With his trademark bow tie and spectacles, John Petillo cuts the appearance of a university president. Following the resignation in October of his predecessor, Anthony Cernera, Petillo has indeed occupied this position as the interim president of Sacred Heart University.

Leadership in the academic world is not new to Petillo. He has served as chief executive officer and chancellor of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and he was the dean of the John F. Welch College of Business at Sacred Heart prior to becoming interim president.

After about a month in his new job, the Fairfield Citizen sat down with Petillo, 63, on campus to get his perspective on leading one of Fairfield's most well-known institutions.

Why did you accept the interim president position at Sacred Heart?

I had come out of the '60's generation, which was always protesting something, and always feeling like you had an obligation to do something. It was an obligation -- I was part of the Sacred Heart community. There was a need, and I was asked to respond to that need. And at least in the interim, that wasn't a life-changing response.

What are the main differences between being dean of the College of Business and now being interim president of the university?

At the Welch College you had pretty much a self-contained entity. It was business-oriented, and you had students -- undergraduate and graduate. You worked on the curriculum, you worked on advisement, you worked on developing this life-learning experience at the College of Business.

You come over to this job, you still have to do that for three colleges, but you also had to be concerned about library services, you had to be concerned about the residential life component, and all that goes with that. You had to worry about athletics. As a result, you have to balance things. You've got to weigh your decisions a little more prudently and carefully because of the ripple effects -- every action has a reaction.

What challenges will the university face in the future?

In this context of financial recession, we can't fall astray from continuing to improve the quality of the undergraduate. I believe liberal arts education needs to be strengthened at a faster pace than we had been. I believe unless we have strongly-rooted undergraduates in the liberal arts, they're not going to be successful as business people. Private education and higher education is getting to be very expensive, and there's going to be pressure on the private higher-eds to make sure of the value of their degrees. It can't just be, `Give us $40,000 and you'll go through it.' You need to have some assurance that what you say you're going to teach them [students] is in fact what you've taught and that they grasped that.

Has the university's curriculum changed in response to the current economic climate?

There haven't been any differences. In talking with corporate leaders, we're asking them, `What are the important things to you?' And they'll say what is important, given the economic change, is that they don't have the time or the resources to be training them [new grads] how to write or speak. They're really looking for people like a turnkey operation that can get in there.

One exec said to me: `I can teach them how to do finance; I can't teach them how to write, or to speak, or how to make presentations, or understand that when you go in other parts of the world, some of the behaviors are going to have to be different. I don't have the time.'

How does Sacred Heart contribute to its neighboring communities?

We spend an inordinate amount of time with the Bridgeport community with various service operations. Last year, our undergraduate students put in over 40,000 hours of community service. And the work is not just local. Our students are going to Guatemala, El Salvador. It's all part of an important part of the learning experience -- the giveback.

What is the probability of you staying on as president of Sacred Heart?

That's a question that's yet to be answered. The search committee would probably be looking to fill the position by the end of the academic year, which would be sometime in June. I would need to make that yay or nay decision soon. That would mean more permanent life-changing responsibilities and expectations.

What advice would you give to current and prospective Sacred Heart students?

If you come here, you want to be hungry for learning on an interdisciplinary and integrated basis.

If you want that, you will leave a much richer and fuller person.