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Alumni Spotlight: Carol O'Cleireacain

Carol O'Cleireacain

Carol O'Cleireacain, B.A. and Master’s, Economics, Deputy Mayor for Economic Policy, Planning & Strategy, Detroit

Carol O’Cleireacain’s unassuming office in the Mayor’s Suite of the Coleman Young Municipal Building in downtown Detroit is adorned with a few mementos of her career in public service. “I love this picture, look at those faces,” she says as she points to the black and white images on the wall, one of a group of African American girls captivated by a speech delivered by Jesse Jackson. Others show Carol and Jesse in behind-the-scenes strategy sessions. Another piece on her wall is a certificate from the City of New York recognizing her service as a valued member of the Dinkins administration where she was Finance Commissioner and Budget Director, the first woman to hold both positions. The certificate is a symbol of the honor and respect the city shows to those who assume public service roles. “I want to see this level of commitment in the city government of Detroit.”

From the classrooms at Angell Hall to the offices of the UAW to the Brookings Institution to the Detroit Mayor’s office, Carol’s career has evolved in ways she couldn’t have predicted.

She came to U-M as an undergraduate from Skokie, Illinois, and continued on to the economics Ph.D. program but, after passing her Ph.D. prelims, she and her husband Seamus moved to London. So, Michigan lost her to the London School of Economics where she completed a Ph.D. with a dissertation on UK public finance. Carol spent seven years in Ann Arbor, but they struck her as different eras. She recalls, “A fondness I have about U-M and Ann Arbor in particular is that you could lead two perfectly different lives as an undergrad and a grad student. I didn’t do any of the same things as a grad student that I did as an undergrad. It was much more scholarly, digging deep into academics, much more library and group study time. When you hit grad school you are a different person. These were two different worlds for me.”

For Carol, graduate school was also the beginning of a world where you don’t go home for summer break. “I had taken an independent study from a faculty member, Dan Fusfeld, so when I told him I wanted to stay for the summer, he pulled some strings to get me a job in the education department at the UAW in Detroit. I used my boyfriend’s (now my husband) old MGB and had to carry extra water to make sure it didn’t overheat from a leaky radiator. I got much more out of it than the UAW got out of me! The UAW was led by labor pioneer and civil rights legend Walter Reuther at the time. Those two summers were an education of its own.” They also began to shape her future career.

Her experience wasn’t an easy road, however. She recalls, “My experience is different than women students have now. There were no female tenured economics role models or mentors, and there were very few women in the classroom, so you felt pretty alone.  You didn’t have a very easy way of seeing how you were going to fit this whole education into the rest of your life. We were more pioneers than we realized. We just went with the flow of doing what we wanted to do and not let it get in the way. It was important for me to find supportive people. My husband was one.”

Despite those challenges, Carol had a broader perspective and could appreciate the educational foundation she received at U-M: “All these things keep blending as your life goes on. From Michigan I got an economic and analytical toolbox I’ve carried with me all these years. You learn and add more as you go. You sharpen the tools; some get better and some fall by the wayside. And, of course, there was other interesting stuff -- support of faculty like Bill Neenan, who fostered in me a love of local government finance, and the UAW connection that Dan Fusfeld made for me -- that turns out was  formative in my ending up in-and-out of the labor movement for chunks of my career.”

Those experiences and that support created a perfect storm of labor interest and public finance interest that gave Carol the background to create a position for herself as the chief economist of District Council 37 AFSCME, New York City’s largest municipal union during New York’s financial crisis in the 1970s. Her work was integral in helping use member pension funds to bail out the city during its most challenging decade.

The thread of fiscal crises is woven throughout Carol’s career. From the 70s and 80s in New York to the mid-90s in Washington DC to state fiscal crises in the 00s to Detroit in the 2010s, Carol has been brought in to help cities and states right the economic ship and stay the course of recovery.

“Look, there are only so many ways you can keep kicking the can down the road, and they recur all over in a variety of ways. In essence, that’s what happened in Detroit.” Detroit, she notes, is unique: “You can’t ignore the largest municipal bankruptcy. It is an example of its own in a number of ways.”

She wouldn’t have served in New York City government if she hadn’t gotten involved in the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1988, where she was his chief economic advisor. She recalled, “He carried New York City. Many of the people running that campaign are still key members of the government. It was a training ground for the grassroots operation that was needed to elect the first black mayor of New York, David Dinkins, and I was working on the policy end -- Jackson’s Reinvest in America plan. Working on the design and financing of national infrastructure plans is a whole other thread in the rest of my life.” For example, she has sat on two national Commissions -- on infrastructure and on civil aviation -- and corporate boards in the steel, pharmaceutical and financial industries. 

Meanwhile, Carol kept one foot in academia for a long time. She says, “Victor Gotbaum, the head of NYC’s largest public employee union (DC37 AFSCME), took a gamble on me. They had never had anybody doing economics and my kind of analytical and policy stuff; he knew that the fiscal crisis had changed everything he and the union faced. It was great for me, but I was an outsider and I was alone in that union. So, I always felt I needed to reach out to my profession to stay in touch. In this case, I started teaching public policy at the New School, then eventually in other departments as an adjunct. I loved teaching and it challenged me in other ways than my work.”  

After two years as Deputy Mayor of Detroit, she reflects, “Coming back, it’s not the Detroit I remembered. It is a shadow of its former self, but parts of it have made terrific progress even in the time I’ve been here. I am living and working in downtown and there is so much more going on here now. Wayne State is hugely important and has been the stabilizer for midtown and parts of downtown Detroit. There is this phenomenal commitment and I’m so impressed by it.”

Early in her Detroit tenure, Carol worked on the team that created the Great Lakes Water Authority, to provide water and sewer services for Southeast Michigan communities. Her next major task was to build a high functioning income tax department that would interface with the state of Michigan and the IRS and support standard technology services like e-filing for city taxes. She describes, “We undertook a complete reorganization to create a well-structured functioning city government. When I ride into the sunset, I will know that we set this up and got it operating to a professional standard. I can say, now, it’s been a lot of fun.”

Currently, she’s leaping over her third major hurdle along Woodward Avenue: a 5 year City capital plan -- a comprehensive financial plan for infrastructure. Carol comments, “Plans are going to change, and the budget will need to roll from year to year and there are still significant funding issues to figure out, but I’m more concerned about the process. We need to start putting in place a way for all agencies to talk to each other and need to develop a process for talking with all the people who are trying to rebuild Detroit. Public infrastructure will support the rebuilding of Detroit’s neighborhoods and everyone out there needs to know the City is organized and working in a coherent way, with a plan for connecting all those services that make a livable city. We need a plan for filling in the patchy places with housing, creating some open space, bike paths and commercial corridors with shopping which there isn’t a lot of now. It’s about processes and systems, as well as money.”

The twists and turns of her career have one unique commonality: “I never planned my career. I didn’t know where I was going to end up. Look, in my first real job after my Ph.D. I ended up working for AFSCME in New York City for 13 years. I did not know how long it would last and I never really thought about where it was going to lead. That job just grew organically from policy problems kicked up by the city’s fiscal crisis. What I discovered about myself was that I like learning things and putting something in place to address what I learned. I created a process; then I moved on to something else. Once I’ve figured it out, I want to do something else more pressing. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over. That’s what I’ve done for my entire career. I work my fanny off. You could say that about my whole life. I kept at it because the work was interesting and important; I keep learning, and I feel like I’m helping.”

At a 50,000 foot level, she extrapolates that to the great value graduate students build during their years in academia. Carol says, “They leave carrying their toolbox with them. That’s what students have leaving Rackham. It isn’t going to desert them. And they can keep using it on the same problems or apply it for other things that come up.”

Often, the challenges she faced in graduate school reared up throughout her career in that frequently she would be the only economist in the room and also the only woman. That changed when working at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC where she encountered a real role model in Alice Rivlin. Carol recalls, “She has been a really good mentor and friend to me. I came to work on things she had been working on for years and she welcomed me. She was unbelievably supportive and has continued to be. The fact that she’s a woman matters a lot to me.”

With that role model in mind, Carol continues to mentor others, when she gets a chance. Carol says, “I always have had research assistants – many of them women and former grad students of mine. I tried to train them in the art of writing a one page decision memo, finishing a piece of work to a deadline, and other things that any workplace mentor would do.”

Carol’s advice to them and to all students is, “Plan less and understand that life is serendipity. You never know what’s going to fall in your lap, what opportunity is going to come across your path. You have to keep your eyes open and trust your gut. I could have had a very different life if I had accepted something else. There are things you turn down, things that you don’t turn down. Life is a random event. ”

Reflecting on her experience, Carol says, “I feel I have more intellectual curiosity now that when I was a student. After finishing your thesis, the rest of the world begins to open up to you. There’s so much interesting stuff out there and interesting policy problems to attack and analyze and time is short.”

Carol and her husband Seamus met in the Michigan economics program and have been married since December 1969. Her work in Detroit keeps her here most of the time, but she makes regular weekend trips to their home in New York where Seamus teaches at Columbia University. They recharge, when possible, at their small bungalow on Ireland’s Beara Peninsula. She explains, “You do what you can to make it work. Given the academic calendar, the longest we were ever apart was around six weeks when Seamus had gone to teach in New York and I was still finishing my thesis in a cold London basement flat.”

Carol and Seamus have shared their intent to bequest a gift to Rackham as a part of their estate plan. When asked why supporting graduate education at the University of Michigan was important to them, she shared, “That is part of the reason why Mayor Duggan didn’t have to push so hard to get me to come here. I’m grateful for the public education I’ve received everywhere I’ve been. People paid taxes to give me an education and I feel like I should give some of that back. That Detroit was in Michigan helped the Mayor in his pitch to me; I feel like this is giving back in a different way to Michigan.”