Southern Connecticut State University’s institutional commitment to social justice has been enhanced by a gift from an alumnus and prominent attorney.
Neil Thomas Proto, ’67, who had earlier set up an endowed scholarship at Southern for students planning to attend law school, has now established a Scholar and Civic Fund in Law and Social Justice at the university.
This fund will support annual scholarly and performance-based presentations throughout the academic year in various media, including lecture, course- and community-based study, theatrical productions, movies, music, and art works. Each presentation, in and out of the classroom, will draw on the themes of law and social justice, while promoting students’ civic engagement.
Proto said he was inspired to establish the fund because of Southern’s “practical and moral embrace of social justice” under the leadership of President Joe Bertolino. This resonated with the experience of Proto’s Italian immigrant forbears, who “knew and witnessed discrimination” against immigrants and African American migrants arriving in New Haven in the early 20th century.
Collectively, his mother and grandparents “brought with them two values passed on generationally,” Proto said. “The first was civic duty. The second was fairness. In the end, both values are about aspiration in America. Grand, bold, determined and fought for.”
President Bertolino said that Proto’s gift would further define Southern’s unique efforts to produce civic-minded students and help effect positive change.
“As a public institution built on access and affordability, it’s vital that we connect with the community, helping to resolve challenges and working collaboratively to create opportunities,” he said. “One way we do that is through our commitment to social justice — enhancing understanding and acceptance on our campus and beyond.”
A retired partner with Washington, D.C., law firms, Proto has made his mark in numerous professional fields since graduating from Southern with a degree in history and subsequently earning a master’s degree in international affairs and a Juris Doctor degree at George Washington University.
His public service in the United States Department of Justice and private practice in law includes 45 years of experience in land use, environmental, and federal litigation, as well as teaching assignments at Yale and Georgetown universities. Widely held as a leading environmental litigator, he has represented Native Hawaiians, fought against the construction of highways on civil rights grounds, shopping malls, the use of natural resources, and harm to Indian reservations.
He also sat on the board of directors of the Shubert and Long Wharf theaters in New Haven, chaired two mayoral inaugurations, served as chair of the city of New Haven’s Committee for the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Execution of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, and his play, The Reckoning, which premiered in Seattle, had an earlier stage reading in Southern’s John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts. Working with director Tony Giordano, he also co-adapted from the original Dutch the musical drama, The American Dream, The Story of Sacco and Vanzetti, which was performed at the Shubert in April 2002.
Student body president at Southern in his senior year, Proto gave the commencement address in 1976 and received Southern’s Outstanding Alumnus Award in 1981.
“Many graduates, myself included, always embraced Southern’s valued place in our lives,’’ he said. “I applaud Southern’s ongoing imperative under President Bertolino to educate, inspire, and elevate the meaning of law and social justice. “