Robert Marchant O'Neil


Honorary Degree (1987)
Doctor of Laws
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: John William Ryan


Robert Marchant O'Neil, president of the University of Virginia, has achieved national distinction as a university administrator, legal scholar and educator, and public servant in higher education. A thoughtful and able administrator, he held high positions at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Cincinnati, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin prior to his current appointment at the University of Virginia. He is respected as one of the nation's most effective university presidents.

Mr. O'Neil received the A.B. from Harvard University in 1956, the A.M. in American history in 1957, and the LL.B. in 1961. His first academic position was as instructor in speech and program director at Tufts University. Subsequently he was a teaching fellow in American history and research assistant in law at Harvard University, later becoming law clerk to Justice of the United States Supreme Court William J. Brennan, Jr., in 1962-1963.

Following four years as acting associate professor and then professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley, Mr. O'Neil became executive assistant to the president and professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1967. In 1969 he returned to the law faculty at Berkeley. In 1972 he was appointed vice president and provost for academic affairs and in 1973 executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Cincinnati.

In 1975 Robert O'Neil came to Indiana University as vice president for the Bloomington campus. The University benefited from his effective administration in this position for five years, and in part as a result of his outstanding leadership here, he was selected in 1980 for the presidency of the University of Wisconsin system. In 1985 he was appointed to his current position as president of the University of Virginia.

Mr. O'Neil has maintained his academic career even while carrying high administrative responsibilities. In each of his administrative posts he has continued to teach, and at the University of Virginia he holds the George M. Kaufman professorship of law. He is esteemed by his students and colleagues as a dedicated and charismatic teacher, and he has continued an output of research and publication in law that would be substantial for a full-time academic. He is the author of eleven books and more than thirty-five articles.

As an administrator, Mr. O'Neil combines a superb sense of academic purpose and commitment with a persuasive support that is eminently suited to the environment of higher education. His vision of the direction of an institution for the future is never obscured by day-to-day complications. As a system vice president at Indiana University he dealt effectively with the geographic and academic complexity of the multi-campus system, and brought this experience and expertise to the demanding position of president of the University of Wisconsin system. At Wisconsin he was able to lead the University forward in significant ways despite the period of economic austerity during which he served as president. In the position of president of the University of Virginia, he effectively carries on the long traditions of that fine school within the context and constraints of the 1980s.

Robert O'Neil's background and philosophy as a legal scholar inform his approach to administrative leadership. His concern for First-Amendment freedoms, eloquently expressed in his scholarly writings, and his sense of the need for cooperation and coordination among the central institutions of society, are examples of this. Throughout his administrative career he has worked to build greater understanding between the federal government and institutions of higher education. In support of this understanding, he has promoted the development of a consensus of methods and strategies that accords with commonly held values and goals.

Robert O'Neil's national leadership on behalf of higher education is carried out through active and effective service in a broad range of organizations. He has served as a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and as a member of the board of directors of the Council on Post-Secondary Accreditation, the Educational Testing Service, and the Johnson Foundation.

His extensive service is reflected also in membership on and chairmanship of national organizations and committees in law and higher education, including the American Association for Higher Education, the American Association of University Professors, the American Bar Association, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Colleges, the Association of American Law Schools, the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, and the National Association of Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. The blend of wisdom and innovation that is characteristic of Robert O'Neil; a theme carried through all his administrative work, has benefited the universities that he has served in ways that long outlast his tenure in office.