OíNeill steps down as Admissions Dean, returns to full-time teachingBy Julia Morse
After 20 years as Dean of College Admissions, Ted O’Neill is embarking on what he calls the “best next stage for my life,” as a full-time teacher, researcher and writer at the University.
“Admissions has been very good to me, and I think that in my years here, our recruitment and admission of new classes have played a part in making the best college even better,” O’Neill said. “We have developed a recognizable, Chicago style and practice of admissions that is personal and attentive to the way an individual student thinks about his or her education, while remaining true to the claims that our College makes about the excellence of its education.”
O’Neill first came to the University as a graduate student working toward his master’s degree in English Language & Literature. As he plans to venture back into the classroom full time, he recognizes that his career has come full circle.
“When I arrived at the University in the summer of 1969, I dreamed of living such a life, though didn’t dare to dream that I would be able to live that life here, at the university I respect more than any other,” O’Neill said.
Before discovering a passion for admissions, O’Neill assisted in teaching, tutoring and advising at the University and Chicago State University. He joined the Office of College Admissions 27 years ago. He began as Associate Director of College Admissions, quickly advanced to Acting Director of College Admissions, Director of College Admissions and became Dean of College Admissions in 1989. During the past 17 years, O’Neill also has taught in the College Division of Humanities.
“All of us in the College owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Ted O’Neill,” said John Boyer, Dean of the College. “His longstanding and distinguished service has consistently brought to us the talented, creative and ambitious students that make it a privilege to teach at the University of Chicago. Over the years, Ted has played a central role in recruiting increasingly diverse classes to the College.”
In 1988, the year before O’Neill was named Dean of College Admissions, the College received 5,377 applications, while for the 2009-2010 school year, the College received a record 13,589 applications.
“During the past 27 years, Ted O’Neill has led one of the most respected admissions offices in higher education,” said Michael Behnke, Vice-President and Dean of College Enrollment. “This is because he has always kept the admissions process at Chicago focused on the applicant, rather than on pressures on such things as increasing application numbers for the sake of numbers or increasing average SAT scores by giving them wore weight than they deserve. He has been a national leader for a ‘student-centered’ approach to admissions.”
Behnke added, “Ted oversaw years of great progress at Chicago in increasing the applicant pool, strengthening the academic background of entering students, increasing diversity and making the University of Chicago more often the choice of the most deserving students in the world.”
In 1988, 39 African American students, 137 Asian students and 26 Hispanic students applied to the College. This year, the College received 776 applications from African American students, 2,844 from Asian students and 1,004 from Hispanic students.
“I am pleased to think that as more and more of the students most suited to the College have applied, and as we have become more of a school of choice for the most thoughtful students in the country and the world, our truly Chicagoan treatment and selection of students has set a standard for the way most colleges wish they could behave,” O’Neill said. “The past two years have been the best admission years the College has seen in more than 50 years. I will leave the office with the comfort of knowing that we are on the proper course.”
The College recently has enjoyed record years, including a 20 percent increase in applications between 2007 and 2008. Additionally, twice during O’Neill’s tenure as Dean of Admissions were there 26 percent increases in applications.
“Throughout his career, he has set a standard of integrity and of devotion to the ideals of liberal education that have served our College superbly,” Boyer said of O’Neill. “His leadership has brought us national distinction in the field of college admissions.”
Lloyd Thacker, Executive Director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the college admissions process, said that if all college admissions deans had one-tenth of O’Neill’s sensibility, thoughtfulness and dedication, he would be out of a job.
“I have been in the world of college admissions for 30 years, and I can say unequivocally that more than any person in this profession, Ted has made the biggest impact, excelled the most and led the rest of us by an extraordinary example,” Thacker said. “I’ve never met an admissions dean who could attract all the right students for all the right reasons liked Ted O’Neill. He personifies the kind of place that the University of Chicago is, and students love him because of that.”
O’Neill has received a constant stream of national media attention and interest. In 2007 the Chronicle of Higher Education named him one of the “10 Admissions Deans Who Are Shaping Their Field,” and he was profiled as “The Gatekeeper” in the Chicago Tribune Magazine in 2008.
O’Neill’s extremely personalized, highly dedicated admissions style was highlighted in the Chronicle story, as well as the charm and charisma that allow him to stand out in the world of admissions. Reporters noted O’Neill’s many nicknames—“guru,” “philosopher king” and even “the god of admissions.”
When the Chicago Tribune Magazine asked his favorite part of the admissions process, O’Neill said, “I like the ritual of sitting and signing 3,400 admit letters, and appending notes going to the students I have come to know. That brings me pleasure, and I know the letters bring them joy. I love getting up in Rockefeller Chapel to welcome the new students, and poking fun at the University’s pretensions, and telling the students how good they really are. And I always like talking to small groups of students about their thoughts and lives, and about the University of Chicago, which I truly think is capable of changing lives in such important ways. I even like sitting down on a winter night with what used to be stacks of files, now with my computer, and reading applications, which is like reading a lot of very interesting stories.”
John McCormick, former Newsweek magazine bureau chief and now a Chicago Tribune editor, sat in on a year of admissions committee meetings several years ago and marveled in print about O’Neill’s emphasis, not on statistical measures in application files, but on making sure his staff was “getting each applicant’s story straight.”
McCormick recalled the many students who intrigued O’Neill, including a student whose football coach wrote, “This boy reads poetry and physics in the locker room. I don’t have another one like him.” Later, walking across a quadrangle on a winter day, O’Neill confided to McCormick that his quest was to admit students who embrace complex ideas and ceaseless discussion. “We tell people we’re seeking rigor,” O’Neill told the reporter. “What we are really seeking is love.”
O’Neill’s interaction with students while teaching in the Humanities Division, in part, led him to venture out of admissions and into teaching, writing and research full time.
“I have had a nice, long introduction to working around the seminar table with our students, the most interesting to be found anywhere,” O’Neill said. “If working in admissions has been tremendously rewarding, and always fun, I think being a full-time teacher, with some time for writing about my experiences in admissions and at the University, will be the best next stage for my life.”
Behnke, who has worked side-by-side with O’Neill in the Office of Admissions for nearly 13 years, said that O’Neill’s love of learning and direct involvement in the classroom has contributed immeasurably to the depth of his observations on admissions and higher education.
“It is very fitting that Ted has chosen to devote the next portion of his career to more teaching, as well as research on and writing about the field to which he has contributed so much,” Behnke said. “All of us can look forward to continuing to benefit from his wisdom.”