Remembering Robert O'Neil

By Rachel Levinson-Waldman

Robert M. O’Neil, a passionate advocate for academic freedom and the First Amendment and a longtime champion of the AAUP, died on September 30 at age eighty-three. As counsel to the AAUP from 2006 to 2011, I had the honor of working closely with Bob; he had an extraordinary career as a scholar, lawyer, teacher, and leader.

After earning bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees from Harvard University, Bob clerked for Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan in 1961–62 (he later supported the creation of the Brennan Center for Justice, where I now work). Bob taught at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and became an AAUP member in 1966. Later—while continuing to teach—he embraced university administration, serving as vice president of Indiana University, president of the University of Wisconsin system, and president of the University of Virginia.

Bob’s contributions to higher education and the First Amendment were not limited to his university roles. He served as senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, chair of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, and a member of the National Advisory Board of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was the founding president of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a position he held for twenty years. Bob also penned more than half a dozen books and countless articles, op-eds, and amicus briefs.

Bob was well-known to—and deeply admired by—generations of AAUP leaders, members, and staff. His contributions to the AAUP spanned the Association’s most critical issue areas, including serving as chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 1992 to 1999; as general counsel for three terms, at twenty-year intervals (1970–72, 1990–92, and 2010–12); and as cochair of the AAUP’s first-ever capital campaign, the Campaign for the Common Good. He also chaired three committees that produced landmark reports: the Special Committee on Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis (2002–03), the Special Committee on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities (2006–07), and a subcommittee of Committee A formed to address academic freedom concerns in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2008–09).

With all of these achievements, what stood out about Bob was his unparalleled generosity and kindness. Bob was an extraordinarily supportive mentor. Despite his almost incalculably greater knowledge of every issue we confronted together at the AAUP, he never flaunted that fact. He was always willing to share his expertise and perspective, listening attentively before offering advice as an equal partner. At the same time, he was a champion of his colleagues’ professional development, and he saw our successes as his. That is a rare balance to strike, and one that came naturally to him.

Another of Bob’s lasting legacies is his diplomacy in finding solutions to knotty legal and organizational dilemmas. A former colleague recalls a story from Bob’s time as a university leader: the institution had a policy that provided different death benefits depending on whether a death occurred before or after midnight, and an employee had recently died exactly at midnight. Faced with a quandary about how to apply the policy, Bob directed his staff to proceed in whichever way was more advantageous to the family. More broadly, he came to every interaction without ego, and was never interested in being right for the sake of being right. He always assumed the best of others, and he acted accordingly.

Finally, it was impossible to know Bob without knowing that his family held a place of primary importance. Through him I have been fortunate to get to know his wife, Karen, and few conversations with him concluded without a report on the newest grandchild or the latest developments in the lives of one of his four children, Elizabeth, Peter, Dave, and Ben. His love and affection for them was palpable, and when I had my own children, he generously expressed his joy for our family. Bob was a one-of-a-kind colleague, and he will be deeply missed.

Bob’s family has requested that contributions in his memory be made to the AAUP Foundation or the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rachel Levinson-Waldman is senior counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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