Departing Catholic University president turned school around but sowed divisions, some say

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

David O'Connell made it cool to be at Catholic University.

He arrived in 1998 on a Northeast Washington campus that was unkempt and spiritually adrift. In 12 years as president, he manicured and ministered, leading his institution back to its founding identity as the flagship American university of the Roman Catholic Church. He leaves this month, widely beloved.

But it has been a rocky ride. Detractors say the Very Rev. O'Connell has steered Catholic into a thicket of social issue politics, spawning one controversy after another: Celebrity speakers disinvited. Student newspapers seized. Prohibitions against student sex. Highly publicized feuds with gay rights advocates and the NAACP.

Some say O'Connell is the greatest president in Catholic's 123-year history. Others say he has divided the Brookland campus. This much is clear: He has held one of the toughest jobs in higher education. O'Connell and the "bishops' university" were cast as standard-bearers in a campaign by the Vatican to reassert control over a rebellious flock, the nation's 201 Catholic colleges and universities.

"This institution represents the institutional Church. And that's hard for some people to grasp," O'Connell said in a recent interview. "My goal was to be in the center and to speak the Church's truths with clarity."

O'Connell, 55, is leaving Washington to become bishop-elect of Trenton, N.J. His replacement at Catholic, John H. Garvey, is dean of the law school at Boston College.

Garvey is an academic, not a cleric. He has pledged to make Catholic University more diverse -- just 12 percent of students are black or Hispanic -- and to elevate scholarship. Some Catholic traditionalists are concerned that he allowed an abortion rights advocate to speak at his law school. Other observers think the new president will bring welcome change.

"We've named a building after O'Connell. He's received nothing but praise over the last 12 years," said one professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job. "But the faculty is divided, and it's divided in crazy ways you can't imagine."

'So much stronger now'

O'Connell arrived at Catholic University at 43, a priest of the Vincentian order, fit and tall, with close-cropped hair, angular features and a savvy, occasionally prickly temperament more befitting an army general than a clergyman.

At the time, the university's enrollment was falling and had such a weak national identity that student recruiters had resorted to telemarketing. O'Connell quickly reclaimed the school's Catholic cred -- he was the first U.S. college president to take an oath of fidelity to the church and its teachings -- and regained the support of the bishops.

Under O'Connell, the Catholic campus has grown by one-third to 193 acres, and enrollment has risen by one-quarter to nearly 7,000 students. O'Connell reconnected the university with estranged alumni and raised $180 million, bringing the endowment to a peak of $224 million.

O'Connell's salary is effectively zero: His annual pay, $367,200 in 2008-09, goes directly to his religious order.

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