James O'Brien '82
Seton Hall alumnus Jim O'Brien '82 and his wife Judy O'Brien announced their family is donating $1 million to Seton Hall University to help fund the sweeping $40+ million renovation of its University Center. Housing the main cafeteria, theatre, 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," noted University President Joseph E. Nyre, Ph.D. "Jim faithfully served on our Board of Regents for ten 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."
Jim and Judy had historically steered their philanthropy towards scholarships and programs rather than capital projects, but they eventually came to see the advantage of having attractive and useful buildings on campus. When Jim was serving on the Board (from 2006 to 2013, and again from 2015 to 2018) he and Judy made a significant gift towards the construction of Bethany Hall, the admissions building to the west of the main gate of the South Orange, New Jersey campus.
Pleased with how Bethany Hall turned out, Jim then turned to the outdated, aesthetically challenged University Center. He described the journey of a campus visitor: "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." So, when the renovations were decided upon, he was fully behind the project.
With over 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," said Vice President for Student Services Monica Burnette, Ph.D. "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 was enrolled, the student experience was very different. "When I went to Seton Hall, it was largely a commuter school," noted Jim. "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, New Jersey—Jim's hometown parish. The two reconnected a few years later when Jim enrolled in Seton Hall and Msgr. Sheeran was running St. Andrew's College Seminary on campus. Then in 1999, Jim came back to the states after a very successful stint at Morgan Stanley in London. Monsignor, 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?'"
Monsignor invited Jim 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. Jim 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. Bob Sloan has been serving on the Board of Regents since 2015 and the Board of Trustees since 2017 ex officio.
Pat O'Brien with his wife, Cathy '92, and their son Kevin '17.
In return for Jim and Judy's generosity, the University will name the newly renovated theatre lobby (which will also function as an art gallery, student lounge, and reception area) in memory of Jim's late brother Pat O'Brien, and his widow, Cathy O'Brien, who graduated 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 suffered from a terminal illness and 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 said.
When Jim looked at the architectural plans for the University Center renovations, he was organically drawn to the beautiful renderings of the theatre lobby. With a mother who was a vocalist, Jim and his siblings had no choice but to play musical instruments. Jim played sax, sang, and played piano by ear—something he wants to take up again. Jim and Judy have supported Berklee College of Music in Boston, where their son Pat, a versatile musician, studied songwriting. Jim chairs the Board of Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, a music education nonprofit in Los Angeles.
"We are excited to be updating and renovating our theatre-in-the-round and adjacent spaces," said Renee Robinson, Ph.D., Interim Dean and Professor of Communication at the College of Communication and the Arts. "What will go on in the theatre—whether it is performances by our student-artists or lectures and presentations in any discipline—will be the creative expression of ideas and sentiments that enrich our lives in many ways. The theatre and lobby gallery will be a place of inspiration, and we are thrilled to be able to dedicate the space to the memory of Pat O'Brien and the accomplishments of his wife and Seton Hall alumna, Cathy O’Brien."
This gift is Jim and Judy's latest validation of a university which they have been supporting for nearly 30 years. Jim spoke enthusiastically about its future under the leadership of President Joseph Nyre: "We were very fortunate to find Joe Nyre when we did. It is an unbelievably challenging time for small schools now, with skyrocketing costs and tuition. But between Joe's vision, willingness to take risk, and long-term game plan, plus the extraordinary things Alyssa McCloud [Senior Vice President of Admissions] has done in the admissions, we've distinguished ourselves as one of the very few small universities that are thriving in this environment. Everything I see tells me we're going in the right direction, and I'm thrilled that the student center is getting renovated."
Jim's wish has already been granted. Visitors to the University Center now see a demolition fence, large machinery, and bare girders that seem relieved to have shed their façade in favor of an upgraded exterior. Inside, the cafeteria renovations are nearly complete, and work continues on the rest.
"Jim and Judy have been overwhelmingly generous to the University over many decades," said Jon Paparsenos, Vice President for University Advancement. "It's no surprise they wanted to get behind this critical project that will elevate the student experience."
There are still opportunities to show your support for the student experience by making a naming gift to University Center Renovations Fund. If you are interested in learning more about Seton Hall's strategic priorities and how you can help make a difference, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, (973) 378-9800.