When Dr. Barbara O’Connor enters the coffeehouse, she is open and friendly, and within seconds manages to put a complete stranger at ease. It’s like meeting an old friend for a latte. Her conversation is peppered with words such as “stuff” and “neat,” slang she admits picking up in her classroom at California State University, Sacramento. “I usually copy my students,” explains O’Connor, who has taught communications, including political communication and telecommunications policy and applications, at CSUS for some 30 years. “I talk to them all the time, so you pick up their vernacular.”
But underestimating this woman, with her easygoing nature and unpretentious manner, would be a mistake. She is a powerhouse by any standard, with friends in high places and media connections that span the globe.
Her curriculum vitae is impressive. It includes an eight-year appointment by the superintendent of public instruction as chair of the California Educational Technology Committee, where she was charged with putting technology in California’s schools, K–12. She also was appointed by then Gov. Jerry Brown to serve as chair of the California Public Broadcasting Commission. She holds the distinction of having started Sacramento’s thriving public radio station, KXPR-FM. And she has served as an expert consultant to dozens of media conglomerates—McClatchy Newspapers, the Boston Globe Media Properties, the Tribune Company, the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, National Public Radio and Time Inc. among them—as well as the California Legislature, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Congress. During key political periods, such as the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis, O’Connor is contacted for comment by newspapers and radio stations throughout the country at least 20 times a day. In 1995, she was featured in Newsweek’s “50 for the Future,” a rundown of the 50 people who will set policy and direction for global communications. She received the Technology Pioneer Award in 1998 for her 15 years of public advocacy in telecommunications policy. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Val Smith, the CSUS communications department chair, and O’Connor’s boss, calls her a “good rainmaker and a tough person to say no to.” “She has such a vast network,” he says. “She knows everybody across the nation.”
Sacramento’s public relations maven Jean Runyon agrees. “She is brilliant. Everybody knows that,” says Runyon. “She has a national reputation. Not many people around here do. And she is a good quote. She’s concise, and she doesn’t mind saying what she thinks.”
So who is Barbara O’Connor, really, and how did a person with her renown end up in Sacramento?
O’Connor was born some 56 years ago in the West Texas city of Midland, George W’s hometown. (She insists the similarity ends there.) The daughter of a military father, O’Connor, and her younger sister, went with her mother to live in Los Angeles, near her grandparents, when her parents divorced. “My father’s mother really helped raise us,” she recalls. “She was probably the most significant person in our family.”
O’Connor describes her grandmother as smart, loving and one of the most curious people she has ever known. “She was accepting and nonjudgmental until you crossed her or lied to her,” she says. “And then she was your worst nightmare. I think I inherited that.” But more important, she adds, “My grandmother believed I could do anything I wanted to.”
O’Connor, who is a first-generation college graduate and an admitted overachiever, lived up to her grandmother’s expectations when she attended UCLA, where she majored in music. “I played the string bass,” she says. By the time she got to California State University, Northridge, O’Connor was headed to law school. But while taking a speech class, she discovered debate. “The teacher was the debate coach,” she says. “And he bugged me to join the team.” Once on the team, she discovered she loved it. “Curiosity is a major mover in my life, and researching big policy questions and arguing them was really fun,” she says. At her coach’s urging, she gave up the idea of pursuing law. “There were very few women in national debate in 1969,” she explains. “My debate coach said . . . ‘You need to continue getting women into debate. It will make them more competitive in the workplace.’” So O’Connor, whose inclination toward serving the underdog was already well established, said, “OK.”
After completing her master’s degree in speech communication and American studies, O’Connor worked as the assistant debate coach at the University of Southern California, where she received her Ph.D. from the university’s Annenberg School for Communication. Her dissertation explored the role the Black Panther Party played in society and questioned how the party could gain power when it defined itself as a separatist organization. O’Connor links her choice of topic to her interest in giving media access to underserved audiences. “That’s kind of how I view my world,” she says.
College debate brought O’Connor in contact with the likes of noted Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, who became one of her best friends—“His children are my godchildren,” she explains—and Democratic Party operative Bob Shrum. She and many of her other debate pals, a group she calls the “debate mafia,” and with whom she has stayed in touch, worked closely with George McGovern on his 1972 presidential campaign.
When McGovern lost the election, O’Connor applied for teaching positions at CSUS and four other public universities, including the University of Georgia at Athens—which, she points out, was no place for a feminist in the 1970s—and American University in Washington, D.C. But Nixon had just been elected president and O’Connor, an avowed liberal who commemorated the announcement by throwing a shoe at the television set and breaking it, wanted to get as far away from D.C. and the Nixon administration as possible. “Remember, I worked for McGovern,” she notes. “So Sacramento was my choice.”
O’Connor was hired as CSUS’s debate coach and planned to stay on just long enough to have her student loans forgiven. That was in 1972. “I thought I would stay a year,” she says. “Then I started liking teaching.” She also started making connections. “When I moved here, I had sworn off politics totally,” she says. But time heals, and O’Connor soon felt the need to re-engage. “So I called McGovern,” she recalls, “and asked, ‘Who were your biggest supporters in Sacramento and can you call them for me?’”
McGovern put O’Connor in touch with Jean Runyon and the late Judge Gordon Schaber, then dean at McGeorge School of Law. “You can imagine, they got me involved in everything immediately,” she says. Runyon remains one of O’Connor’s closest friends.
From that point, O’Connor’s career has included the study of political communication and its impact on the population at large. “I did some debate work during presidential debates,” she says. “I was one of five people the Associated Press in Washington selected to watch the presidential debates in 1976, in 1980 and in 1984. We actually judged the debate based on a ballot that AP constructed.” After each debate, O’Connor and her cohorts scored the match and gave comments on who won or lost and why. “It was very fun,” she says.
Her AP work influenced O’Connor and her CSUS communications colleagues to incorporate their real-world experiences into the department’s teaching curriculum. “We thought there was a real need to do this kind of applied work,” she says. They founded the CSUS Institute for the Study of Politics and Media.
As part of their studies, students work hands-on—designing focus groups, conducting surveys, evaluating media campaigns for local businesses. And students get real-world exposure through guest teachers and speakers, such as Ted Jenkins, who founded the Sacramento region’s Intel facility. “Every year he teaches a telecom class with me,” says O’Connor, who met Jenkins during policy debates in the nation’s capital. O’Connor considers it her role to bring top community people into the classroom to meet her students. Her “kids,” she says, often get jobs in these guests’ businesses. Students also gain practical experience through department internships. “We place them all over town, in advertising and PR,” says O’Connor. “They start out as interns, and then they get hired. It’s been fun kind of creating careers for people.”
In 1989, O’Connor and five other consumer leaders founded the Alliance for Public Technology, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization dedicated to providing technology access to underserved groups.
“We helped rewrite the Communications Act,” she says, referring to the FCC Telecommunications Act of 1996. “We put in a section of that act that gives grants to schools. We put in a section that said the FCC will give money to health clinics, and they will give money to community-based organizations. We wanted to make sure that everybody had access to digital technology.” O’Connor served as Alliance chair for nine years.
While on a recently completed sabbatical, O’Connor led an international group of technology experts whose task it was to devise a framework for measuring student levels of technology literacy. The work was done on behalf of the Educational Testing Service, the organization that developed the widely used SAT tests.
“Technology has become a central feature in our lives,” says O’Connor. “We need to be able to measure how competent our citizens are in its use.” As a result of the effort, a test currently is being developed that will focus on design and critical thinking. “It’s computer based, using flash and simulations,” she says. For example, the test might ask a student how to measure bread rising. “So you are given all of the formulas and graphs and charts and you can see the bread rising, and you are supposed to apply a formula to it,” she explains. The test will be administered to junior-level college students much the same as a writing proficiency exam. Those who fail must take remedial technology classes before enrolling in upper-division courses. The goal, says O’Connor, is to prepare students to be competitive in the ever-increasing world of information technology. The California State University system is a charter client.
O’Connor, a self-proclaimed Sacramento booster and a practicing Irish Catholic, lives comfortably with her dog Zoë—a “crazed” wire-haired fox terrier—and her only sister, Maureen Catherine O’Connor-Travis, who moved to Sacramento from Tennessee (her husband followed shortly) to help care for their aging mother. O’Connor’s mother is gone, but her sister and her sister’s husband have continued to share O’Connor’s spacious home.
Although engaged twice, O’Connor never married, which, she says, is just as well. “I probably would have been divorced if I had, and Catholic girls don’t do that,” she quips. As for kids, O’Connor relates an incident that occurred at a California Chamber of Commerce function for California’s new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (whom, despite his party affiliation, she finds “intriguing”). “Three young women, all unrelated—Republicans, I might add—came up and said, I had you in class 20 years ago, and I just wanted to tell you how fun it was, and we went into this or that because of you. It really is nice,” she says. “Since I don’t have children, I sort of have thousands of them out there.”
With all of her accomplishments, including a CSUS outstanding teaching award in 1990 and a CSUS Alumni Distinguished Professor Award in 1994, people might be surprised at what O’Connor is most proud of. “It’s my friends,” she says. “I have the best set of friends in the world. I really do. The kind of people you hang out with adds to the quality of your life.” And O’Connor’s quality of life seems excellent. “It’s a lovely life,” she says. “And it’s fun.”