Buffington, who has held several leadership roles at his alma mater since graduating from Harvard 16 years ago, said that while he has enjoyed his time here, he is definitely ready for a change.
“I’ve been at Harvard for just about 17 years of my life,” Buffington said. “There’s a point at which you’ve been in an institution for quite a long time and you’re just ready for a different set of challenges.”
Buffington, who is also the University’s director of cultural programs, described Philadelphia’s University of the Arts as unique in the number of different types of art majors it offers and in the chances for interdisciplinary programs.
The university is the nation’s first and only dedicated to the visual, performing, and communication arts, according to the school’s Web site.
Buffington said that he hopes to be able to change and improve things at the University of the Arts in a way that was impossible at Harvard due to its long and storied tradition.
“Because Harvard is so big, rich, and well-known, it tends to be a little more risk averse, and it’s hard to do things and complicated to make things happen,” he said. “Part of what appeals to me about the University of the Arts is that’s I’ll have the opportunity to make change in a different way.”
Provost Steven E. Hyman said that Buffington will be able to bring “an enormous and passionate dedication to the arts” in his new job.
“He’s had the long-term goal of wanting to run an independent arts organization,” Hyman said. “We’re going to miss him enormously, but obviously being president of an arts education institution like that is just a fantastic opportunity.”
Hyman said that Buffington’s departure will not hinder University President Drew G. Faust’s initiative to examine the place of the arts at Harvard, though he added that the personnel change could lead to a revamping of the administrative structure of the university-wide arts project.
“It wasn’t a surprise that Sean was looking for a leadership opportunity that he probably couldn’t have while at Harvard,” Hyman said, “but it does mean that we’re going to have to hire someone to help.”
Hyman added that Buffington’s work in the Harvard development office at the start of his administrative career familiarized him with the world of fundraising.
Indeed, describing himself as an “evangelist” for the University of the Arts, Buffington said he hopes to increase the awareness of his new institution, whose $80 million endowment is dwarfed by Harvard’s $29.2 billion.
“My aspiration for this place is that the reputation of this place and the public understanding and knowledge of this place become equal to the extraordinary people and talent that are here,” he said.
Buffington’s unanimous approval by the Board of Trustees of was partly due to their understanding of this enthusiasm, according to Saba Rodriguez, the chief advancement officer at the University of the Arts.
And though Buffington said he has no doubt that he made the right decision in saying goodbye to Harvard, he said that his only regret is leaving behind the camaraderie of his coworkers.
“The one thing I’ll miss most about Harvard is that I had unbelievably smart and talented colleagues, and I was able to build terrific relationships of trust with these people,” Buffington said. “I’m sure I’ll find that here as well, but that stuff takes time.”
—Laurence H.M. Holland contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at email@example.com.