O’Neill to leave admissions office in June

O’Neill credits VP Behnke’s departure as influential in his decision to resign this summer

By Ella Christoph

Ted O’Neill (M.A. ‘70), dean of college admissions, announced Tuesday that he will be stepping down from his post this June, after serving for 22 years. He will leave a legacy of personal interaction with applicants and maintaining the quirky essay questions for which the University is well-known, even as it moved to the Common Application this year.

O’Neill will stay at the University and devote more time to teaching, a passion that he has continued to pursue even in his role as dean. O’Neill, who teaches the spring quarter of the Core humanities sequence Human Being and Citizen (HBC), will move into a full-time position teaching, researching, and writing. “I do love HBC,” said O’Neill, who may continue teaching the class as well as becoming involved with the Chicago Studies program.

O’Neill’s admissions philosophy has always reflected the character of the University.

“Of course, everything we have worked for in admissions, our resistance to trying to seek more applications, even if they are unsuitable, just for the sake of looking better in the eyes of US News and World Report, our understanding that standardized test scores are not the honest measure of a student’s ability or soul—these are the things of which our office is proud,” he said in an e-mail interview.

With Vice President and Dean of College Enrollment Michael Behnke, O’Neill has improved diversity and increased the number of applications the University receives each year.

Behnke’s announcement this fall that he will retire in June influenced O’Neill’s decision. “I certainly thought that Michael’s departure suggested that I may have come to a propitious time to make a change in my own life. We worked well together for a long time, and I knew the job would be less fulfilling without his presence,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill has gained recognition for his unique approach to admissions in an increasingly competitive world. “Things that have always really struck me are first the focus he’s always had on the individual, a very student-centered approach to admissions rather than numbers-driven…. He’s known for being particularly knowledgeable and reflective,” Behnke said. “He brings a reflective, almost scholarly approach to the field that’s been widely admired.”

The University has valued his method, said O’Neill. “I think I have a long track record of doing things my own way and no one ever intruded on my own way of doing things,” he said.

Despite O’Neill’s emphasis on finding students that fit with the school rather than focusing on admissions statistics, applications have steadily increased—and admissions rates have gone down—during his tenure. In February 1994, under O’Neill’s leadership, the University received a then-record 803 early applications. This year, the University received 3,795.

O’Neill came to the University of Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in English and earned his M.A. in 1970 after receiving a B.A. in American Studies from Michigan State University. He began working as an academic advisor after the birth of his first child and never completed his Ph.D.

He took his first job in academia at what is now Eugene Lang College, where he first discovered his passion for admissions work. “I loved the teaching, but I discovered I loved admissions work too. Such interesting young people, at such an interesting moment in their lives,” he said. He soon transferred to the U of C’s admissions office.

O’Neill said his experience as a teacher has influenced his perspective as an admissions officer. “Being a teacher has led me to never forget that any given applicant will be someone who will be asked to be part of our seminars, who will have to go to the board in calculus and work out a proof—I look for students who like to learn, and who can be generous with their ideas,” he said.

He said he has always recognized and respected the novel personality of the U of C. “An institution with as strong a character and as defined an identity as Chicago has—as long as a place doesn’t—some do, we don’t—mistakenly screw things up by wanting to be something it is not, by trying to make itself Williams, or Yale, by betraying itself one way or another—leads students to apply to it and to accept their offers because some genuine desire is connected to something genuine in the institution.”

While both Behnke and O’Neill will leave this summer, the University will strive to maintain the impact the team has had on the College’s admissions. The University has looked to several senior admissions officers from top universities across the country to replace Behnke, according to Vice President for Strategic Initiatives David Greene.

“One way of testing is actually trying to understand how leading admissions officers spend their time and…how can they express the values of places they’ve been before,” Greene said. He added that Behnke’s replacement will appoint O’Neill’s successor. Greene said that no University staff was considered for the position, including O’Neill.

Behnke said that he doesn’t expect admission’s attention to the individual to wane next year. “I think that the underlying values of the University and the approach to personalized admissions will not change,” Behnke said.