is essentially focused on relationships. I’m a social worker by training and, so, I tend to be very focused on developing relationships and navigating relationships. Everything I do I think is centered on just that, working with people in communities. I also think social work skills come in handy in terms of being a good listener and following an ethic of care. It’s important to me that folks know they’re valued, that they’re part of something bigger and that their talents and their place in the community matters. I also say here I want to make sure that people here are feeling seen, heard and that they belong.

We’re a midsized, public, regional institution and, because of that, I tend to be very focused on our responsibility to the region we live in. I see it as a moral responsibility. We serve well over 40% of students who are either first-generation, Pell (Grant) eligible or from underrepresented groups. I want to make sure we’re providing an environment where students are going to be successful. That’s the most important thing we do: Providing a life experience, an opportunity for students to learn about themselves and others and preparation for a career through the process of securing a degree.

ROI: You’re also teaching a night class for undergraduates. Why was carving out some time for the classroom experience something that was important to you?

JB: So, that’s a class I’m teaching on the ‘fundamentals in leadership.’ And, I can give you the entire course, and I’m not going to charge you for the four credits: Leadership is all about relationships, period. It’s about the relationships we have, the ones we develop, the ones we navigate and the ones we need to draw to a close. The course is actually more seminar style. And, from my perspective, what it does is it allows me to take off my president’s cap for a couple hours a week and just spend time with students talking about their life experiences, how they’re viewing the world around them and their place in it. It’s an opportunity to hear where students’ heads are at. And word spreads quickly, ‘Hey, I have a class with President Joe, and we had this conversation.’ It leads students to find their way to me. And, formally or informally, they share with me — and I can assure you they’re not afraid to share. Sometimes, they’re tough on me. I appreciate that. I love that they’re not intimidated by me, because, although I might not be an intimidating person, the title of ‘president’ and the office might be. I think that, when students are brutally honest, it’s because they feel safe. And that takes knowing who it is that leads their institution. I’m going to brag about this: Sometimes, students will be on campus with friends from other schools, and while chatting, they’ll say, ‘I don’t even know who my president is.’ For me, I can’t walk from one end of the campus to another and arrive on time because I’m always stopping to talk with, not just students, but also custodians, landscapers, police officers or anyone else who works here. I want to check in, see how they’re doing. And that all gives me insight on whether what folks are experiencing here is good, bad or somewhere in the middle. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for that experience. … And I don’t take that responsibility lightly.

ROI: Alongside the philosophy you came into the presidency with, is there a certain vision or set of goals you have for your time here?

JB: It feels for me — after being here all of nine months — presumptuous to talk about my vision for Stockton. There’s been people in the community here that have been around much longer than I have, and it’s about our whole community’s vision for the future. But, I will say that I do hope that we’ll be seen as a destination campus for students in the region and that we’ll be known for providing a specialized experience in terms of interdisciplinary curriculum. I hope we can be a national model for other institutions serving their community as an anchor regional institution. We’re an economic driver, and I hope we can continue to build on that.

ROI: Colleges collectively face challenges with enrollment, affordability and other issues. How do you look at some of those hurdles?

JB: Higher education — it’s tough these days. It’s under a lot of scrutiny, as the value of a degree is being questioned on all fronts. So, I think it’s incumbent on us as educators to, 1. Provide opportunities for students during challenging times. And, 2. To be able to have space to disagree, debate and learn. And my hope is to provide those opportunities. We also want to make sure that, as we’re recruiting students, we’re establishing strong relationships with high schools in the region. We have programs in which (high school) students are taking courses that will allow them to finish a degree in a shorter period of time, at a lower cost. As that becomes more important, we’re expanding that program. We’re also ensuring we’re retaining students by providing more enriched academic and nonacademic activities and services, such as mental health services for students. Additionally, we have our live-work-learn program that connects students to employers for paid opportunities that also has employers paying for housing. We’ll build on all those opportunities and explore others as well.

And there are lots of opportunities still out there and growth potential in partnering with community colleges and other organizations. I think, at the end of the day, folks would be surprised what they find here. Not a lot of folks (outside the region) know about Stockton. When they come to visit, they’re pleasantly surprised by what they find. But we have room to leverage the 1,600 acres we have here (in Galloway Township) in partnership with the community. You can’t beat the natural resources we have. I absolutely love it here. My mother passed away a couple years ago, and this has given me an opportunity to just return home and be near family and (other) connections. I think a way of honoring my mother and her memory is serving an institution that really provided her with opportunities.