By the time G. Dennis O'Brien became University of Rochester president in 1984, he had already played a major role in a new athletic conference based on academic similarities, yet it was a bus ride conversation with Washington University Chancellor William H. Danforth that set the tone for the beginning of the UAA.
While O'Brien served as president at Bucknell University, the Colonial League was formed as a football conference and later during his tenure became an all-sport conference renamed the Patriot League. The conference was based on putting together institutions of similar academic priorities and at the time, prohibited athletic scholarships. He was serving as Dean of Students at Middlebury College when the NCAA Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) was officially formed.
The Association of American Universities (AAU) met twice a year, once in Washington, DC and once on a member campus. In his first year as president at Rochester, O'Brien attended the AAU confence hosted by the University of Minnesota. The presidents were loaded onto a bus and given a tour of the large campus. "There was this immense building that looked like a shed and I wasn't sure what it was," O'Brien recalled. "I asked the tour guide, who said it was the school's indoor football practice field. I turned to Bill (Chancellor Danforth) and said 'We have to make sure we never have such a thing on our campuses.'"
"We started to look around the AAU bus and could find people with similar academic programs and the same academic principles," O'Brien remembered. "They were serious research institutions like ours and were located in major cities, which meant we could travel to them easily. Seeing that building really was the impetus to larger conversations about who we should be aligning ourselves with."
During the summer of 1985, he invited the chief executive officers of 13 universities to a conference to be held at Rochester. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the possible advantages of forming some sort of athletic association among schools of like background and similar philosophy. "We were always having discussions about finding appropriate opponents," O'Brien stated. "You want to be associated with other universities who are like you."
On Oct. 7, 1985, a group including presidents, chancellors, vice-presidents, deans, faculty, and administrators met at Rochester. A philosophical rationale for an athletic association of such institutions was discussed, along with various models of competition which might be pursued, and the financial implications of each. The result of this meeting was an agreement among those in attendance to pursue the discussions on their respective campuses and meet again in February at Washington University in St. Louis. At the meeting in St. Louis, the participating institutions agreed upon a general model of competition and a first draft of a constitution and bylaws. The results were returned to the individual campuses for approval and final commitment.
On June 25, 1986, the formal announcement of the formation of the University Athletic Association was made simultaneously at press conferences at the New York Hilton Hotel and on the respective campuses of the member institutions. Participating in the announcement were Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, New York University, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester, and Washington University in St. Louis. Brandeis University became the ninth member shortly thereafter.
"This was a whole new idea at the time," O'Brien recalled. "The Association was clarifying the nature of each of our institutions."
Although some informal competition began among members of the UAA in 1986-87, championship competition did not begin until 1987-88. "I was certainly pleased with the way it developed," O'Brien remarked. "It was dicey to put this all together. We wondered 'would this all work?' There was never a doubt that this was a good idea. We met every year and there really was no controversy at all. As it played itself out, it really did work."
"I asked one of our student-athletes about her experience at the UAA Tennis Championships at Emory," he remembered. "She said it was great. No one asked her why she was reading a book in between sets. I knew this was the kind of league we wanted."
O'Brien retired from Rochester in 1994, but has remained extremely active. He has written four more books since then, raising his total to seven books spanning 35 years. O'Brien is on the Commonweal Foundation Board of Directors, formerly serving as Board Chair.
He is very active with the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC), which provides grants, loans, scholarships, and career and education planning to help Vermonters who want to go to college or other training after high school. He serves on the Board of American Modern Ensemble, a performing arts group in New York City directed by his violinist daughter, Victoria (UR '94) and her husband Rob Paterson. O'Brien is even tutoring a Middlebury College student about a French philosopher.