The Rev. John Schlegel, who shepherded Creighton University through one of the most ambitious decades in the school's history, plans to step down next year.
Schlegel, 66, announced his planned retirement in e-mails to faculty and staff Wednesday morning. He will step down as president in July 2011, in order to give the college's board of directors time to search for a suitable Jesuit to replace him.
“More of the same,” said Bill Fitzgerald, chairman of Creighton's board, when asked what he wanted in Schlegel's replacement. “You couldn't have had a better president of a university than Father John.”
Soon after Schlegel started as Creighton's president a decade ago, he said, he stood near 24th Street, looked east and thought: We can be a part of Omaha's downtown renaissance.
In an interview Wednesday, Schlegel agreed that one of the lasting marks of his presidency will be the ensuing eastward expansion.
Creighton has grown by 40 acres during his presidency, building a giant student center, a state-of-the-art soccer stadium, apartment-style student housing and a basketball arena that all sit on the new eastern edge of the campus.
Much of that construction was imagined in a 2003 master plan that Creighton leaders hoped to make reality by 2015.
And much of that expansion is already completed, the result of a Schlegel-led, $400 million fundraising effort, easily the largest in school history.
“I must say I'm not disappointed in how (the expansions) looks and how it feels,” Schlegel said Wednesday. “We almost completed exactly what we had in mind.”
Schlegel said he sees the campus expansion as the “envelope for the real content” of Creighton, which is the increased academic quality of the college in the past decade.
The college's enrollment has grown during Schlegel's tenure: Creighton now boasts 7,385 students, a marked increase from when he started in 2000.
And it's getting tougher to get into Creighton: Applications to the college have nearly doubled during the past decade.
The increased number of applicants results in part from Creighton's elite academic standing.
U.S. News and World Report has ranked CU the top Midwestern university of its kind for seven straight years. And more than half of last year's incoming freshmen scored a 27 or higher on the ACT, brainpower that assures Schlegel the college won't slip any time soon.
“Those physical structures are really the contest for the rest of this story,” Schlegel said. “And the rest of the story is what it's all about.”
Schlegel, a native of Dubuque, Iowa, and son of a truck driver, has taken a long and quirky route to his retirement from the presidency of one of the country's top private colleges.
He shocked his parents and five brothers and sisters when he abandoned plans to become a lawyer and instead joined the priesthood and the Jesuit order.
He eventually studied at the University of London and Oxford University, where he befriended Benazir Bhutto, a future prime minister of Pakistan.
He taught his first class at Creighton University in 1969, joined the political science faculty in 1976 and served as the assistant vice president for academic affairs before leaving in 1982.
Then he returned to Creighton in 2000, a move that surprised many family and friends because Schlegel was already president of the prestigious University of San Francisco.
Schlegel's presidency has weathered its share of controversies.
Soon after he assumed the presidency, a Creighton student sued the school, alleging she had been raped during a stay at the college's Dominican Republic institute. That lawsuit, eventually settled out of court, followed years of complaints about the priest who ran the institute.
In 2007, Archbishop Elden Curtiss publicly disassociated the Omaha Archdiocese from Creighton's Center for Marriage and Family after two of the center's instructors wrote a magazine essay arguing that unmarried Catholic couples should have the option to live together and have premarital sex if they planned to marry.
Later that year, Schlegel cancelled a planned on-campus speech by author Anne Lamott after some Catholics complained to the archdiocese because Lamott had helped a friend with terminal cancer commit suicide.
Schlegel said Wednesday he's proud that Creighton has maintained a good relationship with the archdiocese. He's also proud that the Creighton community has sometimes challenged the church.
“That tension is always going to be there ... and that tension is healthy,” he said. “Nobody has a lock on the answers to everything. Everything is open to study. ... That's what a university is all about.”
Schlegel has stayed constantly visible in the past decade, giving speeches, attending student plays and working toward his goal to bring Creighton closer to its host city.
He cooks a mean risotto, listens to jazz and competes against undergraduates on the racquetball court. He played Paul Bunyan in a 2005 Opera Omaha production and helped to design the Creighton logo by drawing sketches on napkins.
He dines with U.S. senators and titans of the Omaha business community like Charles “Mike” Harper, the former ConAgra CEO who gave unknown millions to build the Harper student center.
And, once a week, he eats breakfast with students, hearing their life stories and listening to their concerns.
“It makes me feel warm,” Schlegel said of his interactions with students. “I never left without a new idea. ... Their influence on me has been profound.”