Robert M. O’Neil, who as president of UVA was known for his commitment to increasing student and faculty diversity, died on Sept. 30. “He elevated the understanding that diversity was an issue we had to recognize and that it added value to the institution,” said Leonard Sandridge (Grad ’74), UVA’s former executive vice president and COO.
O’Neil, also a renowned First Amendment scholar, died from congestive heart failure. He was 83.
Born in Boston, he obtained bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees from Harvard University. In 1962, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan.
“Justice Brennan told me that Bob was among the best clerks he had ever had,” said UVA law professor A. E. Dick Howard (Law ’61), who had clerked for Justice Hugo Black. Many clerks “wanted to prove just how smart they were,” Howard said, but “Bob stood out for being low-keyed and lacking in any sense of pretentiousness.”
In 1963, O’Neil began teaching law at the University of California at Berkeley, and later held positions as provost of the University of Cincinnati, vice president of Indiana University and president of the University of Wisconsin system.
He became UVA’s sixth president in 1985, the first non-Southerner to lead the institution and the first since Edwin A. Alderman, UVA’s first president, not to have either attended or taught here. He would end up serving just five years, the shortest term of any of UVA’s eight past presidents.
During his time, the University added four study programs and a master’s of teaching degree. O’Neil was also determined to add more minority and female students and faculty. Scholarship programs for African-American students were established in 1987 and 1988, and UVA opened the University’s Women’s Center in 1989.
“Bob helped make the University of Virginia a more inclusive place,” Howard said. This emphasis on diversity, his former colleagues believe, is his chief legacy as president.
After leaving office in 1990, O’Neil taught constitutional law at UVA, focusing on free speech and the press, as well as church and state. He was the founding director of the nonpartisan Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which recently praised O’Neil on its website for his “boundless energy” and “acute sense of how to make Americans appreciate and value First Amendment rights.”
O’Neil also served as director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, general counsel of the American Association of University Professors, and as senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Friends and co-workers say they’ll remember O’Neil not only for his intellect but also for his kindness, civility and honesty. “He was the most thoroughly decent person I’ve ever known,” said Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55), emeritus special assistant to the president.
Survivors include O’Neil’s wife, Karen Elson O’Neil; four children, including Ben O’Neil (Col ’00); and 13 grandchildren.