Franciscan University president resigns

Father Sean Sheridan TOR Fr. Sean Sheridan, TOR. Image courtesy of Franciscan University

Fr. Sean Sheridan, TOR, has resigned as president of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Fr. Sheridan informed the university's trustees of his decision during a regular meeting of the board on Friday.

The unexpected decision comes almost exactly six years since his appointment to the role in April 2013. Although he informed the university board of trustees of his decision on April 5, he has agreed to remain in the post until a successor is found.

Fr. Sheridan said in a statement that he had made the decision "after a great deal of prayer."

"Any university president would readily admit that all the days are long; many are great days, and some are difficult. Being a Franciscan Friar has taught me to recognize that all those long days-the great days, and even the difficult days-are blessed days and all the more so when I am among my Franciscan Family."

"Franciscan University is a special and immensely spiritual place, and it was a blessing to serve in our mission to educate, evangelize, and send forth joyful disciples of Jesus Christ. This is and always will be a University dedicated to providing an education that is rigorous and demanding, vibrant and truly orthodox with an unwavering commitment to Catholic faith and tradition," Sheridan said.

The university's board of trustees released a statement April 8, in which they thanked Sheridan for his years of service to Franciscan University.

"We are thankful for Father Sheridan's years of leadership and dedication throughout which he continued the Franciscan University tradition of exceptional education grounded in a passionately Catholic faith that enables our alumni to evangelize and transform the culture," said Father Malachi Van Tassell, TOR, chairman of the Board of Trustees.

While the decision came as a surprise to the board and the wider university community, friends of Sheridan noted that the timing appeared well chosen.

"Fr. Sheridan certainly wants what's best for Franciscan," one friend of Sheridan told CNA, "and waiting until the board met towards the end of the academic year was timed to cause minimal disruption to the community."

The same friend noted that Sheridan is "a gentleman and devoted to the school – he made it clear he would stay in place until his successor arrives and there is a smooth handover."

"This was his decision and he made it on his own terms. There's a great deal of surprise, but he certainly isn't walking out on the school."

The statement released by Franciscan University said the board of trustees expects to have a new leader in place by the start of the next academic year.

Sheridan's resignation comes after the university has faced questions about its handling of historical sexual harassment cases, and its manner of addressing sexual assault claims made by students. In September 2018, Sheridan ordered the removal of a plaque commemorating a friar and former campus minister accused of assaulting young women, in addition to a review of campus policies related to sexual assault and harassment.

But Sheridan has also faced a different sort of criticism from some faculty members and internet-based groups and blogs, who have questioned his commitment to ensuring a faithfully Catholic approach to university education.

Much of the criticism stems from an incident in January, in which a professor used a text with inflammatory passages – termed blasphemous and obscene by critics – for an advanced reading course. At the time, Sheridan said that while the text was "scandalous and extremely offensive" he did not believe the professor who assigned it had any "malicious" intent, though he did replace him as the head of the English department.

In a letter apologizing to those disturbed by the text's use, Sheridan highlighted the importance of forming students "to do battle against the blasphemy and heresy rife in our culture today."

"Is anyone here perfect?" Sheridan later asked in a Jan. 14 homily. "No. Do people here make mistakes? Yes. But our particular Franciscan charism is rooted in ongoing conversion. That we resolve to continue to do better every day."

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Sheridan, a theologian and canon lawyer, is a published expert on Ex corde ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution of St. John Paul II on Catholic universities. Under Sheridan, Franciscan University hosted a series of symposia to mark the constitution's twenty-fifth anniversary.

A friend of Sheridan told CNA that the aggressive and personal vitriol leveled against him by some blogs had taken a toll.

"Fr. Sean decided he needed a change in the light of all the criticism of him and the university," he said. "He found the coverage to be pretty distasteful, and it was clearly taking a toll on him personally, and on the university community."

One professor at Franciscan told CNA that the communion among the university's faculty had suffered under the sustained criticism.

"Fr. Sheridan really couldn't be a better example of humble leadership, devoted to the faith and the community here."

"I wonder if this decision isn't a final example of that humility," the faculty member said, while describing it as a "devastating decision" nonetheless.

The professor praised Sheridan's commitment to strengthening the Catholic identity and academic rigor of the university.

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Friends of Sheridan also note that in 2018 Franciscan University enrolled its largest ever freshman class, and registered a balanced annual budget – both stated aims of the university administration.

"It takes mature, creative teamwork to achieve that kind of success, and that is what will be hard to replace," one close friend of Sheridan said.

The same friend noted that Sheridan's religious community will be holding elections in July.

"Fr. Sean is a young man who can teach, preach, and lead with holiness and humility – that's a rare combination. I am sure that an order with world-wide reach will soon find a new role for him."

Sheridan himself said he feels "called to continue my service to the Catholic Church in another capacity to be determined in consultation with our TOR minister provincial."

"The sincerity and seriousness Franciscan students have for the faith will continue to inspire me, and I am especially thankful for the ministry and witness of the friars. In my years in higher education, as student, faculty member, and researcher of Ex corde Ecclesiae and the Code of Canon Law, I have not encountered members of a university community so committed to pursuing their beliefs."

"I leave Franciscan a better teacher and catechist and appreciative of the time to grow in this area of my ministry."