The Laidback President

 Dr. Joseph Bertolino 

 12th President, Southern Connecticut State University

It seems fitting that we would kick off the Southern Styles series with our university president as the subject, no? After all, since the moment that he arrived in the summer of 2016, all that we could talk about has been his commitment to social justice and his cool, relaxed manner in addressing the campus community and dressing while addressing the campus community. Here, President Joe talks dress, gender, and status in higher education administration; the adornment practices of students and faculty; and the role that his partner, Bill, has played in his life as personal stylist and style inspiration.

President Joe at his desk

Carter-David: Good Morning, President Joe. Thank you for meeting with us. Now, I’ll start off with how I came to ask you to be part of this project. Of course, you’re the president of the University, so that makes sense. Well no, not necessarily, because the last president wouldn’t have been asked to be involved in the project. I thought about interviewing you because Tricia Lin [Director of the Women’s Studies program] suggested it.

President Joe: Okay.

Carter-David: Mainly because you are a college president who is known to be—in the short time that you’ve been here—really laid back and connected with the students and the faculty and staff people here on campus.

President Joe: Right.

Carter-David: I’m a fashion historian. I teach fashion history and try to get students to think about the fact that they just did not get up and put clothes on. That’s not a reality. You make very specific choices about what you were going to buy and how you were going to dress regardless of how much money you have to purchase your clothing. But I want this to also be about morale, the morale of the university. Right? But we decided to ask you to be a part of it because you’re known to be someone who we can find on campus in a suit, a sharp suit, and we can also find you on campus really laid back with jeans-

President Joe: Sure.

Carter-David: Looking casual.

President Joe: Sure.

Carter-David: I guess what I’d like to ask you first is, where do you find inspiration in your professional style? You can talk about a range of aesthetics. It might be a summertime sort of outfit like the one you have on now, something that’s maybe more formal in the winter, something casual. You may have shorts on next time I see you. I’m not sure.

President Joe: Well, first of all, this is not complex.

Carter-David: Okay.

President Joe: At least in my opinion.

Carter-David: Right.

President Joe: Now, you can analyze it any way you’d like. But my fashion is almost entirely determined by my husband. When he first met me in 1993 I wore a lot of the suits that would be put together on a mannequin in places like Chess King and what were known as Quails. All those places are out of business. But [it was] a very colorful, Italian style. Bill would tell you, “when I met him, he was wearing a mauve, mustard, or teal suit.” He would characterize that as a disaster.

Carter-David: I’m trying to picture it. Hmmm…

President Joe: So when Bill and I met he introduced me to khaki’s and button downs. I think we spent the first part of our relationship with me coming out of the bedroom and he would be like, “Go back in the bedroom. You are not wearing that.” Okay?

Carter-David: Right, right, right.

President Joe: I think that’s one piece. The second piece is I am fairly conservative. In my dress I don’t like too much color. A pop of color on a tie maybe or in a shirt. Where Bill would wear red or green pants. You will never [see me in that]. My colors are blue, brown, tan, gray. And I have lots of blues. Lots of blues. I have more blue shirts than you could possibly imagine. My preference is not to wear a jacket and tie if I don’t have to.

Now, when I worked in Vermont, fashion in Vermont centered on comfort. You lived in Vermont. It was cold. You dressed for comfort. That was it. If you wore a jacket and tie, you were also wearing a fleece vest. And winter boots.

President Joe reading Southern Magazine

Be More Daring.

So, when I came here, I realized I’m going to have to go buy things; I’d better go to the store and get some new suits because I’m going to have to do the jacket and tie thing. If I can get away with not wearing at least a tie, I try not to [wear one]. So, most of the time you’ll see me in a sport coat and a button down.

Carter-David: Okay. So, you’re conservative in terms of colors.

President Joe: Yes.

Carter-David: But at the same time, you don’t necessarily want to wear what its called “the non-uniform uniform,” which in fashion theory is a business suit with a tie, which supports the idea that covering up the neck is necessary because it doesn’t betray your personal self. That you can be “professional” that way. Not just because you might be covered with tattoos from the neck down but also because-

President Joe: Yeah. I like an open neck. And I particularly like wearing short sleeve shirts. But baggy short sleeve, like golf or bowling kind of shirts. That I can just move around in. That’s my preference. So yeah, conservative in color but not necessarily traditional and conservative in terms of the suit genre. But I always have jackets and ties in my closet around the corner, they’re ready to go.

Carter-David: Yes. Which is interesting because some of the other folks we interviewed for this project, and I agree with them, said the same thing. A blazer can dress anything up. So, I might be on campus and I know maybe I have a certain kind of thing I need to do or meeting that I need to go to and I’m on campus all day. A jacket can dress things up.

So, you have not just jackets but ties just in case, as well?

President Joe: Jackets and ties. And I encourage the team here to loosen their ties a bit, especially during the summer. I’m like, “Look, just don’t wear a tie.” Wear a polo shirt if you’re comfortable with that. I can’t get Mark Rozewski [Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration] to do that to save my life. We often joke about it. I said, “Are you going to wear something casual?” And he goes, “Mr. President, this is casual for me.” Yeah. But that’s fine. Whatever people are most comfortable with is fine with me. My preference is that I want them to be comfortable.

Carter-David: Well, that’s an interesting point. I have two questions. I’ll start with the first. You talked about Vermont. I know you said it’s cold there but Vermont’s also known to be a hippy kind of space, too, right?

President Joe: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Carter-David: To what extent has your dress as you’ve moved up through the administrative ranks dictated by the institution?

President Joe: Yes. It is dictated [by the institution] very much so. And sometimes by position. But not in the way you would think. I think that as you move up the ladder you actually have more fashion flexibility. When I was a hall director, our vice president made us wear a jacket and tie all the time, which I just thought was the most ridiculous thing. And her position was, if you want to be treated like a professional, dress like one.

Carter-David: Dress for the job you want, they say.

President Joe: This person who’s in X role, they’re not dressed to the 9s. I get it. I think it depends on the institution.

I worked at Barnard, for example. I was a dean there. It’s a highly selective liberal arts women’s institution in New York City. I rarely wore a tie. I could always wear khakis and a button down. And I think part of it was that if you worked at Barnard, the rest didn’t matter.

Carter-David: Right, right, right, right. Exactly.

President Joe: The fashion thing was completely superficial. It was about intellectual conversation and intellectual discourse. Not that it wasn’t in other places, but it was Barnard.President Joe Interview Photo

Carter-David: Right. I feel the same way, just a bit off of the fashion context: I went to a historical black college for undergrad and I feel like in the ways in which African Americans have to consistently fight for the kind of respect that racism doesn’t allow us to get in public spaces, we made sure that it happened at HBCUs by, for example, always calling professors that had their doctorates “Doctor.” You only see that in historically black colleges. In rare cases you might have English professors who have MFAs, so you call them “Professor.” But I just felt like, in a space like Barnard, where you don’t have to fight for respect because you’re already of the acknowledged elite, in that context, you can be more relaxed with things.

President Joe: That’s right.

Carter-David: So, then I started attending other institutions. I got my PhD from Indiana University. I think the undergrads still call the professors “Professor,” but it wasn’t “Doctor.” And then, we called the professors in grad school by their first names. Anyway, I don’t know if that happens at HBCUs. That’s just a thought.

President Joe: That’s interesting. It’s an interesting observation.

Carter-David: Oh, yeah. “Doctor.”

President Joe: I do think that when I went to Queen’s College I did wear a jacket and tie a lot, primarily because the president did. I was always in meetings. So there was very little flexibility. I think when I became a president one of the first things I said when I got to Lyndon [University] was, “I’m not going to wear a tie if I don’t have to.”

And some people were not happy with that. They felt that I should. I said that it was my prerogative. When I was going to see the chancellor, when I was having certain meetings or [entertaining] certain guests, but if it was just [office staff], I’m not going to wear a tie. And I don’t have an expectation that you do, either.

Carter-David: Right.

President Joe: And I think folks took to that pretty quickly. I think when I came here my position was pretty much the same. Again, I think it depends on the meetings, what we have to do, where we have to be. And some people love wearing the tie.

Carter-David: Everybody would prefer [the suit]. They feel more comfortable when they have a suit on. There are some people like that.

President Joe: But not me.

Carter-David: I don’t know how long you may have been on the assistant/associate level as a professor, but do you think that some of this varies by discipline? I talk to students a lot about not just the profession they might go into but also what dress expectation might look like within that profession. So, I’m a historian, I’m a fashion historian. I think that I can present in a way that perhaps a professor in a business school wouldn’t be able to or the school of education might do things differently. When you were a professor, in that position, do you feel like it changed?

President Joe: Well, I actually did not come to the presidency from the professoriate. I had faculty rank as an associate professor at Queens [College], but my entire career has been exclusively in administration. But I do think it depends. Whether it’s the academic discipline or whether it’s the area of the college. I was in student affairs, so there was always a comfort level. I’m hanging out with students. I think if I had been in business affairs, if I had been in institutional advancement you might see me in a jacket and tie. Where if I had been in admissions, I might be in a polo or a button down. It’s a bit more informal. So I do think a lot depends on what position you’re in, what department you’re in, what discipline you’re in, what position you’re in.

I mean, if you walk around this campus there’s certainly a diversity of attire. If I walk into institutional advancement, everybody there who is raising money and working with alumni are wearing ties. But if I go behind the screen, behind the wall in Wintergreen and I go to payroll, everyone one there is sitting in cubicles and you’re not going to find anybody dressed up. They’re in jeans, they’re in polos. They’re rolling up their sleeves. They’re not really interacting with anybody but each other.  I think that matters, too.

Now today, I threw on a jacket because it was orientation and I met family members and you were coming to do pictures. Had that not been happening, today would’ve been one of those days where I give myself permission over the summer to wear a very baggy, short sleeve button down. I must have 20 of these hanging in my closet. They’re the only short sleeve shirts I wear. They’re cut straight at the bottom. I can wear them at work and not at work and be comfortable. They can still be appropriate [either way].

Carter-David: Okay. Well, with that in mind, because I’m thinking about your short sleeve shirts that you like, I want you to think a little bit about this: So, you’ve been through the administrative ranks. You’ve seen people who are in different roles as women and men and they are asked to present different ways. I asked Tricia Lin some of these questions, her being a feminist and director of our Women and Gender Studies program here. I’m thinking about Michelle Obama and the pushback she got from showing her arms as the First Lady. And then you saying, well, you might wear the short sleeve shirt if you want a more casual day.

Not being a woman, could you think about how your role might be different in terms of how you might present yourself if you were a woman—in terms of what you’ve seen in regard to people at the highest level of administration and higher education and presentation? I know the former president. Do you remember her? She always had a suit on.

Steve: She did.

Carter-David: Always. She always had a skirt suit and it was always past her knees and I suppose if you’re a college president you have to do certain kinds of things in terms of dress, but I also think about women in those kinds of positions. I was just wondering if you had any take on gender in terms of higher administration and education and higher education and dress?

President Joe: I think it depends. Again, I have seen and been mentored by some amazing women who have served at the presidential level who will certainly be wearing business attire. But I’m like, “You may as well be wearing Chanel because it’s not just about the actual clothes themselves, but it’s how they fit, and the accessories. It’s like when a man dresses up, does he have a little color here, a little color here? And I think those things tend to distinguish who’s the more conservative, who’s a little bit less conservative, who’s more of a risk taker. If you’re wearing the blues and the grays below the knee with a basic black shoe-

Carter-David: A “sensible shoe”…

President Joe: I’m going to wear a pop of color. I’m going to wear a heel. And I’m going to have on the following jewelry or whatever. I think those things can distinguish you. In some ways. Like I said, when I wear a suit I tend to always wear a pop of color. In the shirt and the tie. I don’t own a single white shirt. Not one. In terms of a dress shirt, I do not own a traditional white dress shirt. In fact, with the exception of blue, I don’t think I have any dress shirts that don’t have a pattern.

“I don’t own a single white shirt. In fact, with the exception of blue, I don’t think I have any dress shirts that don’t have a pattern.”

I do think that gender plays into this quite a bit.

How you are addressed, how you are perceived. And I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it at the highest levels. It’s a double-edged sword depending on the institution. If you dress a certain way that is, if you’ll excuse the expression, a bit “frumpy” for some individuals, that actually reinforces the academic college president role.

Carter-David: Oh yes. Yes. And even academic roles amongst the professors. It’s like, in order to be taken seriously, you can’t look like you put too much energy into your dress.

President Joe: But it depends on the institution you’re president of. If you’re Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia, okay? You are going to look very conservative. But if you’re Judith Genshaft at the University of Southern Florida, it’s a very different look. But those institutions are very different. So, I think it depends.

Carter-David: Here’s another question about gender that I think is interesting. I didn’t think about it until I was looking at you just now. A lot of my work is in the 1970s and 1980s, so I do post-Civil Rights black cultural history. I’m publishing a piece on black men’s grooming in the 80s corporate environment. There’s a lot on the clean-shaven look and what that’s supposed to mean in a corporate context. And yet, the beard has come back in.

President Joe: Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it?

Carter-David: So I’m just wondering if there’s any sort of politics around that. This is really the last 10 years. In the 80s, certain men who were in particular positions would always be clean-shaven. The reason why it’s an issue for black men in particular was because when you have curly hair you’re more likely to get ingrown hairs. So there was a whole discourse happening for proper shaving for men and then even some black nationalist sentiment around why black men shouldn’t shave. So I’m just curious about the beard and how that plays into your role. It’s changed a lot. I mean, this is not corporate America necessarily, but I wonder what the beard means for you.

President Joe: No. Actually, the reason for the beard is… I gained weight. And so I just noticed my face was rounder and so, I was like, “You know, I wonder if I grow a beard if it’ll give me a little bit more shape and a little more sculpture.” So I decided to try it. And I liked it. And others liked it. Bill [my partner] hates it. It was only supposed to be a week thing. And so now I’ve had it for several months.

Carter-David: Oh, you didn’t have it when you got here?

President Joe: No. No, I didn’t. Well, part of what is interesting here is in some ways my whole look has changed. Particularly because it’s mostly gray, I’m a university president. And so, it becomes part of the presidential fashion. Or the presidential aura that your particular age [conveys]. I’m a middle aged white man and I have gray hair and I put on my glasses and it is like “oh yes, of course I can see that you’re a university professor.”  So I think I’ve even been surprised. I was like, “Gosh.” And the number of comments, particularly from friends. Oh, now we’ve moved from the little college in Vermont to a bigger university in the city in New Haven so you’re looking the part. That certainly wasn’t my intent but it’s interesting to hear other’s perspectives on that. Yeah.

Carter-David: Two last questions then I’ll let you go.

President Joe: Sure.

Carter-David: The first is about your idea of dress at the university level. A lot of my anecdotes are about what I do, African American history, so I am curious about what you think about this. So, in the epilogue of my book I talk about how there’s a range of dress codes in which African Americans are sort of imposing respectability politics in an intra-racial context.

My understanding is that even to this very day, at Hampton University [a historically black college], this was certainly the case five years ago, will not allow people formally in the business school to have afros or natural hair styles. And even when I was at Morgan State, [another historically black college] the last semester I was there they were doing a promotional video and didn’t want anybody with natural hair in the video and everybody went crazy. We were pissed.

President Joe: Interesting.

Carter-David: So I’m just curious about what you feel about dress codes. And I think Southern is not necessarily like that but I’m just curious being that you’re someone who feels more comfortable with people being able to express themselves through fashion and dress in ways that make sense to them. I’m wondering how you feel about preparing our students for careers by enforcing a dress code? To me is doesn’t matter much; I’m a history professor. But it might matter in the school of ed. It might matter more in the business school.

President Joe: I certainly have no interest in enforcing a dress code, but I do think it’s important for us to educate our students on what the expectations are when they leave here, whether they agree with them or not. I mean, you can choose not to fall into what is expected, but be prepared for the reaction you may or may not get. So if you’re going to go to a job interview, for example, you don’t show up in jeans and a t-shirt. Students might argue with me, “Well, why do we need to do that? I should be judged on my work.” You should. But are you? And do people take a look at your work if they’re already judging you on your attire? Research shows that most people make up their minds about somebody in the first 30 seconds. And students will often say to me, “Well, no. No, no, no.” And I would say to them, “So, the freshman showed up this year. You looked across the quad. You saw X student and they looked like X or they dressed like X or they carry X. And you immediately told the story.” I’m not making a judgment call here. I’m just sharing part of our reality.

And so I ask students to be cognizant of it. I also ask faculty and staff to do the same. I haven’t experienced this here, but I have experienced it at other places where folks are sloppy. And here’s how I define that: When a potential parent of a student or a potential students comments on it and it impacts whether or not they will come here.

Carter-David: Oh, wow.

President Joe: Because I don’t think that folks realize how you present yourself [matters]. There’s a lot of competition, so how we present ourselves has an impact because a parent will sit back and go, “That person looks like a slob. I don’t want them teaching my kid.”

Carter-David: Right, right, right.

President Joe: Welcome to my reality. And so I always share with folks that I’ll certainly never tell you what to wear, but if there was a situation where there was an issue, would I ask a chair or a dean to provide that person with some counsel and advice and let them know how that impacts our students, sure I would.

Carter-David: Professors always say start off the semester wearing a blazer—I mean, it’s an exaggeration—and you can end wearing jeans.

President Joe: You’re building a relationship.  At the end of the day, are you approachable? Now, that may mean jeans and flip flops and a t-shirt. I think it varies but I think that’s really the question. In our community, are we approachable to one another? And I have to understand my audience. So, for my students, I can put on some shorts and throw on some flip-flops. I’m good to go. And for the Board of Regents I better be wearing a jacket and tie.

Carter-David: I don’t know how often you walk into Earl Hall, where Steve [the photography student] must be most of his time, but it’s a totally different world. I love it. I took an art class once and I just love walking into that building because it’s like you’re in a different world. Everybody’s just so funky and cool over there.

Steve: It’s the vibe you get.

Carter-David: I like it. I like it. All right. Last question, which might seem like the silliest question but I’ll just end there. Two parts. The first one I suspect you won’t have an answer for because you kind of answered that at the beginning, but would you define yourself as part of a style community? In that way, I kind of think you’re like my husband where he’s like, “No, I’m not part of any style community. I wear my khakis and my shirts. Leave me alone.”

But then I’m going to ask another question and I think you might have an answer to this. Who are your style inspirations? If you had to sort of think about someone.

President Joe: I actually have an answer to both.

Carter-David: Okay.

President Joe: I have become a member of a style community and I didn’t expect it to happen. And it is a sign of my privilege. I’m very cognizant of this. It is interesting that I have reached a point where almost every piece of clothing I own has come from one store that I used to say, “That is the old white man’s store.” It’s where the white business guys go. It’s Brooks Brothers.

“I have become a member of a style community and I didn’t expect it to happen. And it is a sign of my privilege…. It’s where the white business guys go. It’s Brooks Brothers.”

Carter-David: Okay. That’s what I was going to ask. Okay, okay.

President Joe: Yep. All I know is that over time I bought clothes. I liked the way the fit. I liked the way they feel. And so now the vast majority of my wardrobe comes from this place and less from a Kohl’s or a JC Penney’s or wherever. But I also think that has changed as my resources have changed. When I think about, and I think this is true for Bill [my partner], as well, in a way. I said to him, “You know, when we first started our relationship 24 years ago, you worked at The Gap so that you could get free clothes, okay?” And we didn’t have anything. But we got all kinds of free clothes from The Gap. We were in Brooks Brothers the other day and I just chuckled and I said, “You know, isn’t it interesting? We went from The Gap then we moved up to Banana Republic and then-

Carter-David: J Crew?

President Joe: And then we moved up to J Crew, yes, J Crew and then we moved up to Polo and then we spent most of our time between Polo and Macy’s. And now it’s Macy’s and then you go to Lord and Taylor’s or Neiman Marcus… and then Brooks Brothers.” And he would say, “Well, they’re good clothes.” And I said, “Yes, but they are clothes that we can wear because of our privilege.” So I do think that privilege has a huge impact. And I don’t think I ever appreciated it before until we cleaned out closets recently and I found clothes from-

Carter-David: Old Navy? Gap?

President Joe: Yeah. I’m like, “Wow. When’s the last time we even experienced that store?” And that doesn’t get lost on me. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be in that place but, yeah. I can’t remember what the other question was.

Carter-David: Style inspirations.

President Joe: So, yeah. So now my style is privileged middle-aged white man. Okay? Which, as you know, I think you know, Bill and I have a son of color and he often reminds us. He works at a historically black university. Delaware State University. And so, we’ll show up and he’ll be like, “You guys are like my gay white dads.”

In terms of inspirations, I don’t know if I have an inspiration. I’ll give the credit where it belongs. Bill’s been the inspiration. Because I don’t know if I really would have cared one way or another until he intervened. I can’t match things to save my life. I am a good client for Garanimals for adults because if, and I do have a habit if I buy a suit…

“I am a good client for Garanimals for adults.”

First of all, I don’t buy any clothes without Bill present. Let’s start there. And every time I do it’s a major fail. And so he’ll say, “Okay. We’re going to buy these pants.” And then he has to lay it out. Here are three shirts that go with these pants and here are the ties. I will never divert from what he has matched.  Never. Yeah. So, I guess he’s the inspiration.

Carter-David: All right. Final, final question and you can choose not to share.

President Joe: You can ask me as many questions as you want.

Carter-David: Any body adornment that we might be surprised to know about that we can’t see just looking at you?

President Joe: No. No. I’m going to be a huge disappointment to you. No. Bill and I are entirely opposite in this regard. Completely. I think he has eight or nine tattoos and several body piercings. I have none of the above.  Now, and this is interesting because when we first started dating, he had just finished graduate school. And he’s always had earrings. Always. And I remember saying to him, “If you’re going to a job interview, you need to take those out.” Well, he was just appalled. He said, “I am not taking out these earrings.” And he and I had very different viewpoints on that. Never, of course, stopped him from getting a job but it’s interesting to think about what I was thinking back in 1994. And when he got tattoos, particularly when he started to get the sleeve, I’d be like, “Are you intending to wear short sleeves to work?” He’d be like, “Seriously?” So I would be highly conservative in that regard. Now, I wouldn’t be phased one way or another. But there was a time when I would’ve been. Yeah. But now I’m pretty boring.

Carter-David: Well, I get it. I guess I’m the generation of faculty members who’ve come up with tattoos. I think students are a little bit more flexible than they may have been, I don’t know, even 10 or 15 years ago to see faculty members that look “different.” But we’re still covered up when we’re interviewing [for jobs].

President Joe: Yeah. Was that helpful?

Carter-David: Yes. Thank you so much. Perfect.