By Curtis Skinner
(Reuters) - Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who reshaped the University of Notre Dame from a Catholic college known for its football team into an academic force, died late on Thursday night, the school said in a statement. He was 97.
Hesburgh, one of the premier Catholic educators in the United States and "champion of human rights", presided over the Indiana university for three and a half decades, stepping down in 1987, the statement said.
During his tenure, he grew the school's annual operating budget 18-fold to $176.6 million and nearly doubled its enrollment. He also oversaw the Notre Dame's transformation into a coeducational university when women were first admitted to its undergraduate program in 1972, the school said.
Internationally, he served four popes on issues such as atomic energy and human rights. In the United States, he held 16 presidential appointments and chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1969 to 1972.
He was replaced for criticizing then-President Richard Nixon's civil rights record, the school said.
"In his historic service to the nation, the Church and the world, he was a steadfast champion for human rights, the cause of peace and care for the poor," current Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins said in a statement.
"Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was on the lives of generations of Notre Dame students, whom he taught, counseled and befriended," he added.
Hesburgh, who was a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, earned the Medal of Freedom, the top U.S. civilian honor, and became the first person from the world of higher education to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
He had also served as the director of the Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as a trustee and later chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation.
He died at Holy Cross House, a retirement home adjacent to the campus, at 11:30 p.m. local time on Thursday, the school said.
"The Catholic university should be a place," Hesburgh wrote, "where all the great questions are asked, where an exciting conversation is continually in progress, where the mind constantly grows as the values and powers of intelligence and wisdom are cherished and exercised in full freedom."
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Tom Heneghan)