Remembering Robert O’Neil

October 3, 2018

My colleagues and I were saddened to learn of the death of University of Virginia President Emeritus Robert O’Neil this past Sunday at the age of 83. Bob was an icon of higher education law, and one cannot tell the story of academic freedom and campus free speech without him.

Bob’s career was truly remarkable. He clerked for Justice William Brennan; taught law at the University of California at Berkeley, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Cincinnati, Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Virginia; served as vice president of the Indiana University system, and as president of the University of Wisconsin system and the University of Virginia; served as the general counsel for the American Association of University Professors; and was the founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Somehow, this is an incomplete list of Bob’s many achievements; a more complete inventory of his work as a teacher, an author, a board and committee member, an organizational leader, a speaker, and a mentor would span many more paragraphs still. Academic freedom has lost a champion.

I had the privilege of talking to Bob at Free Expression Network meetings over the years. Given his vast experience as both a scholar and a leader, his expert perspective on difficult questions was useful and clarifying, especially in disagreement, and I was always struck by his kindness and willingness to listen. On that note, I last saw Bob and his wife Karen two years ago in Minneapolis, at a terrific symposium organized by the Minnesota Law Review. They were preparing to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, and Karen’s Chicago Cubs were about to win the World Series. Spending time with the two of them was a real pleasure. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.

FIRE extends deep condolences to Bob’s family, friends, and colleagues.