Hazel Reid O'Leary (born May 17, 1937) was the seventh United States Secretary of Energy, from 1993 to 1997, appointed by President Bill Clinton. She was the first woman and first African American to hold the position. She served as president of Fisk University, a historically black college and her alma mater, from 2004 to 2013. O'Leary's tenure at Fisk came amid financial difficulty for the school, during which time she increased enrollment and contentiously used school's art collection to raise funds.
O'Leary received her bachelor's degree from Fisk before earning her Bachelor of Laws degree from Rutgers School of Law. O'Leary worked as a prosecutor in New Jersey and then in a private consulting/accounting firm before joining the Carter Administration. O'Leary returned to the private sector and rejoined the government as the first Secretary of Energy of the Clinton administration. As Secretary of Energy, O'Leary declassified old documents detailing how the United States had previously conducted secret testing on the effects of radiation on humans. O'Leary received criticism for her excessive spending as Secretary.
Early life and education
Hazel Reid was born in Newport News, Virginia. Hazel's parents, Dr. Russel E. Reid and Dr. Hazel Reid, were both physicians. They divorced when she was 18 months old. Her father and step-mother, a teacher named Mattie Pullman Reid, raised Hazel and her older sister Edna Reid. Hazel Reid attended school in a segregated school system in Newport News for eight years. Reid and her sister were then sent to live with an aunt in Essex County, New Jersey, and attend Arts High School, an integrated school. She earned a bachelor's degree at Fisk University in Nashville in 1959. She then married Carl Rollins and had a son before returning to school and earning her Bachelor of Laws degree from Rutgers Law School in Newark in 1966.
O'Leary worked as a prosecutor in New Jersey prosecuting organized crime cases, later becoming an assistant attorney general for the state. In 1969, after obtaining a divorce, O'Leary moved to Washington, D.C., where she joined the consulting/accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand. During the Carter Administration, O'Leary was appointed assistant administrator of the Federal Energy Administration, general counsel of the Community Services Administration, and administrator of the Economic Regulatory Administration at the newly created Department of Energy. At the Department of Energy, Hazel met her third husband, Jack O'Leary.
In 1981 O'Leary and her husband established the consulting firm of O'Leary & Associates in Morristown, New Jersey, where she served as vice president and general counsel. After Jack died of cancer, Hazel moved to Minnesota. From 1989 to 1993 she worked as an executive vice president of the Northern States Power Company, a Minnesota-based public utilities.
Secretary of Energy
In a press conference on December 21, 1992, held in Little Rock, Arkansas, then President-elect Bill Clinton announced his intention to nominate O'Leary as Secretary of Energy. Clinton officially made the nomination on January 20, 1993, and the Senate confirmed O'Leary by unanimous consent the next day. O'Leary became the first woman and first African American to serve as Secretary of Energy. She was also the first Secretary of Energy to have worked for an energy company. At the time she led the Department of Energy, the department had an annual budget of $18 billion and approximately 18,000 employees.
O'Leary challenged the way that the department had traditionally been run, particularly the department's focus on developing and testing nuclear weapons. During her tenure, the size of the Department of Energy was reduced by a third. It was also a target for Republicans who wanted it eliminated entirely. While reducing the size of the department overall, O'Leary shifted resources towards efficient and renewable energy sources, a priority of the Clinton administration.
In this position, O'Leary won praise for declassifying old Department of Energy documents, including Cold War-era records that showed the U.S. government had used American citizens as guinea pigs in human radiation experiments, as had long been rumored. President Clinton issued Executive Order 12891, which created the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) to prevent such abuses of power moving forward. O'Leary also announced a $4.6 million settlement payment to the families of victims of past radiation experiments. Other declassified documents included facts about plutonium the United States had previously left in South Vietnam.
O'Leary also pushed to end nuclear testing in the United States. Her efforts resulted in President Clinton signing a test ban on nuclear testing, a ban that other nations joined. Early in her tenure as Secretary, O'Leary met with whistle-blowers who said they faced harassment for raising legitimate health and safety issues within the Department of Energy. She announced a "zero tolerance" policy, prohibiting retaliation against whistle-blowers at nuclear plants.
O'Leary repeatedly faced criticism during her tenure. The department allocated $43,500 to a Washington firm to identify unfriendly media outlets. The White House Press Secretary Michael D. McCurry called the project "unacceptable." O'Leary claimed the allocation was made without her direct knowledge and defended the research as an attempt to study the efficacy of the department's messaging. A Government Accountability Office audit of traveling criticized her for traveling too frequently and spending excessively on accommodations. She apologized to Congressional committees in 1996 for spending that exceeded limits on the funds appropriated to the agency for travel.
O'Leary resigned from her position effective January 20, 1997, explaining she did not wish to stay in the job more than four years. In 1997, Johnny Chung, a Democratic political donor, claimed that O'Leary had met with Chinese oil officials after he gave $25,000 to O'Leary's favorite charity Africare in 1995. In August of that year, Attorney General Janet Reno undertook a review of Chung's allegations to decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate O'Leary. At the conclusion of Reno's review, she determined there was "no evidence" of wrongdoing by O'Leary and no basis for a further investigation. Some observers, including a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, saw some fault in O'Leary's conduct but also saw racism and sexism in the manner in which O'Leary was treated.
After leaving the Department of Energy, O'Leary once again served as President of O'Leary & Associates, her consulting firm. She also sat on the board of the environmental engineering firm ICF Kaiser International. In 2000 she became President and Chief Operating Officer of an investment banking firm, Blaylock & Partners. She left that firm in 2002.
Fisk University President
On July 13, 2004, O'Leary was selected and began work as President of her undergraduate alma mater, Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. She was officially installed as the university's fourteenth President on October 6, 2005. Prior to O'Leary's tenure, the university had tried unsuccessfully to increase its enrollment and had been experiencing financial problems. In 2008 Fisk had an enrollment of 770 students and 264 faculty and staff members.
By 2011 Fisk saw its enrollment numbers improve. In spite of improvements, by 2011 the school was still operating with a loss in six of the previous nine years. These ongoing financial problems caused the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to place Fisk on probation in 2010 over concerns for the university's finances and future prospects. The probation period ended in December 2013.
Under O'Leary's leadership, Fisk went to court in December 2005 seeking a ruling that it could sell a portion of the university's Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The collection had been bequeathed to Fisk by his widow and fellow artist Georgia O'Keeffe with restrictions as to the collection's sale. O'Leary intended to use the proceeds of the sale to fund a new academic building, endow professorships, and rebuild the school's endowment, which had been drawn down several times before O'Leary's arrival. The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation opposed the sale, and later the Tennessee State Attorney General opposed any sale of the artwork out of state. Ultimately, after seven years of legal battles, the school was able to reach a deal with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas to share the collection. At the time the deal was finalized, O'Leary said the arrangement was essential to keeping the university open.
Amidst the public battle over attempts to sell the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, O'Leary quietly arranged to sell two other works of art, including a work by Florine Stettheimer. Fisk's board of trustees approved the sale in 2010 although it was not publicly disclosed until The New York Times reported on the sale in 2016. O'Leary defended the decision to sell the art work, saying it was done out of necessity amid financial difficulties.
In 2012 she announced that she would retire at the end of the calendar year. Her retirement was effective January 31, 2013. She was succeeded at Fisk by H. James Williams.
O'Leary has served as a director for Alchemix Corp. and CAMAC International Corporation. She also served on the Board of Directors for non-profit organizations such as the Nashville Alliance for Public Education, the Nashville Business Community for the Arts, and the Arms Control Association as well as a trustee on boards of the World Wildlife Fund, Morehouse College, and The Andrew Young Center of International Development.
O'Leary has been married three times. Her first marriage to Carl G. Rollins, Jr., ended in divorce. The couple had a son, also named Carl. O'Leary was briefly married to ABC News anchorman Max Robinson. In 1977 she met John F. O'Leary, then Deputy Secretary of Energy. They married on April 24, 1980, and remained married until his death from cancer in 1987. Her son is an attorney. In 1997 O'Leary joined a Presbyterian Church.