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

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; B01

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.

The graduation rate has risen, from 66 percent in 2001 to 71 percent in 2008. O'Connell replaced the failed national marketing strategy with a successful regional approach and drew nearly twice as many applicants last year than in 2002, although the admission rate has drifted up to 86 percent.

"The school is so much stronger now academically now than when he came in," said Ernest Suarez, chairman of the English department.

O'Connell jokes that when he was a doctoral student at Catholic in the 1980s, he found "a lot of theology but no faith." As president, he set about to change that. Today, 90 percent of students and 60 percent of tenured faculty members identify themselves as Catholic, more than when he arrived.

The president said he read the résumés of prospective hires to weed out candidates with "perspectives that would make them uncomfortable here." He initiated a daily Mass in the law school, a tradition of blessing dormitory rooms and a stronger habit of prayer.

"More students attend Mass here than any other campus activity. That's a change," he said.

Veering right, critics say

But in his quest to put Catholic values "on the table," the larger-than-life president has drawn unwanted attention to the school.

In 2001-02, Catholic adopted a rule that student sexuality was not to be "genitally expressed" outside marriage. In 2004, the university blocked an NAACP chapter on campus, partly because of the organization's advocacy of abortion rights, before reversing the decision. Last year, administrators rejected a gay-straight alliance as an official student club.

Catholic administrators barred the City Paper from campus after an exposé last year on the school's no-sex policy. Later in the year, someone seized 2,000 copies of the student newspaper the Tower over an editorial cartoon that declared Catholic's gays and lesbians "no longer underground."

The university and its contractors turned away socially liberal speakers because of their abortion views, including actor Stanley Tucci and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

But the university welcomed socially conservative speakers, including former vice president Dick Cheney and former U.S. senator Rick Santorum, who advocate for the death penalty and the Iraq war, positions the Church opposes.

O'Connell's critics say the university has taken a hard right turn. The Catholic president was a frequent visitor to the George W. Bush White House. Portraits on the walls of his campus residence show O'Connell in the company of various politicians, mostly Republicans.

"He was a very conservative Catholic educator at CUA and will be a very conservative bishop in Trenton," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Supporters say O'Connell simply did his job.

O'Connell arrived at the end of a relatively liberal era in Catholic higher education. Catholic University had an official gay rights group when he arrived; officials said it died for lack of interest.

He was a staunch advocate of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," a 1990 encyclical from Pope John Paul II that asked bishops worldwide to rein in Catholic colleges that strayed from doctrine. In 1999, Catholic bishops codified the rules for American colleges, strongly encouraging them to hire presidents, faculty, trustees and staff who are "Catholics committed to the Church."

Five years later, the bishops issued further instructions that barred Catholic colleges from giving "awards, honors or platforms" to those who oppose Church tenets.

Some Catholic colleges largely ignored the directives. Not Catholic University. O'Connell may have had little choice.

"Most presidents have one bishop that they answer to. David O'Connell has a whole board full of bishops to answer to," said Richard Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. "He has lived in a fishbowl."

Colleagues disagree on O'Connell's role as the Vatican's enforcer at Catholic.

Frederick Ahearn, a professor in the school of social service, said O'Connell asked faculty members to resolve conflicts "at the lowest possible level. I don't know of any cases where he ultimately made the decision," he said.

There have been times, though, when O'Connell has weighed in on conflicts of faith.

In an interview with the Washington Times newspaper two months ago, O'Connell questioned why the Church had not sanctioned Notre Dame for extending a speaking invitation to President Obama, who supports abortion rights.

O'Connell was one of two people who asked to be removed from the mailing list of CUAllies, the gay-straight alliance that his administration refused to recognize, said Robby Diesu, one of the group's leaders.

Diesu recalls O'Connell happening upon a gay rights protest on campus several months ago: "I don't think I've ever gotten such a dirty look from someone in my life."

As his tenure drew to a close, O'Connell irked some students this spring by choosing himself as Catholic's commencement speaker. It was unseemly, they said. Besides, the president already had a speaking berth.

In the end, though, O'Connell collected far more friends than enemies in his years at Catholic, said Justine Garbarino, 21, a rising senior and former editor of the school paper.

"They love him," she said. "They really like what he's done for the school."

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