Robert O’Neil, former University of Virginia president and scholar of First Amendment, dies at 83

WASHINGTON — Robert O’Neil, a scholar of First Amendment law who served in the 1980s as president of the University of Wisconsin system and then as president of the University of Virginia, where he was credited with recruiting more minorities to the faculty and student ranks, died Sunday at his home in Washington. He was 83.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son David O’Neil.

A Boston-born, Harvard-trained law professor, Dr. O’Neil arrived at UVa. in 1985 as the university’s first president with ‘‘absolutely no ties to the South,’’ The Washington Post reported in a profile. He had previously led the 13-university system in Wisconsin for five years and was seen at his inauguration in Charlottesville as an outsider who would help raise the national profile of the institution founded by former president Thomas Jefferson.


Dr. O’Neil remained in his UVa. post until 1990, a notably short tenure at a university that had had only five previous presidents since 1905. Some colleagues described him as a ‘‘more of a professor than a president,’’ the Post reported when he stepped down, even as Dr. O’Neil was lauded for his financial stewardship of the university and his efforts to increase its diversity.

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During Dr. O’Neil’s time as president, the UVa. endowment increased to $470 million from $256 million, and outside research funding grew substantially. In addition to spearheading efforts to draw more minority students and faculty, he oversaw the establishment of a women’s center on campus and convened a task force that highlighted — and sought ways to remedy — the low number of female professors.

After stepping down as UVa. president, Dr. O’Neil spent two decades as founding director of the nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The organization, independent but tied to UVa., seeks to defend First Amendment protections of religion, speech, and the press through court briefs, public programming, and the awarding of so-called Jefferson Muzzle Awards for what it considers the flagrant violations of those freedoms. Dr. O’Neil retired in 2011.

Robert Marchant O’Neil was born in Boston on Oct. 16, 1934. His father worked in investment banking, and his mother volunteered for philanthropic causes.

At Harvard, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and a master’s degree in 1957, both in American history, and a law degree in 1961. Upon graduation he was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr.


Dr. O’Neil taught at the University of California Berkeley before beginning his career in academic administration. He served as provost of the University of Cincinnati and vice president of Indiana University Bloomington before joining the University of Wisconsin in 1980. Throughout his career he continued teaching law even as he upheld his administrative responsibilities.

He leaves his wife of 51 years, the former Karen Elson of Washington; four children, Elizabeth Layne of Austin, Peter O’Neil of San Francisco, David O’Neil of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Benjamin O’Neil of Baltimore; and 13 grandchildren.