Years as a city leader will aid new University vice president

by Paul Sand

Kathleen O’Brien knows the University quite well.

O’Brien, 57, returned to the University after serving as Minneapolis city coordinator to be the new Vice President for University Services. In some ways, she said, she never really left.

“Between being a graduate student, an instructor and representing the University community on the (City) Council, I’ve really been part of the University community for the last thirty years,” she said.

“She’ll tell you she’s a bureaucrat, but she means that with a real element of pride,” said Minneapolis City Council member Barret Lane. “She knows how to make large organizations work.”

O’Brien replaces interim Vice President Greg Fox, who held the position since February when Eric Kruse resigned.

As a historian at the Minnesota Historical Society, O’Brien said she dealt extensively with Minneapolis and the University on tenants’ rights and historical preservation issues. As a result, O’Brien said, she was elected to the Minneapolis City Council and represented the University area from 1982-89.

O’Brien said serving on the council allowed her to see how policy issues relate directly to people. She also said she had the opportunity to bring together different groups, including the Board of Regents, University administration, neighborhoods and businesses to make changes to the area.

After serving on the City Council, O’Brien returned to the University as chief of staff under former President Nils Hasselmo from 1989-94.

O’Brien then jumped back into government and became city coordinator.

“After going back to the city of Minneapolis, I brought a lot of my learning from being in the president’s office,” she said. “Trying to move the University towards more accountability, more efficiency and more effectiveness and demonstrating the value of the institution to the people of Minnesota (and) the Legislature.”

As city coordinator, O’Brien oversaw much of the funding and expansion of the Minneapolis Convention Center.

“Kathleen’s job was to be our voice in the project, to work directly with the project manager, with the developer, to make sure our vision was realized,” said Sharon Sayles Belton, former Minneapolis mayor and current Hubert H. Humphrey fellow.

“We did a lot of great things at the city level, and Kathleen played an instrumental role,” she said.

Sayles Belton added that O’Brien can see the big picture of an issue and understands the importance of teamwork.

“Some people choose to be more combative and challenge the system – I certainly had my time doing that,” O’Brien said. “But over the past 20 years, I’ve really focused on trying to bring people together from various constituencies and make change happen within the system.”

And O’Brien will need her experience at bringing together various groups as Vice President for University Services.

O’Brien is in charge of managing nearly all the services the University provides: campus mail, bookstores, the police department, construction, housing, dining services and everything in between.

The vice president and city coordinator roles are comparable, O’Brien said. Both jobs involve large budgets, managing big groups of people and trying to provide a wide variety of services, she said.

Helping University Services’ 3,000 employees value what they do is the biggest challenge, she said.

“I believe that as an individual employee, if I believe that what I’m doing is adding value, I’m going to enjoy it more, I’m going to have better morale and I’m going to do a better job,” O’Brien said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Even with this challenge, O’Brien said, her focus is still on efficiently delivering relevant services.

“My main focus in the city was really on how do we renegotiate the contract between the people and their city government,” she said. “What do the people of the city want the city government to do?”

It’s a similar situation here, she said.

Assessing University Service involves determining whether the department is providing the right services and providing them well, O’Brien said.

“If we’re providing services, and people don’t want them,” she said, “it doesn’t matter how excellent they are.”

Even with the state facing a $3 billion deficit, O’Brien said she is confident she can handle any cuts in funding.

“I’ve been through many cut cycles, so I have a lot of experience with dealing with the ups and downs of public funding,” she said.

O’Brien added that in her City Council term she chaired the ways and means committee, which oversees the city budget.

Strong communication and a deep understanding of the University community within University Services will be important if there are future funding cuts, O’Brien said. A full understanding of services will make it easier to set priorities and identify areas that could be cut, she added.

“The worst thing University Services can do is over-promise and not have clear expectations.

“It’s better to do some things very well, meet expectations and keep the University working than to try to do everything kind of OK,” she said.

“University Services are here to support the academic enterprise. If we’re doing well, you shouldn’t even know we’re doing it.”

Paul Sand welcomes comments at [email protected]