The president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland startled her campus yesterday by saying she would step down in June, at the end of the centennial year of the Catholic women's school, simply because it was the right time to do so.
Sister Rosemarie Nassif, 54, made a brief announcement at a hastily called meeting of faculty and employees late yesterday afternoon, and repeated it during an address to students.
Several people present said she spoke of the strides the college had made during her 3 1/2 years as president, but did not offer any tangible reasons for her decision.
"It came as a surprise to a lot of people," said Stephen Vicchio, a professor of philosophy at the school.
Dr. Vicchio said he would not try to explain Sister Rosemarie's decision: "It's like they just discovered the body, and it's a little early to be doing the autopsy, I think."
She first arrived in Baltimore in 1990 as Notre Dame's executive vice president and the heir apparent to then-President Sister Kathleen Feeley, a school legend who led the college for 21 years.
Trustees and professors said yesterday that Sister Rosemarie had made a similarly strong mark on the campus during her short tenure.
Last fall, however, the dissatisfaction of some faculty members with her leadership reached a peak.
But it was not clear last night that the tension with some professors had any involvement in her decision to depart.
Sister Rosemarie, who received a doctorate in physical chemistry from Catholic University in Washington in 1972, said she was particularly proud of putting the campus on a firm financial footing and creating a long-range plan that would lead the college into its second century.
"There are a lot of pieces I've put in place," Sister Rosemarie said last night. "In life, timing is everything. That's one of the gifts of wisdom." And this spring was the right time, she said, to step down and allow someone else to fulfill the promise of the future.
"There is an inner sense within any person when you know that the growth that you have been able to produce for an institution has been your gift" to it, Sister Rosemarie said.
"In order for the institution to move forward with that growth, it's the better thing to turn it over to someone else."
She said she did not have another position arranged -- in fact, she withdrew from a list of finalists to become president of Trinity College in Burlington, Vt. Sister Rosemarie also said she was not worn out by the job here and that there was no personal crisis to attend to.
In Sister Rosemarie's time as president, the college has expanded its enrollment, boosted its endowment from $12 million to more than $17.6 million, and increased annual giving by 33 percent in just three years, according to Notre Dame figures. There are 750 day students, 550 graduate students and 1,850 weekend students at the school, which is located near the city's northern edge next to Loyola College. A year's tuition at Notre Dame now costs $11,740, and slightly more than half its students live on campus.
A native of St. Louis, Sister Rosemarie taught at the University of Missouri and the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. After teaching at the college level for 13 years, she became an administrator with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the religious order that oversees the Baltimore college. In 1987, she became a co-vicar for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. She was selected in 1990 as executive vice president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in preparation for assuming the presidency in the fall of 1990.
"This is one woman's decision to make a change," said Notre Dame trustee Donna C. Startzel. "I can't pretend to be able to read her thoughts. I just have to go by what she's told me.
"I think it's very regrettable that Sister Rosemarie has resigned," Ms. Startzel said.
Amiable, stylish and enthusiastic, Sister Rosemarie arrived on campus as a champion of the single-sex education offered by Notre Dame.
"Many women's colleges were founded to allow women the opportunity for higher education, but access does not necessarily mean equality," she told The Sun in 1992. "Men and women do not have an equal advantage in a co-educational setting, and I see women's colleges as providing that equal advantage."