Sean O’Keefe ’78 MPA Joins Government Hall of Fame
May 31, 2023
The University Professor and Phanstiel Chair in Leadership was recognized for his public service roles, including four presidential appointments.
Sean O’Keefe, a Maxwell School alumnus who serves as a University Professor and Phanstiel Chair in Leadership, was inducted into Government Executive magazine’s Government Hall of Fame during a recent gala at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
O’Keefe joins a group of 52 individuals, ranging from Clara Barton to Anthony Fauci, who have been inducted into the hall since it was founded in 2019. Government Executive is a digital publication that chronicles government business.
In addition to O’Keefe, the nine inductees this year include Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, and Ada Deer, the first woman to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
O’Keefe received an M.P.A. from Maxwell in 1978 and was selected to the first class of presidential management interns, a program started by former Maxwell Dean Alan K. “Scotty” Campbell, who was the first director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. From there, O’Keefe joined the staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations under the late Sen. Ted Stevens.
O’Keefe was a presidential appointee four times. George H. W. Bush named him comptroller for the U.S. Department of Defense in 1989, and, three years later, secretary of the Navy. Then, in 2001, Bush’s son, President George W. Bush appointed O’Keefe deputy director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget before naming him administrator of NASA. The appointments were championed by Dick Cheney, who served as secretary of defense and later, vice president.
O’Keefe led NASA from 2001-05, a period that included the Columbia shuttle disaster that claimed seven astronauts. After leaving NASA, O’Keefe served as chancellor of Louisiana State University (LSU), vice president of the General Electric Co. and chief executive officer of the Airbus Group, Inc.
At Syracuse University, O’Keefe previously served as the Louis A. Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy and was founding director of the Maxwell School’s National Security Studies Program. He currently serves on the board of Syracuse’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families. He is also a distinguished senior advisor for the Center for Strategic and International Studies—home to Maxwell’s Washington programs, a senior research associate for the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a research affiliate for the Autonomous Systems Policy Institute.
Maxwell alumnus Amy Donahue ’96 M.P.A./’00 Ph.D. (PA), the first provost of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, congratulated O’Keefe in a video recording that was aired at the April 20 gala.
“No organization could be more fortunate than to have Sean at the helm at a time of crisis, and lucky for us, he’s been there as we’ve faced some big ones,” said Donahue. “If you reflect on what you know of his bio, you’ll readily know that Sean found himself in the arena at many momentous and tragic and precarious and pivotal moments in our nation’s history.”
Donahue said she worked with O’Keefe through two of them—the Columbia tragedy and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which carved a path of devastation in Louisiana while he was at the helm of LSU. “It was very obvious that his resolve, his business acumen, his commitment to transparency and truth, his absolute integrity, and his deep, deep patriotism were the beacons that guided us through confusion and adversity and then helped to restore clarity and purpose and progress,” said Donahue.
She added, “But what really strikes me more than anything, time and again, as I have opportunities to work with Sean is his great and generous humanity. No matter the swirl of pressures and conflict that attend any crisis, big or small, Sean always focuses first and most on people.”
O’Keefe said he was humbled by Donahue’s kind words and to be honored among such a highly esteemed group of public servants.
At the gala he reflected on the legacy of Stevens, who was killed in a 2010 plane crash that O’Keefe and his son, Kevin ’13 B.A. (PSt)/’14 M.P.A., survived. “As I accepted the award, I couldn’t help but think of senator Ted—he was a very influential force in my life and professional career,” said O’Keefe. “He was a remarkable person and influential legislator who provided an exemplary example of public service.”
The hall of fame was created by Government Executive to recognize those who have made historic achievements in service to the federal government and the American people.
Maxwell School Dean David M. Van Slyke says O’Keefe’s success “stems in part from his core values that are reflected in his humility, treating others with dignity and respect, and an understanding of the importance in being held accountable for the broader public interest regardless of the job he has held.”
He adds, “There are few people who have succeeded in leadership positions in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Sean O’Keefe is one of those rare individuals. He is a beacon of effective and gracious leadership, and I am honored to call him an alum, colleague, and friend. He has earned this recognition and we are delighted to celebrate his achievements and the small role that the Maxwell school and Syracuse University have played in his success.”
By Jessica Youngman
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