Rosemary O’Leary, a renowned researcher and professor in the public management field, received the 2023 Gary C. Cornia Lecture Series Award from the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at the BYU Marriott School of Business. O’Leary, who has written 13 books and more than 135 articles on public management, presented her work on ethics and guerilla government at the award luncheon.
“Anybody who has rubbed shoulders with Rosemary has felt a measure of her confidence in them or received her encouragement,” says David Matkin, an associate professor in the MPA program. Matkin adds that O’Leary is one of the most outstanding mentors and developers of young students in public management.
Prior to receiving the award, O’Leary offered to meet with several pre-PhD BYU students and connect them with programs they were interested in. O’Leary believes strongly in the reward and impact of informal mentoring—the kind that happens in the hallway or over a burger.
Despite her many accolades, the relationships O’Leary has with her students, peers, and family will always be her greatest contribution. “Early in my career, after I won a big research award my mother said, ‘This is cool, good for you. But I predict that in the end, your biggest accomplishment will be how you raised your daughter.’ At the time I was coming off a high from the award and this didn’t make sense to me. But now I know it’s a privilege to be a parent,” O’Leary says.
“Just the fact that our three children are contributing to society in however way they choose, makes me the proudest,” she shares. “My family is the contribution that’s going to last.”
O’Leary was born in Kansas City, Missouri. At age five, she moved across the state line to Kansas City, Kansas. She went to high school on the Missouri side and college on the Kansas side. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 1978 and received a PhD from Syracuse University in 1988. Later in her career, O’Leary taught at both her alma maters.
O’Leary’s research on collaboration and conflict resolution has been pivotal in the field of public administration. She has a unique interest in the ethics of what she calls government “guerillas”—public servants who act deliberately against the wishes communicated by their superiors.
People typically engage in guerilla tactics in government out of a sense of obligation to their personal ethics and in an attempt to do the right thing, O’Leary explains. She suggests that bosses should listen and try to understand the perspective of their employees rather than becoming defensive when employees dissent. During her lecture, she advised separating the person from the problem and really trying to get at the root of what dissenting employees are saying. O’Leary says that coming from a family of seven kids taught her to always watch out for the good of the group—employers should do the same.
O’Leary retired from teaching in August, but she looks back on her time in academia fondly. “Being in academia is a privilege,” O’Leary says. She especially loved choosing her own research agenda and mentoring students. Now that she is retired, O’Leary plans to continue traveling and researching. One of her favorite places to visit is the Philippines, where she had a Fulbright scholarship at the University of the Philippines in Manila and completed a stint with the Peace Corps, working among three indigenous tribes there.
O’Leary feels grateful for the opportunities she’s had, including receiving the Gary C. Cornia award. When she was gifted a BYU MPA-branded Cotopaxi backpack along with the award, O’Leary said, “Thank you! I bought one of these and then my 28-year-old daughter stole it from me!” She also received a framed picture of Queen Esther as an example of someone who acted as a guerilla. O’Leary notes that her work is far from done, and she looks forward to seeing the accomplishments of the next generation, including those of her children and her students.
Writer: Liesel Allen