In a celebration that was, by turns, joyous, bittersweet, and awe-inspiring, members of the University of Bridgeport (UB) community gathered on April 26 to honor retiring President Neil A. Salonen and his wife Rebecca.
President Salonen will step down from office on June 30. He joined the UB Board Trustees in 1992 before serving as its chairman in 1995. In 2000, he was appointed UB’s ninth president.
“You did not need to assume the presidency in 2000 but we needed you to,” said Board of Trustees Vice Chairman Mark A. Fries ’73. “You helped reshape UB into a university that today’s students and alumni such as myself are proud to call our Alma Mater.”
Fries was one of hundreds of dignitaries, friends, and other guests who attended the event, which began with an Invocation by Fairfield University President Emeritus Father Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J.
Calling him a “mentor,” Father von Arx recalled how President Salonen welcomed him to the community.
UB Provost Stephen Healey summed up the Salonens’ impact on the University, saying, “They took a university that had inspiration and hope and promise and very little else and invested their hearts and minds and souls in it.”
By his own admission, President Salonen accepted the presidency when there was “no guarantee” that his efforts would be successful.
“UB was an institution with an incredibly great past which had really hit hard times for reasons that were not entirely of [its] own making but included several serious administrative missteps,” he said during a video remembrance that was shown at Thursday’s event. “I didn’t know the first year that I was here if we were going to make it.”
Nonetheless, he accepted the job, assuming he would “spend a few years and get [UB] up and running and then go back to Washington.”
If his time at the University was longer than anticipated, the success President Salonen helped to achieve also surpassed expectations.
Since 2000, UB has tripled its revenue, balanced its budget, increased the endowment, and grown enrollment to over 5,000 students. It’s also completed nearly $100 million in capital improvements. These include glittering health clinics, research labs, athletics facilities, the Ernest C. Trefz School of Business, and University Hall, the first residence to open on campus in over four decades.
“Neil didn’t simply save the University of Bridgeport. He did, but that’s only part of it,” said Trustee Robert L. Berchem, Esq. during the video tribute. “He saved jobs. He saved students. He saved careers. But he also saved, fairly, the south end of Bridgeport.”
Milestones required patience. UB, once ineligible for bank loans, had to shore up its finances before undertaking major capital projects. The construction of Knights Field in 2007 was “a turning point,” said George Estrada, vice president for facilities. “It signaled vibrancy. It signaled something was happening at the University of Bridgeport.”
Yet even before construction crews arrived, President Salonen had to engender confidence in his leadership. He did so by leveraging the two resources that were available: his wife and himself.
The couple was ubiquitous, and as they attended sports events, design exhibits, and concerts, they made it clear that their concern for UB and its students was genuine and deeply personal.
Edina Oestreicher, dean of students, recalled attending a Chinese New Year celebration with President Salonen. “One of the students [gave] him a microphone and he began singing a Chinese folk song. In Chinese. About two or three lines into that song, the whole room was singing with him. It was an incredibly touching moment and it illustrates President Salonen’s ability to easily connect with students so genuinely and so warmly.”
They also weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and dig in.
“Waldemere, which we were supposed to live in, had been vacant for 10 years and was in very poor condition,” Rebecca remembered in the video made by award-winning filmmaker Larry Locke. “There were no shrubs . . . . So I went to Home Depot and I bought them and I planted them. That’s what we did. We just thought, ‘You have to dig in and do what you can do.’ ”
Standing before well-wishers before the close of the ceremony, Rebecca and her husband didn’t miss a beat. “I’m going to [talk] first so he can correct me if I get it wrong,” she joked.
Then, in one of his last addresses to the community, President Salonen stepped to the microphone. “I think we filled in most of the potholes . . . . Coming here has been the greatest privilege. It’s been the greatest blessing.”
Media contact: Leslie Geary, (203) 576-4625, email@example.com