A Lasting Legacy
"I really enjoy engaging with the students."
At the first Business School faculty meeting of the academic year, William J. O’Neill, Jr., announced that he will step down as dean after the 2019-20 academic year.
Over the course of his 18-year tenure, O’Neill transformed the Business School, taking its robust academic and practical programming to a higher level by incorporating a global mission that would help students gain a greater understanding of international business practices and cultures.
Under his leadership, the Business School established an undergraduate degree in Global Business Management and launched global travel seminars and international internships that have expanded students’ horizons and enhanced their career prospects. He also established a Center for Entrepreneurship to support student initiatives, and, under his watch, the University launched its first endowed chair in entrepreneurial studies.
“The Sawyer Business School has positively impacted thousands of students and alumni and is helping to ensure that the workforce needs of twenty-first-century industries are met. This is possible because of Dean O’Neill’s leadership,” said Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly. “He has left his mark, and I know I speak for the Suffolk community when I say, thank you, Dean O’Neill.”
A few days after the announcement, O’Neill sat down to discuss his legacy, the future of the Business School, and what he’s most looking forward to when he takes a sabbatical in 2020-21.
Q: The Business School today is incredibly international, and there are numerous opportunities for students to engage globally. What was the motivation to ensure they get that kind of education?
Dean O’Neill: There were a number of reasons for that. One was the world was moving in that direction. At the time, there was a lot of discussion and conversation about how the 21st century would be the century of the Pacific while the 20th was the century of the Atlantic. And that’s actually been happening.
Another reason is that the Business School at the time was very Boston-focused. We wanted students to have a better understanding of the entire world they were headed into, not just what they could see from the campus. So we said: Let’s make sure the students going here have a global exposure—not just book learning, but also the chance to get on an airplane, go overseas, go someplace where they don't speak the language, where the food is different, the culture is different. How, in a week's time, can they feel confident, comfortable, and engage with people who are from other countries? Because it’s very likely that at some point they’re going to do business with them. It caught fire, and now it’s embedded. We have some faculty who said they expressly came here because they wanted to be involved in a school that is making a commitment to global thinking.
Q: You’ve also said that teaching students to be critical thinkers is incredibly important.
O’Neill: One thing that’s changing is the skill sets that are required for individuals, whether in business, government, or nonprofits. With so much data out there, the world expects students when they get out of school to have the ability to find information, critically think about it, and be able to come up with some conclusions and effectively communicate them. There’s always a debate when it comes to students: How important is it for them to get content on a subject and how important is it for them to develop skills that they're going to use for the rest of their lives? Those skills are what are going to carry them to success in the long run. The learning of subject matter will continually happen, but if they don't have the “soft” skills walking out of here—including the interpersonal skills—they’re going to be at a disadvantage.
Q: What other programs and initiatives are you proud of?
O’Neill: One is Big Data and Business Analytics. At the time, I had been reading about how it’s a skill-set that the world needs. So we started off with a minor, moved to a major, and then added a master's degree. That was six years ago. Now it’s the fastest growing program in the Business School. Then there’s the Business Economics major. We get 100 students a year now.
There’s also Marketing. It was a small major when I came; now it’s one of the biggest. And there’s the Entrepreneurship program. It had 30 or 40 students in it when I came. Then we found George Moker, who had just graduated from Suffolk with his MBA. We asked him to take it over, and he transformed it to 350 students, created the Center for Entrepreneurship, and got the first endowed chair in Entrepreneurship.
Q: What’s one thing you’ve really enjoyed about the job?
O’Neill: I really enjoy engaging with the students. They come from all kinds of backgrounds, and they're learning about themselves. One of them came into my office and said, “Can we have an adulting conversation?” I said, “Tell me what it is first.” I had never heard the expression! It's them living in their world and then being able to talk to somebody who's in another world. So they'll talk about something that's bothering them, wondering how to handle an internship or a course. They come in with all kinds of different things, and they are always fascinating.
Q: You’ll be taking a sabbatical next academic year and then returning to teach. What are you going to do during your time away?
O’Neill: My plan is to figure out what I'm going to teach when I come back! Some people say, “I’m going to travel, I'm going to go places.” I've had a blessed life in that respect and been all over the world on business and taking my wife to a lot of places. So that isn't at the top of my list. I have lectured about what it takes for a company to go global. How does that occur? I think I’d like to teach something global. I think what I want to do is reflect on what I’ll teach, prepare for it, and practice it on my wife.