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Catholic University president to step down after 12 years

John Garvey, 72, has led the university since 2010

John H. Garvey, president of Catholic University, will step down after 12 years of leadership. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Catholic University’s president will step down after more than a decade leading the Northeast Washington institution, officials announced Wednesday morning.

John Garvey, 72, said he will leave the presidency at the end of the school year, and a new leader will be selected by July 2022. Garvey’s tenure has been marked by an extensive period of transformation on the campus of more than 5,300 students — from record fundraising to improving the student experience.

“I became president of the Catholic University of America in 2010 hoping I could contribute something to building up the institution. I did not foresee how much I would fall in love with it,” Garvey wrote in a message to the campus. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as president of this university.”

Garvey’s announcement marks the latest in a wave of departures at colleges and universities throughout the country — presidents at George Washington University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Spelman College, Texas State University and others have all shared plans to step down or retire by the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

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But the Catholic University president said in an interview he’s been considering his next act for a few years. He told other school officials in 2019 he planned to stay through the end of a $400 million fundraising campaign that is now nearly complete. “We’re within a few million dollars of the goal,” Garvey said.

The president began officially discussing the possibility of leaving the school with the board of trustees six months ago, according to officials. The governing body recently accepted his request.

Garvey, a lawyer by training, has overseen many changes at Catholic. He restructured the school’s board of trustees from a primarily clergy-led body to one that now includes more lay leadership. He has launched upgrades in residence halls and on athletic fields, as well as improvements in the school’s counseling center, the Center for Cultural Engagement and the Center for Academic and Career Success.

Student retention under Garvey’s leadership has increased from 79 percent to 88 percent, officials said.

Garvey’s tenure has also included “the most successful era of fundraising in university history,” officials said, resulting in more than $500 million in gifts and grants. And the $400 million campaign that was launched in 2019 may be extended and given a new half-a-billion-dollar goal, Garvey said.

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Garvey said he’s been “fortunate” to lead the university through nearly two years of the pandemic. While other universities in the District remained virtual through fall 2020, Catholic brought many students back to campus and managed to keep the virus under control.

“It gave me an opportunity to see a side of the institution that I’ve really fallen in love with,” Garvey said. He said he took a pay cut — his was a 20 percent deduction — along with other salaried employees, which helped stave off layoffs. “Our employees took a cut in pay so that others wouldn’t have to lose their jobs.”

Victor P. Smith, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, in a letter to the community thanked Garvey “for his leadership and for leading Catholic University forward as a truly Catholic global research university.”

Garvey, unlike nearly every other Catholic University president, is not an ordained priest. The former attorney who has argued in front of the United States Supreme Court and taught at law schools in Kentucky, Indiana and Massachusetts is one of just three lay presidents in the school’s 134-year history.

In some ways, that perspective has helped him relate better than other presidents to the student body. Garvey and his wife, Jeanne Walter Garvey, live on campus and make it a point to set an example of how husbands and wives behave together, he said.

And when the university in 2011 decided to return to single-sex residence halls — an effort to curtail binge drinking and casual hookups — Garvey could speak from a parent’s perspective.

“I’m a father, I have five kids, I have a ton of grandkids,” Garvey said. “I had sent kids to college and I had that experience.”

Garvey said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his children once he steps down — along with his grandchildren and wife. The couple is taking Italian classes so they can eventually move to Italy, where Garvey plans to teach at Catholic University’s Rome campus.

“I think she’s just been wanting to have more of my time before I get old and can’t enjoy my time with her,” Garvey said.

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