For O’Connor, a Final Turn at the Helm

O’Connor is in his 18th year as president of DeSales University. The national average tenure of university presidents in the United States is currently 8.5 years. Photo courtesy of Flickr/DeSales.
O’Connor is in his 18th year as president of DeSales University. The national average tenure of
university presidents in the United States is currently 8.5 years. Photo courtesy of Flickr/DeSales.

By Will Edwards
Managing and Online Editor

He’s Bernie O’Connor and he’ll be replaced. The horses are already running and gunning and hoping to be the first one sucked into the hose of the vacuum he’s creating. Who’s next? A fine horse indeed, no matter the choice. One who will run this university with gusto and great care. One who will grow our institution through the next decade or two. But let me correct myself: Bernie O’Connor will be succeeded. Damnit, Bernie O’Connor will not be replaced.

Since he took office in 1999, O’Connor has set a friendly and welcoming tone here, a tone that commands a strong work ethic but also calls for people not to take themselves too seriously. It’s what attracted me to this place as a high school senior four years ago, and, I’m willing to bet, brought some of you here as well. The dozens of faculty and staff members that have stayed on for any number of years serves as testimony, too, to the power of this topdown amiable atmosphere.

That said, it’s no wonder O’Connor’s been DeSales’ head man for 18 years now–compare that to the national average tenure of university presidents in the U.S. of 8.5 years. People have responded well to his leadership style, and because of that, he’s successfully grown a school that went through a landmark transition to university status almost 16 years ago, and that just brought in its largest freshman class in its 51-year history.

Now, as he nears the end of his presidency at an institution that didn’t exist when he was born, O’Connor has taken on a more reflective demeanor, much like seniors do as they approach graduation. In this year’s annual report of the university, he included an 11-page reflection of his incumbency, writing about DeSales’ formative years and the physical and spiritual development that has taken place on campus. And last week in an interview, he told me stories of his early days as president, and he discussed some of the formalities that will take place throughout this year, like sitting for a formal portrait of himself (which, he said in his trademark sarcastically proud delivery, will be displayed in the building they name after him some day).

But he’s not apprehensive about what lies ahead. Just as he has throughout the duration of his time as an Oblate, he says, he’s taking things in stride, answering to the needs of those around him.

“You respond to life as it comes along. They needed a president here, I was available,” O’Connor says. “It was not one of my life goals to become president when I became an Oblate. You have to use your talents as best you can.”

If you spend enough time with O’Connor, particularly near the start of the fall semester, you’ll hear him compare the academic year to a ship’s journey from New York to Southampton, England. It’s a metaphor that probably originated from his affinity for European history, a subject that he reads dozens of books about, which he then donates to the Trexler Library. The narrative is one that begins when students arrive on campus–or the “ship”– in August, preparing to sail across the Atlantic, only to arrive in the southern British port town just before the Christmas holiday. The ship then returns to New York in time for Memorial Day.

The image is simple, but its significance lies in its nuances. For one, it’s true to the notion that we’re all in the same boat together at DeSales, and that we should treat each other accordingly. Second, it serves as an analogy to the university’s emphasis on becoming a global citizen and engaging with people across cultures, an initiative that O’Connor lists among his proudest efforts during his tenure. And lastly, it allows that, like ship’s crew, all of the members of the university community have a role to play to ensure we all get where we need to go.

This year, the man with the biggest role of all, our captain, will steer our ship for the last time. And for our seniors, too, the final voyage has begun. Let’s enjoy it.

Cheers to one more year.

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