SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Seton Hall University alumnus Jim O’Brien ’82 and wife Judy O’Brien announced their family is donating $1 million to Seton Hall University to help fund the sweeping, more than $40 million renovation of its University Center. Housing the main cafeteria, theater, event space, student government and student-services offices, this student-focused building has not seen renovations of this scale since it was built in 1962.
“The O’Briens have been longstanding supporters of Seton Hall for which we are sincerely grateful,” university President Joseph E. Nyre said. “Jim faithfully served on our board of regents for 10 years. He has consistently been engaged, in particular with the students and programming of the Stillman School of Business. The O’Briens deeply care about our students and the success of the university, and we are honored that they have made a lead gift to help transform the student experience.”
While the O’Briens had historically steered their philanthropy toward scholarships and programs rather than capital projects, they now see the advantages for students in having renovated facilities. When Jim O’Brien was serving on the board from 2006 to 2013, and again from 2015 to 2018, he and his wife made a significant gift toward the construction of Bethany Hall, the admissions building to the west of the main gate of the South Orange campus.
Pleased with how Bethany Hall turned out, Jim O’Brien then turned to the outdated, aesthetically challenged University Center.
“You have Bethany Hall, an attractive new building when you come into the campus. Then you have the beautiful library in the distance. You approach the campus green and see the iconic Presidents Hall and chapel, the stately Mooney Hall. Then you have this unattractive thing next to it. That’s where students are supposed to be spending a lot of their time,” said Jim O’Brien, explaining that, when the renovations were decided upon, he put his full support behind the project.
With more than 48,000 square feet of renovations and additions, the University Center will feature greater accessibility; an open, light-filled interior design; more communal spaces; outdoor amenities for students; high-tech educational resources; dining enhancements; and more options for retreating and decompressing for better mental health.
“The new University Center will be an indispensable resource for students and lift the student experience to new heights,” Student Services Vice President Monica Burnette said. “Many of the most memorable and rewarding lessons are learned outside the classroom, and the University Center is designed to facilitate these experiences. In this time when human interaction has never been valued more, the University Center will be a place where people encounter one another, help one another, innovate and create together. We are proud to be providing this precious resource to our students and grateful to the O’Briens for helping to make it possible.”
When Jim O’Brien was enrolled, the student experience was very different.
“When I went to Seton Hall, it was largely a commuter school,” he said. “The whole back campus, where the baseball field and field house are now, was a huge parking lot. Everybody I knew — we all had jobs and scheduled our classes to fit around work hours. If I had a break between classes, I’d hang out in the student center, but I didn’t really get involved in anything. I only went to one or two basketball games. I didn’t go to any of the parties on campus. I just wasn’t there. By the time I was in the second half of my junior year, I took all my classes at night. The job I had was getting busier and busier. I didn’t even attend my graduation. I never would have come back if it wasn’t for Monsignor Sheeran.”
Msgr. Robert Sheeran was pastor at St. Michael Church in Cranford — Jim O’Brien’s hometown parish. The two reconnected a few years later when O’Brien enrolled at Seton Hall and Sheeran was running St. Andrew’s College Seminary on campus. Then in 1999, O’Brien came back to the states after a stint at Morgan Stanley in London. Sheeran, who by then was president of Seton Hall, happened to find himself back in Cranford and asked mutual friends about the O’Briens.
“They told him my mom was living at the shore now. They told him I had just come back from London and had an important job at Morgan Stanley. Monsignor asked them, ‘Do you have his number?’” Jim O’Brien said.
Sheeran invited O’Brien back to campus, and he attended University Day with his old friend and fellow alumnus Bob Sloan. That was the start of his re-engagement with Seton Hall. O’Brien joined the president’s advisory group and became more involved with the business school, contributing to the construction of a new trading room, helping to set up The Stillman Exchange newspaper, organizing the annual Jim and Judy O’Brien Capital Markets Colloquium, and ultimately joining the board of regents. Sloan has been serving on the board of regents since 2015 and the board of trustees since 2017 ex officio.
In return for the O’Briens’ generosity, the university will name the newly renovated theater lobby — which will also function as an art gallery, student lounge and reception area — in memory of Jim O’Brien’s deceased brother, Pat O’Brien, and his widow, Cathy O’Brien, who graduated from SHU as valedictorian in 1992 and tutored several student-athletes in math and finance. Their son Kevin, Class of 2017, was a finance and business-management student and starter on the varsity golf team. Pat O’Brien, who suffered from a terminal illness, died in February 2021.
“My brother didn’t go to Seton Hall, but he was a true Pirate, and this is a beautiful way to honor his memory and celebrate Cathy’s achievements as an alumna,” Jim O’Brien said.