Last March I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Loyola University’s most accomplished alumni, Sean O’Keefe, who graduated in 1977 with a degree in history. O’Keefe has held many noteworthy positions over his storied career including Secretary of the United States Navy, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Administrator of NASA, Chancellor of Louisiana State University, and Chief Executive of Airbus North America. Today he is the Howard G. and S. Louise Phanstiel Chair in Strategic Management and Leadership at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He has also served on Loyola’s Board of Trustees.
O’Keefe has been interviewed extensively about the time he has spent in high profile positions, but this conversation focuses instead on his upbringing, college years, and early career after he graduated from Syracuse’s Maxwell School and headed off to Washington, D.C. to become a presidential intern.
As an undergraduate at Loyola, O’Keefe was active in both student government and as a columnist for The Maroon, the university’s newspaper. He credits his time at Loyola for forming his professional outlook and preparing him to successfully engage the numerous challenges and opportunities that later defined his career. “I had the good fortune of having faculty members,” observes O’Keefe, “who would just really probe that point and say, ‘fine, fine, again, I appreciate your opinion but tell me why you think that way. Give me a structured reason why you think that way,’ and force you to put some analytical thought to why you have points of view. That’s what this is about.” The Jesuit idea of cura personalis became not only an educational model, but a guide to life for O’Keefe. “That’s a very critical feature of I think what of in large measure of what Jesuit education does in the first place, but it’s also… …a consequence of the remarkable combination of what really quite thoughtful faculty bring to the occasion.”
O’Keefe began his career of public service in the late 1970s as part of a then-new internship that is today called the Presidential Management Fellows Program, which he credits with building his understanding of the way government should work. “You earn responsibilities and assignments by your willingness to want to participate,” he observed, “and the more you participated, the more you learn about how the process worked and the more you gain insight into how all of it conducted itself so that by the time I get done with that two years, it was the functional equivalent of really ten years worth of exposure at lots of different levels. Some very senior, some very pedestrian, you know, and all that counts.”
O’Keefe described one particular aspect of the Presidential Internship program that led to an unlikely and enduring friendship, one that lends insight into the way that true public service can transcend superficial barriers of partisanship:
“You’d get together with a relatively senior public official for a mentoring opportunity, and it usually met, you know, pizza and beer and shooting the breeze, or whatever, with some of the people who were involved, and the person that I was assigned, the group that I was assigned to, was led by… …the Department of Housing and Urban Development, at the time, and her name is Donna Shalala. And Donna Shalala was, you know, look at today, went on to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services, had been the President of the University of Miami for years, did all kinds of great things, and she was just one these people I looked at and said, “This is, you know, very young, very energetic, extremely focused” appointee in the Carter Administration at that time, about as politically opposite in her point of view as I’ve ever been and we’ve been fast friends ever since. She was just, electrifying. She was just unbelievable to see the attitude she had about how, you know, leadership, the philosophy of what you do, how you focus on things, and I not only had, you know, the opportunity to spend time with her well along with a couple of dozen other colleagues every couple of months or so, but learned a lot from just the mindset and the attitude which she did and have stayed in touch with her ever since.”
A well documented episode in O’Keefe’s life is that he and his son had survived the same 2010 airplane crash that killed Alaska’s Republican Senator Ted Stevens and four other people. When I asked about Stevens, with whom O’Keefe had frequently worked during his time in Washington, he took the opportunity to reflect on the way that government worked then and how genuine bipartisanship was part of it:
“Stevens is one of these people who, you know, really understood the dynamics of personal relationships. He was, he worked across the aisle very effectively on things that mattered and one his very closest colleagues was J. Bennett Johnston. (Democrat from Louisiana) And, you know, you look at this in paper and you think about this today in the acid kind of environment of partisanship. This… …this is kind of viewed as quaint. No, it was the way things were done and it was the way things were accomplished and its a way governance worked”
We also discussed the importance of public service and its rewards as a career. For college students considering work in such a field, O’Keefe’s observations merit reading:
“I mean being part of a global company like Airbus and running the U.S. subsidiary, that corporation, was incredibly fun. It was a great experience. It was a wonderful time. It was doing things that I was very, very attracted to, and very, very taken with, but it had no where near the kind of influence to the broader range of impact which you could have that public service ever had in its most modest circumstances. You went on a fair day, it had more to do with influencing those outcomes than I ever did as a, you know, corporate executive in those kinds of roles. It was, you know, again, satisfying, it was very interesting, it was a great experience all along, it’s the kind of thing that has really benefited my understanding how public policy then influences the way corporations behave and the way, you know, all this works; but in terms of it’s real impact on people, on communities, on the general condition, of populations, neh, it’s nothing by comparison.”
You may download the full transcript of the interview here.