In the history of Seton Hall presidents, perhaps no story is more unique than that of Dr. John J. Petillo.
Petillo was named University Chancellor at 36 years old, succeeding Dr. Edward D’Alessio as the top Seton Hall administrator in 1983.
Petillo’s title as Chancellor was based on improving the University’s Catholic identity under D’Alessio’s tenure; Petillo was an ordained Monsignor at the time.
The resignation of D’Alessio, the last University lay president, left Seton Hall’s chancellor as the one in charge.
As the late 1980s brought men’s basketball success, residence hall growth and an enrollment increase on the campus, Petillo was at the forefront of what many called the “Seton Hall Renaissance.”
Yet, Petillo resigned in Dec. 1989 after a semester on sabbatical leave. According to an article in The Setonian at the time, preserved in the University’s Archives, Petillo said the decision to leave the Hall “comes…with some anxiety” and the desire to “try other challenges.”
Those challenges included presidential positions with UMDNJ, First Union Insurance Services and Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.
He was recently appointed as interim president of Sacred Heart University in Connecticut after serving as dean of that university’s college of business.
The Setonian reached Petillo to discuss Seton Hall’s recent appointment of Dr. A. Gabriel Esteban as permanent University president.
“It did not surprise me – in 21 years, a lot has changed,” Petillo said. “It’s unfortunate that the process (to name a president) had to unfold the way it did. But, (Esteban) doesn’t have to learn the place…his learning curve is zippo.”
Petillo also commented on working with D’Alessio as a lay president and the idea of hiring one for 2011.
“He was fine,” Petillo said. “What is should come down to is character, commitment to the mission and competency. Collar or not, it’s irrelevant.”
Petillo added that any potential major administrative changes at Seton Hall need to be handled in a certain way.
“All should report to the president,” Petillo said. “The mission is the Catholicity of the University, and Gabe is committed to that Catholic mission.”
Regarding his current role as interim president for Sacred Heart Petillo compared his new “SHU” to his former “SHU” employer in South Orange.
“It’s been fun, with the complexities and all,” Petillo said. “I think it’s similar to Seton Hall (in terms of campus size) – there are a great many similarities.”
Petillo also said that he has been back around the Seton Hall campus recently.
“Probably within the last year… I’ve been back periodically,” Petillo said.
“I still keep in touch with many (professors and University employees) on a regular basis.”
Petillo’s final words for the next chapter of the University’s presidency included a request for all across the campus.
“I hope everybody rallies around him, as private Catholic education is challenging,” Petillo said.
Brian Wisowaty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.