When Creighton University hired the Rev. Timothy Lannon three years ago, he came with rare qualifications: a university president, a Jesuit priest and a Creighton alumnus.
Creighton will be searching again now that the popular president has announced his plan to retire next year. It's unlikely that CU will again find someone with Lannon's résumé and connections. And a shrinking pool of Jesuit candidates makes it possible that a lay president will be hired.
Lannon, who announced his retirement plans Monday, said a recent health scare prompted him to take a hard look at his future and what's best for Creighton, where he has been student body president, an admissions counselor and now president since 2011.
Trustees contacted by The World-Herald lauded Creighton's progress during Lannon's short tenure but supported his decision. They said they are aware that their next president is unlikely to bring the same experiences.
Lannon hopes the momentum of recent years will make it easier for trustees to attract a replacement by the time he steps down in June 2015.
Creighton has received lots of national attention since its jump to the Big East Conference. It's a historic moment in Creighton's history, Lannon said, and that's the sad part of stepping down now.
“But at the same time,” Lannon said, “it provides the board a wonderful opportunity to elect a president that will be excited about that momentum and build upon that in the years going forward.”
Lannon, 63, has had an irregular heartbeat for about 10 years. But he became ill while leading a service on Thanksgiving, and the condition that previously was controlled by medication required surgery.
His physicians ordered him to take a couple of months off.
Lannon said he feels better now than he did before he got sick, but the incident got him thinking about what he might want to do in the future.
“I've been in leadership positions almost all my life as a Jesuit,” Lannon said. “I thought this might be an opportunity for me to look at something other than what I've been doing for some time.”
Lannon's leadership will be missed, said John McCoy, a junior political science and economics major and Creighton's student body president.
“The student body as a whole loves Father Lannon,” McCoy said. “I think his work speaks for itself in terms of the trajectory of Creighton.”
Lannon said he is looking forward to the next 15 months and putting into action the university's strategic plan, which hasn't been shared outside Creighton.
He also will focus on plans for a new, two-site academic medical center that will be located on the Bergan Mercy Medical Center campus and on or near Creighton's campus.
What he does next will be up to the Wisconsin Province of the Jesuit order, but Lannon said he is interested in more pastoral work. He said he is happy to have spent so many years working with students.
“For me it was a privilege being here.”
A native of Mason City, Iowa, Lannon is the 24th president of Creighton and the first alumnus to lead the university.
He graduated from Creighton in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics. He entered the Society of Jesus a few years later and was ordained at St. John Church on Creighton's campus in 1986.
He worked as an admissions counselor at Creighton and also served as president of Creighton Prep for seven years. At Prep, Lannon spearheaded the capital campaign to build the Henry L. Sullivan Campus Center.
“His ability to initiate a change to move us in that direction was just terrific,” said Creighton Prep Principal John Naatz.
When the Rev. John Schlegel announced his retirement as Creighton University president in 2010, Lannon — then president of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia — stood out as the board's top candidate.
Board Chairman Bruce Rohde said Lannon is recognized and respected as an exceptional leader, and his enthusiasm for Creighton can be seen in the rapid change that has taken place during his tenure.
Lannon is the third Jesuit president with whom Rohde has worked, he said, and each has left his own mark on the university.
“Now it's even better, all over again,” Rohde said.
Creighton board member Howard Hawks said he respects Lannon's decision and appreciates the fact that he gave the board more than a year to find a successor. Though the board hopes to have another Jesuit candidate, Hawks said, he expects it to broaden its scope to find the best possible person.
“I think it's inevitable that at some point in Creighton's future we will not have a Jesuit president,” Hawks said.
Simply finding someone who has the skills to be president of a major university is challenging enough, said the Rev. Tom Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
But finding the skill set for such a complex job within a pool of the approximately 700 Jesuits working in higher education in the United States is even more daunting and has led several institutions to hire outside the order, Gaunt said.
Lay presidents currently lead seven of the country's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, and one interim president is a lay person.
Three Jesuit colleges besides Creighton are seeking a president right now, according to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
“There will continue to be Jesuit presidents,” Gaunt said. “It's just not realistic to think that at any one moment, there are 28 Jesuits who would have the skills and desire to be president of a university.”