Phil O'Hara '55, director of student activities, is one of over 100 experienced staff members who have decided to accept early retirement packages offered by the University. Active at Brown during four different decades, O'Hara received an excellence award on Feb. 5 at Brown Employee Appreciation and Recognition Day.
O'Hara said he was planning to retire in 2011, but decided to retire early when the University administration introduced the package in November as part of its efforts to cut costs.
Looking back at his time as an undergraduate, O'Hara said he chose his concentration in international relations not because he wanted to be a professional in that field, but because he wanted to learn "how people interacted with each other."
"Compromise is essential for us to get along as different peoples," he said.
It was in this spirit that O'Hara began Brown University Mediation Project decades after he graduated. "I help students learn to fish, not just give them the fish," he said.
O'Hara remembers the University that he attended as a very different place from what it is today, most of all because the New Curriculum did not exist when he was an undergraduate. "I think Brown is, from my point of view, a wonderful place now in terms of diversity, not just ethnically or religiously, but in terms of the interests of students," he said.
But what has been consistent is an environment that instilled the value of civility in students. "I was raised in the era when we really lived by the Golden Rule," he said. "We have to give something back to our society."
O'Hara worked in the book publishing industry for 30 years, but grew disillusioned by increasing commercialization. O'Hara said he had volunteered in youth centers and decided to embark on a new career path.
"My life has always been committed to working with young people," O'Hara said.
In particular, he wanted to give back to his alma mater and returned to the University in 1987. After spending his first year in the Department of Athletics, O'Hara joined the Student Activities Office, where he has remained. Despite his willingness to work with students, he was uncertain about his ability perform well at the SAO.
"I was really unsure whether a man of my age could really connect with young people."
O'Hara said he decided he would just try. "I realized if I just listened to the students, this could be a second career for me," he said, "I've been listening ever since."
O'Hara said many people call him blunt or transparent, but he takes the comment in a positive light. "What you see is what you get," he said.
When O'Hara became director in March 2009, he did not take it "for the long-term future," though he said he intended to support the long-term goals of the office.
"It was something I could do with distinction and vigor. If I could not do the job, I would not have accepted it."
Neil Parikh '11, president of the 2011 Class Board, has worked with O'Hara in his role as faculty adviser to the class boards. "He's one of those incredibly inspiring people," Parikh said. "He really, really cares about the students."
Parikh said O'Hara was instrumental in the board's successful effort to bring Swedish musician Gunther to campus in 2008, an attempt that did not seem possible to many students. The event was the first collaboration between class boards at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, O'Hara said.
The New Curriculum lets students construct their academic careers, but "in the Student Activities Office, the field isn't quite so open," he said. Finance and logistics can prevent student groups from realizing their visions.
"I really try to listen to what you want to do," O'Hara said. "I may have a lot of doubts in my mind, but I'm not going to dismiss you."
Parikh said the incoming director will have to be fully dedicated to maintaining good relationships with students. "A lot of what Phil does is probably not in his job description."
Ricky Gresh, who oversees the SAO as senior director for student engagement, said he was confident that the position will be filled, but that he expected the Organizational Review Committee to reevaluate the position's description.
Gresh, who was O'Hara's predecessor, said O'Hara will leave his stamp on the office. O'Hara has mentored many current staff members, including Gresh, who has been at the University for over five years.
Gresh said O'Hara influenced many in the SAO. "Phil has a lot of institutional knowledge and we can carry that forward," Gresh said. "When a new director comes in, there's people who know how to do that work."
O'Hara had a personal commitment to Brown students that was inspiring to his peers, Gresh said. "If he wasn't sure that students could be served at a high level, he wouldn't retire," Gresh said. "He's put a lot of his life into this."
O'Hara said he understands the budget constraints that have led to some "sad" outcomes, but he personally feels "blessed" to have the opportunity to retire early.
"On June 30th, I'm gone, but I'm not gone to questions," said O'Hara, who plans to continue living near campus.
"My leaving is bittersweet, but aging is bittersweet," he said, "I'll be out of sight, but not out of mind."