In an e-mail to Branford College students Sunday night, Branford Master Steven Smith announced he will step down at the end of this year, marking the conclusion of his third term and 15th year as master.

Many Branfordians had heard rumors about Smith’s decision to depart prior to Sunday’s announcement. In an interview with the News Sunday, Smith declined to explain in detail his reasons for stepping down until a later date.

“It was one of the best things I’ve ever been privileged to do in my life,” Smith said. “It just seemed like the end of a term was the right time [to step down].”

Smith, who has taught at Yale for 27 years, said it was still too early to discuss his future plans at the University.

Alicia Heaney, who has served as Smith’s administrative assistant in Branford for the past 14 years, said this is a good time for Smith to step down from his post as master since he is still young enough to start a new chapter in his career instead of looking at retirement.

“He was a great mentor to the Branford students,” Heaney said. “It’s very hard to imagine Branford without him.”

Heaney said that Smith fostered a strong sense of community and college pride for Branfordians over the years. 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 added that he will appoint a search committee consisting of faculty fellows of the college and students to find a new master.

A new master will be appointed during the spring semester, Levin said. Heaney said she plans to continue working in Branford.

Branford Dean Hilary Fink said that Smith had an excellent relationship with the college and its students, and worked hard to organize master’s teas and other opportunities for Branfordians, including trips to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Dan Stone ’11, who has worked as a master’s aide since his sophomore year, said he felt lucky to have Smith as a master and get to know him. Stone said he was comfortable discussing subjects ranging from political philosophy and Zionism to social plans for the weekend with Smith, adding that the personal connections Smith developed with students set him apart as a master.

Ian Snow ’11, vice president of the Branford College Council, also said he is glad to have had Smith as a master during his four years at Yale. Snow said he feels sorry for underclassmen who will work with a new master as he or she adjusts to the job.

Snow said he had heard about Smith’s plans to step down last year from a friend who was close to Smith, so the official announcement was not a great surprise to him.

Smith is a political science professor and a 2009 recipient of the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences, an award granted to one professor each year at Commencement.