University President Msgr. Robert Sheeran, 63, announced to the Seton Hall community early on Thursday morning that he will be stepping down from his position effective June 1, 2010.
The announcement came through a broadcast e-mail marked as completed by Sheeran at 12:30 a.m. It was sent to those on the school's e-mail server at 4:49 a.m.
Sheeran's message cites the decision as being "spiritual and deeply personal," focusing on his priesthood and "discerning God's will." He has held the leadership post at the school since 1995.
The Board of Regents was notified of the decision last night. Kurt Borowsky, chairman of the Board of Trustees and Regents, spoke with Sheeran on a media conference call Thursday morning.
"Monsignor will probably not have a direct role," Borowsky said, regarding the search for Sheeran's successor. "(It will be) more so under the board's jurisdiction."
Sheeran's decision came as quite the surprise to many around the university, a notion he reflected upon as soon as the conference call began.
"Shock and awe is the word," Sheeran said.
He also mentioned that "in some ways" it is a good time for his departure, with Seton Hall recently undergoing academic changes (in the form of a new core curriculum) and closing its $153 million advancement campaign in 2007.
Sheeran cited "strong leadership" in the school's deans and vice presidents as help for the university to continue to move forward.
After nearly 30 years of work at Seton Hall, much of it in administration, Sheeran said he plans to take a year's sabbatical, the location still undetermined.
During his presidency, Sheeran helped advance the university through many lasting endeavors, including the development of the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations in 1997, a revamped sciences program and wireless Internet access across the campus.
He explained three key items to handle in his final year as university president: to oversee the 2011 fiscal budget, implement the school's next strategic plan and to assure a "good, seamless" transition of power.
"Looking back, I've tried to give Seton Hall my very best day-by-day," Sheeran said. "I've seen the students become rich in diversity, politically engaged, technologically proficient and wanting to discuss important issues like sustainability."
Sheeran also discussed the Boland Hall fire of 2000, perhaps the grimmest moment of his presidency, as a "tragedy in the family." He explained the development of the "Remember circle," currently situated outside the Boland Hall entrance, and the bell tower in front of Jubilee Hall as a lasting reminder of the blaze that killed three students.
When Boland Hall reopened after the fire, Sheeran said he moved into the residence hall with the students "almost spontaneously," arguably one of his strongest moments as a leader in the Seton Hall community.
Sheeran added that he has come to forgive the students who caused the fire.
"In my heart, yes," Sheeran said. "I've let that be."
Before ending the conference call, Sheeran spoke of athletics and the "community spirit" as positives for any individual to consider seeking appointment as the next president.
"There is a sense of a common touch here," Sheeran said. "I think we're very clear about what we're about."
The Archbishop of Newark and president of the Board of Trustees, Rev. John Myers, offered a statement regarding Sheeran's resignation.
"Renovation of the university's historic chapel, institution of the DOVE student volunteer program, and enlivening and strengthening of the campus ministry are only a few examples of (his) accomplishments," Myers said. "I will support (the Regents) as they look to find a priest who will be a worthy successor who will build on the solid foundation of faith and academic superiority that Seton Hall is today."
Sheeran also addressed the relationship between the Catholic Church and the university in his conference call.
"Seton Hall has tried to be both candid and frank about our commitments to the Catholic Church and academic freedom," Sheeran said.
The search for the university's next president, which will be the school's 21st in history, will begin over the summer months according to Borowsky. He added that the process will continue into next spring with the hope of leaving time for a transition before Sheeran leaves.
"This is rather sudden," Borowsky said when asked if a potential successor was in mind. "We're still in the process of digesting it and moving forward."
Editor's note: Next week, The Setonian will take a look at Seton Hall's history regarding past university presidential transitions.
Brian Wisowaty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.