Robert Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments, told the foundation's staff and board on Monday that he is stepping down.
Mr. Vagt, 66, who has headed the endowments since 2008, did not give a timetable for his departure. A spokeswoman at the endowments said its board of directors would conduct a formal search for his successor.
Formerly the president of Davidson College in North Carolina, Mr. Vagt came under fire from environmentalists earlier this year for his connections as a board member and stockholder in a Texas pipeline company. Critics said he didn't fully disclose his ties to the oil and gas industry as the endowments launched the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a coalition of foundations, environmental groups and gas developers.
In August, the endowments fired two key staff members, including its top environmental officer, Caren Glotfelty. Speculation swirled at that time about whether Mr. Vagt might also leave the philanthropy.
In a prepared statement released to the Post-Gazette, Mr. Vagt gave no specific reason for his pending departure.
"As looming on the horizon is my 67th birthday, this seemed to be an appropriate time for me to step down," the statement said.
The news came during a regularly scheduled Monday morning meeting of program staff at the endowments' offices Downtown.
Toward the end of the meeting, administrative staff was called in so that Mr. Vagt could inform the full staff that he would be leaving, said Carmen Lee, a spokeswoman for the endowments.
The Heinz Endowments, with assets of $1.4 billion, was created in 2007 as a result of the merger of the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Vira I. Heinz Endowment.
Last year, it distributed $75.1 million in grants to nonprofits involved in causes ranging from arts and culture to economic development and the environment. It is the second-largest foundation in Pittsburgh, behind the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and the 49th largest in the U.S., according to a ranking by the Foundation Center of the top 100 foundations in the country by assets.
Teresa Heinz Kerry, widow of U.S. Sen. H. John Heinz III, chairs the endowments' 14-member board, which includes her three sons, John, Andre and Christopher, and Christopher's wife, Sasha Heinz.
Following criticism from environmentalists and the August personnel shake-ups -- which included the departure of Douglas Root, communications director -- some observers said the board was divided about how to proceed on the controversial issues of drilling and fracking for natural gas. Many said Andre Heinz, an avid environmentalist, may have pushed to oust Ms. Glotfelty because of her strong relationships to state government and her good working relationships with the energy industry.
Ms. Glotfelty and Mr. Vagt spearheaded creation of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development as a way to bring together environmentalists and the gas industry to form new standards for extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale formation.
Environmentalists criticized the endowments and said Mr. Vagt had a conflict of interest because he is a board director and stockholder in Kinder Morgan, an energy business based in Houston, Texas, that either has an ownership stake or operates a total 80,000 miles of gas and petroleum pipelines.
Some observers said Andre Heinz assumed more control over personnel issues this past summer because his mother was hospitalized in Boston following a seizure.
Officers and board members of the endowments declined to discuss the staff shake-ups when they occurred and how much of a role Andre Heinz may have played in the personnel changes.
Prior to heading the endowments, Mr. Vagt spent 10 years as president of Davidson, a liberal arts school near Charlotte, N.C., where he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology. He also holds a master of divinity degree from Duke University.
Before his stint as a college president, Mr. Vagt had a variety of jobs, including prison warden, director of clinical programs in a mental health center in Alabama, assistant budget director for the state of New York and executive director of an agency that helped prevent New York City from filing for bankruptcy in the 1970s.
Then he spent 17 years with oil and gas companies in New York and Texas before becoming president of his alma mater.
Besides referring to his upcoming birthday in Monday's statement, Mr. Vagt said, "It has been my privilege to serve the Heinz family and the people of this region for six years, and to be associated with great colleagues at the Endowments and in this philanthropic community."
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580. First Published October 14, 2013 12:40 PM