The view from Neil A. Salonen’s office on the eighth floor of the University of Bridgeport’s Wahlstrom Library offers a panoramic bridge between his past and present. “Do you see those four towers out there?” he asked, pointing to a barely-visible spot across the Long Island Sound. “That’s Northport, where I grew up.”
Looking down from the office to street level, one can see much of the university campus where the 72-year-old Salonen served as president since 2000. In May, he announced that he was entering his final year on the job, with his retirement scheduled for June 30, 2018. Salonen said the time was right for him to wrap up his presidency.
“We are celebrating our 90th anniversary this year and we are going to begin a major campaign up to the 100th birthday,” he said. “I don’t think I could have 10 more years in me. We’re in a strong position, which makes it the right time because we have a strong pool of candidates.”
Salonen first arrived at the university in 1992 as a member of its board of trustees. The school was coming off a tumultuous period in the 1980s when it tried to declare bankruptcy as enrollment plunged to a record-low 1,500 students. In the year that Salonen joined the board, the University of Bridgeport Law School seceded and aligned itself with Quinnipiac University after the Bridgeport school agreed to receive financial aid from the Professors World Peace Academy (PWPA), an institute financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Salonen, who served as president of the Unification Church of the U.S. from 1972 to 1980, noted that many people were confused about the relationship between the church and the university.
“There never was any official connection between the church and the school,” he said. “The founder of the church, Rev. Moon, was very much a bridge builder. He was always trying to get people from different points of view to work together and he was always interested in sponsoring things outside of the church that would promote cooperation, collaboration and harmony. One of them was the PWPA — the idea that scholars could open the way with deeper insight that could shape policy. This institution had a very global mission statement and was in a position in which it could accept an affiliation with the PWPA. Officially, our charter is an independent, nonsectarian institution. The board controls its own destiny but they accept nominations from the PWPA.”
Salonen became chairman of the board of trustees in 1995 before being appointed president five years later. Rather than a lofty ivory-tower approach, he opted for a strategy of running the school “in a serious businesslike way” that challenged the students with a greater understanding of their surrounding world.
“You get more personal attention here,” Salonen said. “I think we’re a good place to go if you are willing to work and you are excited about taking responsibility and charting a course and you want some guidance in doing that. We use a lot of adjuncts in the business school from the real world.”
“I remember when I was an undergraduate a very long time ago, some of the people in academia were in the real world 20, 30, 40 years earlier and they were talking about the way things used to be. Here, we are bringing in people who are currently in industry and have them teach or co-teach a course just to make sure we’re preparing students correctly for what’s going on today.”
But getting students to consider enrolling in the school was a challenge for many years because of a persisting image of Bridgeport as an unsafe city. Last December, Salonen made headlines when he publicly urged Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim to stop cooperating with the crime-focused “Live PD” reality television series, claiming it revived the old fears of Bridgeport as being unsafe. Ganim followed Salonen’s advice and ended the cooperation between the show and the city’s police department.
“The stigma still exists on Bridgeport,” he said, noting that the university in its recruitment efforts urged potential students to come to the campus and see the location for themselves. “It’s only when you come here and walk around that you see what is here. According to the U.S. Department of Education website, we are the safest residential campus in the state of Connecticut. I live on campus. And we try to support anything that is going on in the city. What is good for the city is good for the university, even indirectly.”
As he prepares for his last year at the helm, Salonen observed a more robust and diverse educational institution than the one he encountered 25 years ago. During the past decade, the university spent more than $90 million to upgrade once-closed buildings while opening new facilities, including the Ernest C. Trefz School of Business. Today the university operates with an endowment of approximately $34 million.
“We’ve grown a lot,” he said. “We’re about 5,600 students in 13 different silos. The nursing program just came over from Bridgeport Hospital, so we are offering a four-year nursing degree. They had a two-year program, but the whole landscape is shifted and they wanted a baccalaureate — RN to BSN.”
The school has made great progress, Salonen said, in giving undergraduates from underserved communities the attention they need to push forward to graduation. “We’re committed to that because when those kids succeed, you’ve changed the future. We have people who need a lot of support — sometimes they don’t have it from their parents. And I know how in some cases they almost didn’t make it, but it was that little extra push that was needed.”
Before stepping down, Salonen said he would like to complete the renovation of a half-dozen dilapidated Victorian-era houses on the campus that have stood vacant for decades. Their renovation, though, requires costly upgrades, including asbestos abatement and bringing interiors up to code standards while maintaining Bridgeport Historic District mandates.
“People ask why we haven’t fixed them — as if we didn’t think of that,” he said with a laugh. “We did renovate several of them and we will continue to do so. However, people will go down the end of Park Avenue to the arch and say, ‘What about that ugly barn?’ And we say, ‘We don’t own that one — that’s somebody else’s property. We’ve only offered about 4,000 times to buy it.’”