WASHINGTON — After 12 years as president of The Catholic University of America, Father David O’Connell surveyed the landscape of his life and the school.
He decided it was time to hand the reins off to someone else.
“I believe that universities are always a work in progress and it’s important for the leadership to change,” said Father O’Connell, a priest of the Congregation of the Mission. “Although I don’t have a term of office, I think terms of office are there for a reason. The institution is at a point of good stability and security, and I think it’s time to hand it over to someone with the energy and vision and commitment to move it to the next level.”
He will step down at the end of August 2010.
“Catholic University is such an important part of my life, and I think I’ve made a modest contribution to its growth,” he added. “But I think the time has come for a change. I don’t want the university to become complacent or static as it has been in the past.”
Although he has received offers for jobs, he does not know what his future will hold yet.
“I haven’t made a commitment to anything else,” said Father O’Connell, 54, the second-longest-serving president in the history of the university, which is known as the national university of the Church. “I’m really waiting for the Lord to show his hand, as he has in the past.”
He has been busy during the past 12 years. The university has gone through record growth in enrollment, fundraising and endowment. But Father O’Connell pointed to the restoration of the university’s Catholic identity as one of the foremost accomplishments during his tenure.
Some of the other accomplishments — which were the result of “many sets of fingerprints,” he said — were a renewed emphasis on campus ministry, the building up of a strong faculty, the stabilization of finances and enrollment, and fundraising. So far, the university has raised about $180 million during his time there, he said.
His tenure, however, has not been without some critics. A former professor, Father Raymond Collins, said Father O’Connell had, at times, a difficult relationship with some of the professors.
“He did not seem to be able to dialogue with professors as colleagues and professional people, and that was difficult for some professors,” said Father Collins, the former dean of theology and religious studies, who was forced to resign as dean in 1999 and retired from the university in 2006. The resignation was over what Father Collins said was an injustice he perceived on the part of the university in a sexual harassment case involving one of his colleagues. Father Collins added that the problem Father O’Connell had in relating to professors was not related to his resignation.
Father Collins also said that, though strong on pro-life issues, Father O’Connell was “less strong” on Catholic social teachings.
Emphasized the ‘Catholic’
But the leader of a group that acts as a watchdog organization for Catholic higher education had nothing but praise for Father O’Connell.
“There were serious problems at the university that is known as the bishops’ university, and Father O’Connell came in and perhaps more than anyone else was able to clearly articulate a vision of genuine Catholic education that, if not having completely transformed Catholic University, has set it on a road that I think is irreversible, and I’m sure his successor will continue that process,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to strengthening and renewing Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities.
Reactions to the news of Father O’Connell’s stepping down ranged from nostalgia to appreciation.
“His coming was a real breath of fresh air,” said Robert Craves, a member of the university’s board of trustees. “He is certainly leaving the university in far better shape than when he took over.”
One example of that, said Ernest Suarez, the chairman of the English Department, is in academics.
“What he has done is improve the academic quality of the university, overall, to an incredible degree,” said Suarez, who has taught at the school since 1991. “I think he transformed the university. He has not been just a good president: He has been an extraordinary one.”
Msgr. Kevin Irwin, dean of theology and religious studies, referred to Father O’Connell’s leadership as “encouraging, insightful and respectful” and noted how focused Father O’Connell was on making sure others noticed the Catholic part of Catholic University’s name.
“From the beginning, Father [O’Connell] wanted to make sure that he emphasized the Catholic in Catholic University of America,” said Msgr. Irwin. “So, Catholic identity, Catholic mission, a Catholic way of looking at the world: That is very much what he has done, and he has re-instilled the values of being a Catholic university.”
From a former student’s perspective, the university will miss someone who related well to the students.
“If you walked with Father through campus, he would know one out of five people and say hello to them by name,” said David Pennington, who graduated in 2007. “What the university will miss the most about him is his availability, his presence and his sense of humor.”
In looking back at his years at the university, Father O’Connell said his favorite anecdote occurred during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the campus to give a speech to educators in April 2008. He and the Holy Father were riding an elevator together right before the speech, and Father O’Connell said the Pope turned to him and said, “I know what you’ve done here at this university, and you have made it a great university, a Catholic university, and the Church is grateful.”
Father O’Connell continued: “In those moments, I said to myself, ‘All the effort, all the tension at times, sometimes the arguments and the resistance, sometimes a little discouragement, other times a sense of success and moving forward’ — all of that kind of came together in that remark and said to me, ‘Whatever sacrifice was involved in this, serving in this position was worth it.’”
Carlos Briceño writes
from Naperville, Illinois.