Catholic University President the Rev. David M. O’Connell, credited with raising at least $180 million for the institution and steering the school back into Catholic orthodoxy, announced Friday he will resign in August to pursue other interests.
The 54-year-old president, who arrived 11 years ago to a campus divided over the firing of dissident theologian Charles Curran more than a decade earlier, has had a tenure that has included a major growth spurt and a 2008 papal visit.
“I am feeling a little bit tired,” said Father O’Connell, who lost 80 pounds this past year while battling diabetes. “There is a time when it’s good for the institution to have a change and that time has arrived. I helped do a lot of things Catholic University desperately needed at the time and there is a momentum going now that there was not going before.
“But I don’t want it to get to the place where things get complacent.”
Once he and his Jack Russell terrier “Sweetie” leave the campus, he hopes to take a six-month sabbatical, a benefit he has never enjoyed in his 28 years as a priest. He’d also like to write and study Spanish until either his religious order - the Vincentians - or the Vatican gives him another assignment.
“I’ve had some bishops say, ‘Don’t worry about what you’re going to do next,’ ” joked the president who is widely thought to be in consideration for one of several vacant bishoprics across the country.
When Father O’Connell, then 42, was selected from more than 100 candidates as the university’s 14th president in March 1998, he was the second-youngest man to assume the post. He had just come from stints at St. John’s University in New York, where he was associate vice president and academic dean, and as interim academic vice president at Niagara University, also in New York.
He arrived at an institution riven by the tenure of Father Curran, who in 1968 led 600 theologians in a spirited opposition to “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s encyclical opposing artificial birth control.
“The Charles Curran case branded Catholic University as a hotbed of dissent even though that may have been exaggerated,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a Manassas group that monitors Catholic colleges’ fidelity to church teachings.
“There were serious concerns in the area of student life in the residence halls - a lot of partying and sexual activity there - and then a number of faculty who dissented from Catholic teaching,” he added.
“The bishops on the board of Catholic University made a decision years ago that it ought to be a model for the implementation of ‘Ex Corde Ecclesiae,’ the Vatican mandate for how Catholic universities should be structured and governed. Father O’Connell came in with that mandate.”
Father O’Connell said Friday that CUA’s status as a pontifical university, which has the Vatican’s authority to issue academic degrees in canon law, theology, Scripture and philosophy that carry the church’s imprimatur, spurred him to institute reforms.
“His name has come up every day I’ve been here in some shape or form,” he said of Father Curran. “It was the most problematic situation ever faced by Catholic University.”
He added, “It was important to restore confidence in the catholicity of the university. If there is any accomplishment to point to, it is the restoration of Catholic identity. There were people here eager to see the university turn around, but there was a vocal minority that had a stranglehold on things.”
Within a few years, the priest had succeeded, said communications strategist Edward Gillespie, a member of CUA’s board of trustees who graduated from CUA in 1983.
“Father O’Connell has been the most consequential president of Catholic University of America since I began as a student there 30 years ago,” he said. “The impact he’s had on alumni relations, development, quality of student life - he has really laid a strong foundation on which his successor can build.”
The new president started on a round of construction, building a $27 million university center, three new residence halls, a fitness center, major renovations in numerous campus buildings, wireless technology around the campus and new landscaping to spruce up the place.
“When the board asked me what I thought of the grounds, I said it was a dump,” Father O’Connell said of the interviews he had before assuming the presidency.
He also bought 49 acres of new property for $23 million just west of the campus for future development.
Twelve years ago, he said, CUA’s operating budget was $170 million. It is now $200 million. Its endowment rose from $114 million to $224 million during his tenure.
The highlight of his career, he said, was Pope Benedict XVI’s campus visit last year, which attracted media from around the world. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope had given the final approval to dismiss Father Curran and to hire Father O’Connell in 1998. It only took four days to get the approval and, Father O’Connell noted, “[former Washington] Cardinal [James] Hickey told me at the time it was the fastest response he’d seen by the Vatican.”
CUA’s board of trustees met in Denver this week to discuss a successor and establish a search committee. Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, chairman of the board, who called Father O’Connell’s tenure one of “notable success,” will lead the search process. The board hopes to have a new president by Sept. 1, 2010.
“Father O’Connell has served CUA exceptionally well as president,” said Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, the university chancellor. “During his tenure, he brought the university to a renewed sense of its Catholic identity and a high level of academic achievement. I rejoice that he also focused on the quality of student life, promoting the appreciation of students for their faith.”