Former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and IU alumnus, Paul H. O’Neill, who demonstrated extraordinary leadership across the public, private and non-profit sectors, died Saturday (April 18) in Pittsburgh at the age of 84.
O’Neill was known for his unflinching integrity, his data-driven approach to decision making, and his strong commitment to public service. His distinguished career in government and industry represented a remarkable combination of business acumen and devotion to the greater good.
O’Neill came to Indiana University as part of the federal government program that sent promising mid-career federal employees to universities for advanced studies.
He recently wrote: “In 1965, the government sent me to IU for a year-long master’s program in public policy. To have this time for study and thinking was the opportunity of a lifetime for me, although it was a challenging time for my wife Nancy who was in a small apartment with our four kids ages 9, 7, 2, and six months old…. During my year at IU, I learned how to structure my thinking and how to develop systems of data gathering and analysis that have been invaluable throughout my life.”
He started his career in government service under President John F. Kennedy and continued working under presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Under these administrations, he acted as a computer systems analyst from 1961–1967 for the U.S. Veterans Administration and as a staff member and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1967–1977. Mr. O’Neill left government to work in the private sector for several years before returning to public service in 2001 as 72nd Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
Erudite and always well prepared, O’Neill succeeded in the private sector as president of International Paper Company, and later at Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, a company of more than 140,000 employees worldwide. At Alcoa he developed a reputation as an independent-minded business leader who put a special emphasis on worker safety, which eventually gained workers’ loyalty and increased productivity.
Under his leadership, the company’s revenues increased from $1.5 billion to $23 billion over 13 years. The Harvard Business School chronicled his transformation of Alcoa, an “old economy” firm, into a new economy success, as a case study that business schools across the nation continue to use today.
“Paul O’Neill was an extraordinary leader who embodied the very ideals we strive to impart in our students,” said Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie. “He insisted on a level of excellence that inspired and sharpened not only himself, but those around him. Whether as a CEO or one of our government’s highest servants, Paul O’Neill set a standard of leadership that will serve as an example for generations to come.”
O’Neill remained a dedicated alumnus, returning frequently to meet with students and faculty, providing candid, yet inspiring insight into the roles of the corporate leader or public administrator. In 2019, O’Neill and his wife, Nancy, announced a transformative, $30 million gift to the school that will provide student scholarships, faculty fellowships, and a new center on leadership in public service. In recognition of his gift and his lifetime of service, the school was renamed the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs in 2019.
“We are greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Paul O’Neill today,” said Siân Mooney, dean of the O’Neill School. “Paul lived a life that was genuine and inspiring. He knew what all great leaders know, and that was to lead by example.
“Whether it was eschewing a corner office for a cubicle or giving his home phone number to those in charge of workplace safety, Paul knew that his most valuable assets were the people who worked for him, and he worked tirelessly to ensure they had the safest work environment possible.” Mooney continued. “Paul was a visionary who led with conviction, and we couldn’t be more proud to carry on his legacy of selflessness and the pursuit of excellence.”
After leaving government service in 2002, O’Neill remained active in the world of think tanks and public policy discussion. In the years before passage of the national health care reform bill in 2010, he offered several proposals for covering the low-income uninsured, and called for the government to set national performance goals for health care institutions.
He co-founded the nonprofit Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative to address the clinical and economic problems of the region’s health care system drawing on the data-driven approach to process improvement used by Japanese automakers. He later founded Value Capture, LLC, which provides counsel and support to health care executives and policymakers who share his conviction that the value of health care operations can increase substantially through the pursuit of perfect safety and clinical outcomes.
O’Neill was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from California State University, Fresno. He studied economics at Claremont Graduate University, and earned a Master of Public Administration from Indiana University. O’Neill is survived by his wife, Nancy, and four children, 12 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren.