Days after he announced his resignation as head of NASA, Sean O’Keefe was tapped Thursday as the next chancellor at Louisiana State University’s main campus.
A search committee unanimously recommended O’Keefe for the post, and later in the day the LSU Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to offer him the job.
The New Orleans native’s connections to the Bush administrations — he’s held high positions under both father and son — apparently trumped any doubts over his lack of a doctorate, and Louisiana officials are evidently banking on those ties to reap quick national recognition for the university, along with federal money.
"It's taken a lot of thoughtful courage to choose a nontraditional candidate," Gov. Kathleen Blanco told the board. "I believe you are on the right path."
Search committee member John Davies noted LSU’s relatively weak financial position among the nation’s universities and said of O’Keefe, “He’ll close the gap.”
O’Keefe arrived Wednesday as the odds-on favorite to take the vacant chancellor’s position at the Baton Rouge campus, where enrollment is more than 30,000. He toured the campus and met with student and faculty leaders.
At a packed gathering of faculty and students Wednesday afternoon, the experienced Washington bureaucrat conceded he is “by no means a traditional candidate,” but he deflected a professor’s question about his lack of a doctoral degree, pointing to academic positions he has held as “testimonial from institutions.”
Political science professor Wayne Parent said he feels “fairly positive” about O’Keefe. “He seems to have the experience dealing with government, and that’s what we need,” he said.
O’Keefe, a Loyola of New Orleans graduate who has been secretary of the Navy and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, built his academic resume from 1993-2001.
He held an endowed chair at Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and served as the director of National Security Studies, a partnership of Syracuse University and Johns Hopkins University. He was also a professor of business administration at Pennsylvania State University, according to a resume posted on LSU’s Web site.
'Opportunity to come home'
At Wednesday’s gathering, O’Keefe expressed enthusiasm for “the opportunity to come home,” praised Blanco for her “fantastic” commitment to improving the university, and commended LSU for its balance between academics and athletics.
He also touched briefly on the challenges he faced at NASA after the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.
LSU has a championship football team and its chancellor is among the highest-paid in the nation, but it trails badly in national measures of excellence.
In widely followed rankings by U.S. News & World Report, LSU is listed in the third tier of schools, and ranks low in peer esteem, well below institutions such as Georgia Tech and the University of Texas.
Louisiana is last in per-student funding in higher education in the South.
LSU system president William Jenkins was said to have had his eye on O’Keefe, 48, for some time as a possible successor to Mark Emmert, who left in June to become president at the University of Washington. Emmert earned nearly $500,000 a year at LSU.