Oliver O’Reilly, whose 30-year career at UC Berkeley is characterized by a deep passion for teaching and student success, will be the campus’s new vice provost for undergraduate education starting this Friday, July 1, officials announced today. O’Reilly has been interim vice provost for undergraduate education during the past year.
A mechanical engineering professor who’s been on the faculty since 1992 and is former associate dean for graduate studies in the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, O’Reilly said his vision for the post is to “help students thrive, to improve the student experience at Berkeley, and to do so by working with many different groups across campus, including deans, chairs, instructors and staff.”
“I feel that when I’m working well,” he added, “it’s as part of multiple teams who all are working toward the common goal of helping students and supporting the instructors and staff who help students.”
Broadly, the vice provost for undergraduate education’s role is to advance and support the undergraduate academic experience through teaching, learning and discovery. The job involves supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice efforts to make sure all students can access the best education Berkeley has to offer and setting strategy related to admissions and enrollment.
Chancellor Carol Christ said that O’Reilly’s proven leadership, values, skills and experience as a faculty member, as 2019-2020 chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate and as interim vice provost for undergraduate education “offer ample evidence that we are all — students, faculty and staff — incredibly fortunate to have him in this essential role. Oliver’s commitment to not only sustaining, but enhancing the excellence of the undergraduate education Berkeley provides is beyond compare.”
O’Reilly said that his year as an interim vice provost, when he “witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations of our students, staff and faculty” during the pandemic, shaped his vision for the Division of Undergraduate Education. Two of the benchmarks for undergraduate education in the post-pandemic era, he said, are accessibility and accommodation, “and we should not falter in our efforts.”
For example, O’Reilly said he will continue his work improving resources for the faculty so they can better accommodate the 10% of the student body with disabilities; help in the quest to diversify the student body by making sure Berkeley’s curriculum is accessible to all students; and further efforts to improve the onboarding of first-year students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college.
A silver lining to the pandemic is that the trauma and disparities it has caused have led Berkeley —and society at large — to “a pivotal moment,” said O’Reilly, a time when “people are open to the possibility of transformative changes.”
“Our campus is the place where every student should have a positive, transformative academic experience,” he said, “and I believe that if we can support the students who have historically been marginalized, then we will, in turn, help ensure the success of every student.”
Benjamin Hermalin, the incoming executive vice chancellor and provost , said O’Reilly is notable for “just how deeply he cares about the welfare of each and every undergraduate student on this campus. He wants to ensure that Berkeley lifts up every student, making it possible for them to have a successful career at Berkeley.
“There are, of course, myriad challenges in achieving that goal, but he is a gifted problem-solver — as his stellar research demonstrates — and he is able to devise creative and effective solutions that will advance the goal of an undergraduate student experience that is excellent, equitable and encompasses all students.”
Skilled at problem-solving and collaboration
O’Reilly, born and raised in Ireland, received his B.E. in mechanical engineering from the National University of Ireland and his M.S. and Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell University.
An avid rower — he also is faculty liaison for the Cal men’s rowing team and the campus’s faculty athletic representative — O’Reilly developed his love of the sport on his high school team. From his mother, he learned sensitivity to students with learning challenges; she was one of first people on Ireland’s west coast who helped teach dyslectics, some in their 30s and 40s, to read.
“She tells me stories of meeting people who came up to her 20 years later and told her how she changed their lives,” he said. “There otherwise had been no support for them.”
O’Reilly said his experiences as an international student, an immigrant, a single parent, a stepfather, a husband to a Latina first-generation college graduate, and an educator also have “made me much more aware of the inequities and injustices in our society, the harmful effect that they have on our students, staff and faculty, and the urgent need to address them.”
He is particularly interested in developing and promoting efforts to educate all campus instructors on accessible instructional materials and in improving the interface between instructors and the Disabled Students’ Program (DSP). O’Reilly already has helped establish DSP Faculty Liaisons, a program that pairs instructors with colleagues who can support their disability-related academic concerns, and he promoted DSP-approved remote proctoring.
“Given its privileged role in undergraduate education,” said O’Reilly, “I believe it’s imperative for UC Berkeley to become a national leader in instructional materials that are accessible to, and assessment methods that accommodate, all students.”
In spring 2020, when instruction became remote-only, he led the campus’s work to develop a default pass/no pass grading policy to accommodate Berkeley’s most vulnerable students.
He also has co-chaired the Joint Senate-Administration Task Force on the First-Year Academic Experience; more than 20 recommendations currently are being implemented. Recently, in partnership with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Steve Sutton, O’Reilly helped broker a campuswide Instructional Resilience and Enhancement Fee, a course materials fee to give all students access to technology to enhance their instructional experience.
“To make that happen, he had to work with various student committees and partner with student leadership to educate them about why this student fee should be imposed and what the alternatives were if there were no funding source,” said Catherine Koshland, interim executive vice chancellor and provost and former vice chancellor for undergraduate education. “There were lots of conversations, there was lots of strategizing.
“Oliver is a problem-solver. He will roll up his sleeves and get into things, into the nitty-gritty, but he will also think about the bigger picture, and how to implement new programs. He’s a master at creating effective collaboration and reaching consensus — even when it’s not unanimous — where everyone agrees to go forward.”
A listener who values questions, ideas, community
It was as an undergraduate in Ireland that O’Reilly discovered his own love of teaching; he began tutoring friends readying for exams. Today, end-of-semester evaluations at Berkeley show that O’Reilly’s courses have been ranked among the highest in the Department of Mechanical Engineering for more than 20 years. He has received multiple teaching awards and, in 1999, the campus’s Distinguished Teaching Award.
Recently, he introduced a freshman seminar, Bears in Boats: A History of Women’s and Men’s Rowing at UC Berkeley, in part because Berkeley will celebrate 50 years of women’s rowing in 2024. He also helped plan the events to honor 150 years of women at Berkeley.
O’Reilly said his students help him to be a better teacher. Several textbooks he’s written have been “improved, based on comments from students,” he said, and “wonderful research ideas” have resulted from questions posed by his undergraduate and graduate students.
“I’ve learned as much from them as they’ve learned from me; they’ve had a profound effect on my life,” said O’Reilly, who plans to teach Bears in Boats in the fall and a graduate seminar on the mathematics of rotations in the spring. “A company startup that I co-founded arose from interactions with students about how knee and vertebral joints work. My research and teaching are intimately related to each other.”
One of the most significant contributions to research from the Dynamics Lab, O’Reilly’s campus research group, is the widely-accepted explanation in 2017 for why shoelaces come untied — a question inspired by his then 6-year old daughter, Anna. Better understanding of knot mechanics can be applied to knotted proteins, mooring lines, and other structures that fail under dynamic forces.
Berkeley students also confirmed for O’Reilly that in-person instruction is best. When he asked his spring 2021 Bears in Boats students on Zoom if they’d like to meet in person instead, the Zoom screen “lit up like a Christmas tree,” he said, and most of them opted to attend the seminar on campus, outdoors, in masks.
“The biggest things this past year have been the joy of in-person contact and the importance of belonging and community,” said O’Reilly. “Watching students come back to campus in the fall, there was a lot of anxiety and trepidation about being back in person, but when I saw them reuniting on Memorial Glade, I realized that their energy would carry us over the threshold and through the semester. I’ll never forget it.”
But O’Reilly can’t shake the realization that the pandemic affected student learning, not just in college, but at the K-12 level. Students arrived at Berkeley after a long stretch of remote learning and “from the surveys we’ve done, they’re struggling,” he said. Some lack study and exam skills, for example, due to open book and open note exam policies.
“One of our main challenges is to understand the effect of the pandemic on student learning and to find ways to help students, to support staff and instructors,” said O’Reilly. He’s already co-chaired pandemic-era committees to explore issues including online exams, proctoring and revised grading policies.
“We can’t expect for things to be the way they were before,” said O’Reilly. So, to find out how things are today, he’ll continue to keep his door open to talk to instructors or staff members any time they wish, meet often with ASUC leadership and chat with people as he walks across campus.
To be able to “talk the talk” as a campus leader, O’Reilly said he believes “in walking the walk — and teaching,” he said. “It’s the best way to get a pulse, a holistic sense of what’s happening.”