This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Jan. 19.
University President Peter Salovey announced earlier this month that Eileen O’Connor would serve as the inaugural vice president for communications, ending a search that began last summer. In conjunction with her general responsibilities, she will be tasked with forming a more strategic and efficient operation at a time of heightened campus tension.
Before coming to Yale, O’Connor worked in public affairs, law and journalism. She most recently served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia and senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Salovey told the News he found O’Connor an impressive candidate because of her varied professional experiences and the value she places on service, as demonstrated by her work in Afghanistan. He added that while he was proud of the way University communications staff handled racial events of the past semester, he expects the creation of O’Connor’s position to result in a more well-organized and effective operation.
“If she had been here last semester, I think she could have been very helpful in assisting anyone who wanted to express an opinion around campus issues — issues of inclusion, free expression, racism,” he said. “I’m hoping this semester we’ll be able to move more quickly in helping the outside world hear Yale’s message … and more effectively communicate the kind of campus we want to have here at Yale, rather than having outside media characterize our campus as they imagine it and Yale merely responding to those characterizations.”
Salovey said he would also like O’Connor to develop a communications program that advertises the diversity and achievements of Yale.
O’Connor said she will more actively engage with the national media on matters concerning racial issues on campus. She added that she is already planning to meet with national reporters who covered the protests last semester to provide context they might have omitted, especially on the relationship between student activists and free speech.
“Our job will be to set the record straight, not aggressively or defensively, but in a positive way,” she told the News. “We will engage with the press, especially on the role of students, who I don’t think were denying free speech or coddled — any of those adjectives that were used. This was a healthy conversation that took place on a university campus, which at its very core is about free expression and students who felt their expression had been denied.”
O’Connor added that she will work to improve communications not only between administrators and the larger Yale community, but also among University leaders.
She said part of her job is making sure communications gaps are eliminated within the administration — to notify Salovey when necessary and to make sure appropriate administrators are in the loop always. Last semester, Salovey told the News that he was not made aware of an allegedly “white girls only” party at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house for five days. O’Connor said she will work to ensure that such delays will be avoided in the future.
“Administrations need to be dealing with these types of issues — not necessarily the president at first, but deans, masters and faculty as well,” she said. “But that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons last semester, so we have to look at why and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith, who led the search for the inaugural vice president for communications, said O’Connor stood out to her and Salovey partly because of her experience in crisis management in the legal sphere and as a liaison and problem solver at the State Department.
O’Connor said while the first component of crisis management is addressing the crisis, it is important to then analyze the issue and work to resolve it. She added that racial conversations on campus were not simply protests, but symptoms of a larger problem.
“My role is to be a bridge builder — to bring the resources of Yale together to foster internal communication: communication with student audiences, alumni and the rest of the Yale community, and externally to make sure Yale and what Yale is doing is known to the world,” she said.