Bridgeport Regional Business Council Keynote Speech

It’s wonderful to be here with you this evening. I'd like to begin by thanking both Mickey and Dan for their past and current service to the community in their leadership positions with the BRBC. 

I am glad to see so many friends, UB supporters and trustees here. I am honored to give this year’s keyote and am pleased to speak about a few of my favorite subjects.  I’ll confess, I’m a bit relieved that my talk follows my election to the BRBC, now I don’t have to worry about passing the audition. I hope that you’ll indulge me as I introduce myself and share my impressions of this wonderful community and the treasured institution of which I’m now a part.

I'm one of the University of Bridgeport’s newest members and the institution’s tenth and—I think I’m right about this—tallest president. The fall semester is nearly over and it’s been fantastic. 

We’ve all taken the Plunge, ridden a Bird e-scooter, created three new colleges, initiated the Bridgeport Plan, christened the first STEM bus in Connecticut bringing hand’s-on experiments to schoolchildren about robotics, real-time satellite data, engineering and math, welcomed back over two thousand alumni for Homecoming, and we’ve raised nearly a quarter million dollars to bring back bowling to UB. 

With all this excitement I can hardly wait for 2019. 

I love living in Bridgeport both for its golden history and for its shining future. I’m a student of the 19th century and well aware that I’m living in PT Barnum territory. As I meet our students, staff, and faculty, alumni and community members I’m reminded of Barnum’s observation, “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” And for the past 91 years, the University of Bridgeport has boldly fulfilled its unique mission of translating education into careers, and turning visionary ideas into sustainable futures. Our mission serves our students and our students carry that mission everywhere from classrooms at Roosevelt Elementary to boardrooms on Wall Street to start ups in Mumbai.

Barnum’s presence is still felt in Bridgeport and on the UB campus his imprint is everywhere. The campus was constructed on forty acres of his former property. The gate to his last home, Marina where UB's cafeteria stands today, is in front of the expansive green that he donated to the City. I enjoy eating lunch in Marina, and I gaze out its picture window and have the same view of the Long Island Sound that Barnum did.

I live in Waldemere, the magnificent home Barnum built for his beloved youngest daughter, Pauline Taylor Barnum Seeley. She lived there with her husband, Nathan Seeley, a local Bridgeport stockbroker and three children. My housemates include my bulldog and three cats along with any number of family members—whose interest in visiting me—by the way—suddenly peaked after I described how close my new home is to the shores of Long Island Sound. I take particular pleasure in welcoming members of the University of Bridgeport community into my home. 

It may be time to confess something to you, my new friends, the rumors are true, I am a Mark Twain scholar. That’s right, Mark Twain, the only person in America to rival P.T. Barnum’s hutzpah, and entrepreneurial imagination. If Twain had the idea to own his own circus and name it after himself, trust me he would have. Twain first visited Barnum’s American Museum in his teens on a visit to New York City, and a year later he was welcomed into Barnum’s fabulous Bridgeport home, Iranistan.

Twain admired the Park City and paid it homage in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Twain scholars envy Barnum and have reluctantly concluded that Twain only came close to challenging Barnum’s position as the leading celebrity of the Gilded Age. But I’ll leave it to the two of them to fight it out.

These days, I feel not just part of the UB family, but also drawn into PT Barnum’s as well—just don’t tell my colleagues in the Mark Twain Circle. Everywhere I look, I see shadows of his life and evidence of his genius.

While a lot has happened in Bridgeport and at UB since Barnum’s time, there are some striking similarities, as Mark Twain remarked: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Bridgeport is a city of firsts and so is the University of Bridgeport. Here are just a few examples:

  • PT served as the mayor of Bridgeport; our current mayor of Bridgeport is none other Joe Ganim, a UB graduate, UB father and adjunct faculty member. Joe, you are aware I personally read all the student evaluations?
  • PT was among a group of community leaders who founded the Bridgeport Hospital and served as its first president. UB’s school of nursing, the first in Connecticut to have a BSN program, has had a long and strong relationship with Bridgeport Hospital and is one of our fastest growing programs; in fact, my chief of staff just had her baby there two and half weeks ago and was attended by expert UB nursing grads.
  • Now P.T. Barnum was a quintessential business man and the biggest entrepreneur of his day. He knew how to sell just about anything and had a keen instinct for knowing the public’s appetite. In a more literary vein, one of his nicknames was the “Shakespeare of Advertising.” UB’s Trefz School of Business, honors Ernest Trefz who was a UB trustee for over 30 years and his remarkable success as an entrepreneur. Ernst Trefz possessed a pretty sharp ability himself in judging the public’s appetite, after all he owned nearly four dozen McDonald’s restaurants. The distinguished Trefz School of Business includes an MBA concentration in Entrepreneurship and the Student Entrepreneur Center. Barnum would have loved to have known Ernie Trefz and probably would have wanted to go into business with him.
  • PT also sold land to Elisa Howe, inventor of the first practical sewing machine in 1845. The sewing machine was one of the 19th century’s greatest engineering marvels and 200 a day were manufactured in Bridgeport. My mother owned one of Howe’s machines and gave it to me. A 21st-century marvel of engineering can be found in UB’s College of Engineering, Business, and Education where we are proud to have the largest graduate engineering program in Connecticut and the second largest graduate engineering school in New England. Right now, our Engineering faculty and PhD students are working on evolutionary robotics, forget about everyday AI, this is where robots re-create robots that have electro-mechanical components, cameras, and sensory equipment. They can look like kittens or submarines. Really, they can take any shape or form. Water, air, land. Self-reproduction, self-reparability, self-reconfiguration. Can you imagine what PT Barnum would have done with this technology in his circus? 

As ever-present as memory of PT may be, the University of Bridgeport has evolved in ways that would astonish even the master of the center ring. UB is a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary engine of change and innovation. We have for generations encouraged first-generation college students to excel.

UB boasts the Fones School of Dental Hygiene, the first such school established in the world. The Fones School enabled women to become economically self-sufficient at a time when there were few such opportunities. 

We partnered with the Peace Corps to found New England’s first Peace Corps Preparatory Program and every year our students are among the top award winners at model UN competitions around the world; we offered the first PhD in computer science and engineering in the Northeast, and recently we opened the first high-tech incubator in Fairfield County. But we’re a modest sort. As Twain said, “I was modest; not all over, but in spots.” We, too, are modest in spots at UB.
Bridgeport's growth—and the University’s growth—have been fueled by immigrants, and opportunities here have attracted immigration from overseas. In the 1920’s, immigrant neighborhoods were located mostly south of the railroad line, effectively in the same area where the University stands today, near the factories and to the shore and included eastern and southern Europeans, Scandinavians and Irish. 

And this is one more way in which UB feels so familiar to me, and why I find its mission and history so remarkable. While it may appear I’m far away from home, a native Californian, my family’s roots are close by. My father, born in New York City in 1919, was the second son of Slovakian parents who were part of the greatest wave of immigration between 1880 and 1920, a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization, when America welcomed more than 20 million immigrants. Both parents became too ill to care for their children and my father spent his early years at the Happy Valley orphanage with my uncle Frank, in Pomona, N.Y., just an hour away. I am a second generation college graduate having attended my father’s alma mater Pepperdine University.

Bridgeport and the University’s futures are bound together with UB contributing, according to the last economic survey, $435 million on an annual basis to the local economy in terms of spending.

UB has always been a University of immigrants, and we were founded as a secular, co-educational institution and remain so today. The University has also mirrored Bridgeport’s diversity. Today we welcome students from forty-five states and eighty countries. Over 50 languages are spoken on campus and that doesn’t include coding languages. The majority of our students are first generation and most come from Connecticut. Our Latino and African American STEM students comprise 26% of the total graduating class, 4 percent higher than the national average, and we have an even stronger story to tell with over 50 percent of our graduating class composed of Latino and African American students, 10% higher than the national average. And I’m very proud to announce that according to USNews, UB is number one in the Northern region as the most diverse private, secular university.

You might be wondering what is ahead for UB. Today we have 5,400 students, 161 full-time faculty, and 322 staff. Our alumni total 65,000. In Health Sciences, we are moving into the fields of pain management, cancer care, and sports medicine and in fall 2019 we will be hosting a national conference addressing the opioid crisis. This spring we will be the site for the Women’s Gymnastics National Championship. We are adding two new majors to our offerings in our College of Arts and Sciences, a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre. Also in fall 2019, we will unveil The Bridgeport Plan, a unique student pathway that capitalizes on the mission of UB to prepare socially conscious graduates for the careers of tomorrow in a global community. As part of The Bridgeport Plan we will double our local community service from 50,000 hours to 100,000. Over the next year we will dramatically increase the number of paid internships available for our students as well as multiply opportunities for students desiring to study overseas. 

I’ll give PT the last word here, after all this is his city not Twain’s, and it exemplifies UB’s ethos: 

“Whatever you do, do it with all your might. Work at it, if necessary, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now. The old proverb is full of truth and meaning, ‘Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.’ . . .”

And speaking of drive, you might have heard that the University of Bridgeport women’s soccer team just won its first NCAA championship in the institution’s history. 

Just a few comments about the team: There are 250 teams nationwide and 58 teams that took part in the NCAA Championship Tournament.

We beat one of the historically best DII programs in the country. Nine of the last 10 years they progressed to the Final Four. Our goalie, senior Jennifer Wendelius, a marketing major, posted the best GPA (3.98) of all the women’s soccer players in the Final Four. Forward Maegen Doyle was one of the top scorers in the nation netting a single-season school record of 28 goals and three assists for 59 points this year. She was also named to the All-American list based on her playing abilities and being one of the nation’s leading scorers.
The team is represented by players from six countries:  the U.S., Sweden, Brazil, Norway, the Netherlands, and the UK. The players’ talent, hard work, and brave hearts along with excellent UB coaching from our own Magnus Nilerud ‘97 won the day. Congratulations as well to our fantastic athletic director Anthony Vitti ’03.

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