Chancellor at Louisiana State University and former NASA admistrator
Born Sean Charles O'Keefe, January 27, 1956, in Monterey, CA; son of Patrick Gordon (a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine engineer) and Patricia Carlin O'Keefe; married Laura Jean McCarthy, October 7, 1978; children: Lindsey, Jonathan, Kevin. Education: Loyola University, B.A., 1977; Syracuse University, M.P.A., 1978.
Addresses: Office —Louisiana State University, Office of the Chancellor, 156 Thomas Boyd Hall, Baton Rouge, LA 70803.
Presidential Management Intern, 1978-80; member, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, 1981-86; staff director, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, 1986-89; comptroller, Department of Defense, 1989-92; chief financial officer, Department of Defense, 1991-92; acting Secretary of the Navy, 1992; professor of business and federal policy, Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University, 1992-2000; deputy director, Office of Management and Budget, 2000-02; administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2002-04; chancellor, Louisiana State University, 2005—.
Awards: U.S. Distinguished Public Service Award, 1993; Syracuse University's Chancellor's Award for Public Service, 1999; Department of the Navy's Public Service Award, 2000.
Sean O'Keefe received a cool welcome from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) when he was named administrator of the agency in 2001. O'Keefe, a hard-nosed accountant and federal budget analyst, had no scientific background. Agency insiders feared he would dampen the pioneering spirit of NASA with his legendary sleight-of-hand budget cuts. No one could deny, however, that NASA was a financial and managerial mess when O'Keefe took over. Because of chronic cost overruns in the billions, the agency had lost its credibility with Congress, which was reluctant to keep handing over money. O'Keefe, however, got costs under control and improved fiscal management, opening the door for a new mission involving human exploration.
"There were skeptics when he was named," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert told the Washington Post' s Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta. "The claim was that he was a budgeteer, not a rocketeer, [but] he earned the respect of the workforce and the space community." In 2004, however, it was announced that O'Keefe was resigning to take a position at Louisiana State University.
O'Keefe was born on January 27, 1956, in Monterey, California, to Patrick and Patricia O'Keefe. His father was a nuclear submarine engineer with the U.S. Navy. Consequently, O'Keefe spent his childhood on military bases located all over, from Hawaii to Connecticut. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic family that was no stranger to politics. O'Keefe's great-grandfather was once mayor of New Orleans and his grandfather a judge. Older brother Patrick O'Keefe told the New York Times' Eric Schmitt that O'Keefe, early on, displayed a natural, personal charm, even when engaged in heated debates. "We had very, very long family dinners on Sunday where Sean developed a fine sense of getting his point across without leaving any visceral animosity." This skill would serve him well later on in Washington, D.C.
As a teenager, O'Keefe lived in Connecticut and attended North Stonington's Wheeler High School, graduating in 1973. After high school, O'Keefe headed to Loyola University in New Orleans. At Loyola, O'Keefe got his first taste of politics and his first try at managing a public budget when he was elected student government president and charged with supervising an annual campus activities budget of $50,000. To support himself during his college years, O'Keefe installed sheetrock and did other construction work. He also developed a fondness for bass fishing and alligator hunting on the Louisiana bayous. O'Keefe graduated from Loyola in 1977, then studied public administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He earned his master's degree in 1978.
On October 7, 1978, O'Keefe married Laura Jean McCarthy. That same year, he landed a job as a presidential management intern. From the start, O'Keefe worked on budgetary matters. One of his first tasks involved scrutinizing troop pay for the White House's Office of Management and Budget. He also helped the Navy put together its submarine budget.
By 1981, O'Keefe was working his budgetary magic as a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. His outstanding number-crunching talents put him in the spotlight and in 1986, O'Keefe, just 30, became staff director of the committee, which was ruled over by Washington insiders much older than him. In 1989, O'Keefe was appointed Department of Defense comptroller. He was the youngest person to ever hold that position in the Pentagon. In 1991, he became the Pentagon's chief financial officer, too. In this capacity, O'Keefe managed a staff of more than 130 accountants and analysts charged with assessing military needs and figuring out how to make them work within budget limitations. "Not exactly sexy stuff," O'Keefe said in summing up his duties for the New York Times' Schmitt.
At the Pentagon, O'Keefe worked hand-in-hand with Department of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who later became vice president of the United States. O'Keefe logged 14-hour days, seven days a week, while preparing the defense budget, which in 1992 was about $280 billion. O'Keefe became an expert in military budgets, programs, and weapons systems.
As the Department of Defense's leading accountant and hatchet man, O'Keefe upset a lot of people on Capitol Hill when he trimmed programs, particularly when he felt like something had outlived its need. O'Keefe's influence led to the cancellation of the Navy's A-12 attack plane, as well as the M1-A1 tank and F-15 fighter. "There's no question that in a time of dramatic decline ... the least popular guy around has been the bean counter, but that comes with the territory," O'Keefe told the New York Times ' Schmitt. O'Keefe said a lot of Congressional leaders blamed him instead of rationalizing why their program was no longer needed.
In July of 1992, President George H.W. Bush named O'Keefe acting Secretary of the Navy after secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned amidst the infamous Tailhook scandal. The incident involved the sexual harassment of 26 women at a convention of naval aviators in Las Vegas in 1991. Just 36, O'Keefe became the second-youngest Navy secretary in history and was charged with the tall order of restoring discipline to the Navy in terms of budget, missions, and behavior.
O'Keefe received mixed reviews for his job performance as Navy secretary. He worked to restore order quickly, handling the resignations of two admirals involved in the Tailhook cover-up. Some service members, however, said he failed to restore confidence in the establishment.
Co-workers, however, lauded O'Keefe's performance and compassion for others. O'Keefe often worked long hours, but instead of making aides stay until he finished, O'Keefe took it upon himself to lock up the office so staffers could go home. This was a big change from how previous Navy secretaries had acted. Another time, when Navy officials visited New Orleans, O'Keefe insisted on driving since it was his hometown; previous Navy secretaries always used chauffeurs.
After Bush lost the 1992 presidential election to Democrat Bill Clinton, O'Keefe retreated from Washington along with other Republican officials as the new administration took over. He found work as a professor of business and federal policy, first at Pennsylvania State University and later at Syracuse, his alma mater.
O'Keefe returned to Washington eight years later after Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. Bush offered O'Keefe the job of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In this capacity, he oversaw the preparation and management of the federal budget. He also represented the administration during heated spending negotiations with Congress.
O'Keefe wrangled with the federal budget until December of 2001, when Bush appointed him NASA administrator. Because O'Keefe's background lay in budgets and public policy, not science, agency insiders questioned the appointment. It was clear, however, that Bush had appointed O'Keefe because he wanted fiscal responsibility restored within the agency. "It's great for the nation and it's great for NASA," Syracuse professor Robert McClure told the Post-Standard' s Mark Libbon. "The problems with NASA are not engineering, but in public and political management and they just haven't functioned well. Sean has a long and effective track record at being able to manage difficult public and political environments."
During his swearing-in ceremony in January of 2002, O'Keefe acknowledged the awesome mission before him. Speaking to the crowd, O'Keefe said he was "astonished that I have been given this dream assignment," according to an article on SpaceRef.com. O'Keefe also noted that his children had been teasing him, telling him he could not possibly handle the job, saying, "'Hey, Dad, I thought you had to be smart to run NASA. You know, you're NO rocket scientist, Dad.'"
During O'Keefe's first weeks on the job, he proved himself to be a different kind of administrator when he invited reporters to breakfast and let them fire away with questions. This openness with the press was something new. According to Keith Cowing and Frank Sietzen's book New Moon Rising, reporters dogged O'Keefe with questions about whether a budget man should be running a technical branch of government. Asked if he had a burning passion to be NASA's top dog, O'Keefe replied that "whatever you do, you do it right."
Facing intense scrutiny, O'Keefe went to work. There were sore feelings to mend. During his time in the budget office, O'Keefe had been critical of the agency. Now he had to win over the trust of its employees. O'Keefe made himself open and available to NASA staffers by visiting all ten NASA centers early on. He also broke from decades of tradition by leaving the executive office doors unlocked. New Moon Rising author Cowing, a former NASA employee and longtime critic of the agency, had nothing but praise for O'Keefe's first year on the job. "If you're looking for something negative to say about O'Keefe, you end up making fun of his haircut," he told U.S. News & World Report 's Thomas Hayden. "So far there's just nothing else."
Things went smoothly the first two years. Then, in February of 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas, killing the seven astronauts on board. Instantly, O'Keefe came under scrutiny—and blame. After all, he was not a technical guy, so he had no business running the agency, critics said. Once again, O'Keefe turned on the charm to maintain credibility for himself and the department. In handling the situation, O'Keefe won praise for his openness. In the month that followed the tragedy, he willingly testified before Congress several times and made himself accessible to both lawmakers and reporters. The agency did, however, limit public access to internal documents and e-mails concerning the tragedy, which upset some critics.
Confidence in O'Keefe, however, remained high. "I think he's conducting himself well," Senate science, technology, and space subcommittee chairman Sam Brownback told Washington Post staff writers Pianin and Gugliotta. "The biggest [danger] in something like this is to try to hide or slow the release of information. He's not doing that. He's getting it out as soon as possible."
In the months that followed the disaster, O'Keefe replaced eleven of 15 top shuttle managers. Some Congressional leaders thought this was good enough, while others said O'Keefe simply shuffled people around or let them retire without being held responsible for their missteps that led to the disaster.
Columbia Accident Investigation Board consultant Karlene Roberts told the Orlando Sentinel that O'Keefe had to be careful in his reprimands. "It's very tricky what the balance is between accountability and creating a system in which people feel they can speak up from the very bottom." Roberts said that many lower-level engineers were too intimidated to voice their concerns. O'Keefe was working to change that.
Despite the tragedy, O'Keefe showed potential for rebuilding NASA into a bolder, more aggressive agency. During his tenure, O'Keefe restored fiscal credibility to the agency by getting its budget under control. With the new credibility came more responsibility. In January of 2004, President George W. Bush unveiled a new vision for the space agency with a focus on human exploration. Bush specifically called for returning humans to the moon and launching them on toward Mars. O'Keefe also got approval to develop the first all-new human orbiter in three decades.
The new vision—and the new trust—were reflected in the budget. In 2004, NASA received a budget increase of $469 million, whereas the agency had seen decreases in six of the previous eight years. Despite his lack of technical skills, O'Keefe had a huge impact on NASA because of his budgetary prowess.
On December 13, 2004, O'Keefe announced his resignation from NASA. He had accepted an offer from Louisiana State University to be its chancellor. He was expected to assume the new position in early February of 2005.
Cowing, Keith L. and Frank Sietzen, New Moon Rising: The Making of America's new Space Vision and the Remaking of NASA, Apogee Books, 2004.
New York Times, May 7, 1992, p. D1.
Orlando Sentinel, September 13, 2003.
Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), November 15, 2001, p. A2.
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 30, 2004, p. B2.
Science, January 30, 2004, pp. 610-19.
U.S. News & World Report, May 5, 2003, p. 44.
Washington Post, March 23, 2003, p. A6.
"LSU Board of Supervisors votes to approve the hiring of O'Keefe," LSU News, http://app1003.lsu.edu/unv002.nsf/PressReleases/PR3005 (December 22, 2004).
"NASA Administrator Honorable Sean O'Keefe," NASA, http://www.nasa.gov/about/highlights/AN_Feature_Administrator.html (November 1, 2004).
"Sean O'Keefe Sworn in Amidst the Rockets," SpaceRef.com, http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewnews.html (November 1, 2004).
"Sources: NASA chief to resign," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/space/12/12/okeefe.resign/index.html (December 14, 2004).