Written by: Leslie Wells and Ken Bikoff
2022 marks a major milestone for majoring in making a difference. It’s the 50th anniversary of the founding of the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs—a recognition of five decades of O’Neill students, alumni, faculty, and staff changing the world.
“The O’Neill School’s great strength is its unique ability to support science in service to society,” said Dean Siân Mooney. “O’Neill alumni have a long record of leadership and accomplishments, creating and implementing public policies that make a positive difference for Indiana and beyond.”
That tradition began in 1972, when Indiana University announced it was creating a new school, one that would focus on solving the world’s problems through a multisector approach to public service.
“There was considerable concern among faculty, staff, and students that we needed to make the university relevant to solving the problems of the real world,” Charles Bonser noted during the school’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2012.
Bonser was the founding dean of what was then known as the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Six years after the school was established, it expanded into the heart of Indianapolis at IUPUI. The new location provided O’Neill and its students with direct access to a bustling downtown city center, ripe with urban opportunities for involvement in state government as well as high-profile nonprofit and private-sector organizations that could make an impact on the community and beyond.
The new location also provided room for the expansion of O’Neill’s programs. In addition to degrees in public affairs, management, and sustainability, O’Neill IUPUI provided new opportunities for students to study criminal justice and public safety management all within a major metropolitan area.
O’Neill has certainly evolved during the past 50 years. Its first graduating class of just 25 students grew to 351 students within a decade. The school also quickly attracted real-world experts from the public sector and environmental roles to join its faculty, doubling its faculty in the first 10 years. By its 25th anniversary, the school boasted more than 100 full-time faculty, 600 graduate students, and 1,600 undergraduate students, making it the largest school of its kind.
As the school expanded so did its reputation. Despite being a relatively young school, O’Neill was making a name for itself. In 1980, the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) singled out O’Neill as a model graduate program for other schools. A NASPAA poll of its 250 member schools resulted in a No. 1 ranking in published research for O’Neill and a No. 4 ranking in overall peer prestige.
By 1998, it had risen to No. 3 in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of “America’s Top Graduate Schools,” the highest-ranked graduate program at IU that year. But O’Neill wouldn’t stop there. By 2011, it was deemed the top school for both environmental policy and management and for nonprofit management. It also shared the overall No. 2 spot with Harvard’s Kennedy School that same year.
Just five years later, O’Neill had taken over the No. 1 position as the top graduate school in the nation. Its MPA program ranked No. 1 overall, as did its specializations in environmental policy and management, nonprofit management, and public finance and budgeting.
“To be ranked as the top program in the nation, ahead of legendary programs such as Harvard and Princeton, is a crowning achievement for our faculty and staff,” said then-dean John D. Graham.
The O’Neill School has continued to grow ever since, thanks in part to a generous $30 million gift from Paul H. O’Neill, who earned his MPA from IU in 1966 and was former Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. That gift brought along with it a new name for the school.
“I am honored to now have the opportunity to give back to this exemplary institution, which means so much to me,” O’Neill said at the time. “My hope is that the school remains a place of excellence where future leaders can combine passion with action and develop the confidence they need to engage with society’s greatest challenges and opportunities.”
During its 50 years, the O’Neill School has become one of the most respected institutions in the nation and the world. Its reputation has been built on stable leadership, visionary faculty, and driven students who have taken the lessons learned in the classroom and applied them to solve complex problems to create safe, sustainable, and thriving communities in Indiana, the United States, and the world.