Master Steven Smith announced he would be stepping down at the end of this year, which marks the end of his third term as master, he announced in an email to Branford students Sunday night.

“It was one of the best things I’ve ever been privileged to do in my life,” Smith said of his 15 years as master. “It just seemed like the end of a term was the right time [to step down],” he said. Many Branford students had heard rumors about Smith’s decision to depart prior to this evening’s announcement, many knowing that this year would mark the end of his third term.

In his email and in an interview with the News, Smith said he would provide more information about the reasons for his decision to step down at a later date.

“He was a great mentor to the Branford students,” said Alicia Heaney, who has been his administrative assistant in Branford for the past 14 years. “It’s very hard to imagine Branford without him.”

Heaney said that Smith fostered a strong sense of community and college pride for Branford students over the years. She added that students became attached not only to Branford College, but also to Master Smith himself. She said Smith helped students develop intellectually and learn to test themselves in order to grow further.

“He’s been an excellent model for a serious scholar who brings a great deal to his community,” University President Richard Levin said. Levin said he will appoint a search committee, consisting of faculty fellows of the college and students, to help find a new master. The new master should be appointed during the spring semester, Levin said.

Dean Hilary Fink said that Smith had an excellent relationship with the college and its students, and worked tirelessly to organize exciting opportunities for students, including master’s teas and trips to the opera in New York City.

Dan Stone ’11, who has worked as a master’s aide since his sophomore year, said he has been lucky to get to know Smith and have him as his master. He said he could have long conversations with Smith about things ranging from political philosophy and Zionism to social plans for the weekend, and that the personal connections Smith developed with students set him apart as a master.

Smith said it was still too early to discuss his future plans at Yale. Heaney said that this was a good time for Smith to step down, since he is still young enough that instead of looking at retirement, he can look to starting a new chapter in his career.

Heaney, for her part, said Smith really made her feel like a part of the Branford community, and she plans to continue working in Branford.