University of Minnesota
Helping to write history
Kathleen O’Brien reflects on a decade as vice president for U Services
By Rick Moore
On one of her last days as the vice president for University Services, Kathleen O’Brien sat down and allowed herself some time to reflect on what it’s been like to oversee, in essence, the U’s entire non-academic enterprise. She likened it to running a city—in this case, “the city of the University of Minnesota.”
“Being vice president for University Services is probably the most educational and interesting job I’ve had, because I am responsible for the whole physical University and all of its services and the non-academic operations,” O’Brien says. “And that means I get to know about everything that’s going on.”
Indeed, O’Brien had system-wide responsibility over capital planning and project management, emergency preparedness, and environmental health and safety, and managed the 23 million square feet of space on the Twin Cities campus. U Services has a $394 million annual operating budget and more than 3,000 employees.
“For someone who likes to learn and is intellectually curious, and likes diversity and ambiguity, it’s probably the best job you could have, right?,” she laughs.
‘A large, complex institution’
O’Brien’s resume is impressive, and includes stints as a Minneapolis City Council Member (Second Ward), chief of staff and senior policy advisor to former U president Nils Hasselmo, and city coordinator for Minneapolis—which is perhaps the perfect background for operating the “city of the U.”
“Over the years I became a seasoned public administrator interested in how large, complex institutions or governments that serve the people can do that the best—the most efficiently, but [with] the best service,” she says.
The U provided her a never-ending series of challenges. Early on in her tenure she was focused on shoring up the U’s relationship with architects, engineers, and contractors. Then her attention turned to emergency management and central security, followed by the Transforming the U initiative.
And on her plate of late? A heaping portion of new construction projects, from the football stadium and the Biomedical Discovery District to the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line and… well, make that a double portion of light rail.
It’s been all in a day’s work for a job where the end of the day is blurry.
“There’s a recognition when you work in a job like this that it’s 365/24/7,” O’Brien says, “and the only time you’re not working is when you go away someplace for a couple of weeks.”
Continuous improvement and dedication to service
Another significant challenge for O’Brien was trying to improve University Services in a harsh fiscal climate. She points out that in the last three years U Services leadership was able to cut the budget by 12 percent while maintaining the service focus, and made those changes while purposefully trying to avoid layoffs.
“That’s very important to me and I think very important to the community,” she says. “We really need to demonstrate our respect and our appreciation for people as individuals and try to maintain as many jobs as we can in times of dramatic change.”
O’Brien says the hardest part of a job like hers was to motivate and mobilize people around a common objective. But that’s made easier by the makeup and attitude of the U’s workforce.
“Most people who work here, whether they’re a custodian or a mechanic, a truck driver … or a communicator, could do their jobs other places,” she says, “but they choose to do them here because they understand they’re making a contribution to something greater.”
A historian with an eye for science
Now that O’Brien is stepping away from the job that kept her going “at 200 mph,” her eyes light up at the potential uses for her time, when she can decelerate the pace.
First off, she wants to volunteer—like in a homeless shelter, helping make a meal, etc.—at places “where I’m absolutely not in charge.” As well, she wants to honor her love of science by taking some classes, perhaps starting with a geology class this fall.
Then she wants to go back to being a historian, where her academic background lies, with an eye for expanding and diversifying the historical record to include more points of view on issues like affordable housing and the rebirth of the riverfront area in Minneapolis. (Her Ph.D. coursework was on U.S. immigration history and immigrant communities in Minnesota.)
“Many people who I’ve worked with over the years have said to me, ‘Kathy, you’ve got to write this stuff down; you can’t let those other guys tell the story,’” she says. And, she points out, “History belongs to those who write it.”
And as that pertains to the University of Minnesota, O’Brien has just helped author a long and significant chapter.