Eamon Michael Kelly, whose management skills and financial stewardship were credited with helping to improve Tulane University’s public image and national ranking during nearly two decades as its president, died Wednesday after complications from surgery. He was 81.
Kelly, who was Tulane's president from 1981 to 1998, was perhaps most widely known for shutting down the school's basketball program for three years after a point-shaving scandal erupted in 1985.
But he also took over an institution that perpetually ran deficits, balanced its budget after his first year on the job and during his tenure helped increase the school’s endowment from $50 million to $406 million and its net worth from $190 million to $610 million.
“He was an incredible leader for Tulane,” said Yvette Jones, who served as Kelly’s chief of staff and retired last year as the university’s executive vice president. “He really took Tulane from being a regional university to being a national institution. He was one of the saviors of the institution at a time when it needed, financially, a mind like his.”
“Eamon was a special guy who really saved Tulane from financial disaster during his presidency and launched the university on its current path of high national rankings and worldwide recognition," agreed Bill Bertrand, a fellow professor with Kelly at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and a friend of nearly 40 years.
Bertrand worked closely with Kelly in the years since the latter’s retirement, when he turned his focus to assisting impoverished people throughout the world, especially in Africa, first through a foundation he created and later as a faculty member in the School of Public Health's department of global community health and behavioral sciences.
“He never stopped,” Jones said. His death “is still kind of a shock. He was very active and engaged.”
“Eamon’s impact on the history of Tulane cannot be overstated," current Tulane President Michael Fitts said in a message Thursday.
Kelly, a native of New York, earned a bachelor's degree from Fordham University and a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in 1965.
He worked as an assistant professor at Penn State University and then for a decade at the Ford Foundation in New York, during which time he also served as chairman of the City Council of Englewood, New Jersey.
Kelly and his family moved to New Orleans in 1979, when he became Tulane’s chief financial officer and executive vice president. He became interim president the following year and took over the position permanently in 1981.
Jones said Kelly restructured the university’s finances and brought about efficiencies while minimizing the impact on the staff, ending the school’s practice of draining the endowment each year to cover a deficit.
Jones said he also modernized the school’s financial aid programs, making the university more accessible to middle-income families.
In 1985, when Tulane’s basketball team was rocked by a point-shaving scandal, Kelly took the controversial step of disbanding the program, though he reinstituted it three years later.
“He wanted to make sure there was a clean break and there was no question about the integrity of athletics at Tulane,” Jones said.
Kelly also instituted Tulane's nondiscrimination policy for recruiting faculty and students. The university was noted for having the highest percentage of African-American students of any major private research university in the United States.
Martha Sullivan, who was vice president for student affairs during Kelly’s time at Tulane, said he was the school's first president to appoint African-American and woman vice presidents.
“Eamon was a man of principle, and he didn’t waver from those principles,” she said, noting that he was a firm believer in free speech. “It’s rare to have a boss that never wavers from their core principles, and he didn’t.”
Bertrand and Jones said Kelly was a natural mentor, and many of those who worked under him went on to become presidents at schools like Oberlin College, Rutgers University and the University of Georgia.
Kelly retired in 1998 to spend more time with his family, but colleagues tended to put the word “retirement” in quotation marks when they discussed it.
He continued serving on philanthropic and governmental boards, focusing on science and technology, poverty and international development in Africa and the Far East.
Kelly was a former chairman of the board of the National Science Foundation and the original chairman of the Satellite Working Group, which established the first nationwide private satellite system in the United States to benefit the Public Broadcasting Service.
He co-founded the Payson Graduate Program in Global Development with Bertrand and worked to improve organizational leadership and management in countries throughout the developing world, from Rwanda to Brazil.
Bertrand said Kelly was a tireless champion for human rights.
“Eamon was unique in his ability to make tough administrative decisions while at the same time having an incredible capacity to mentor and support colleagues and students,” he said. “He was a dedicated supporter of social justice who never wavered in his support of civil and academic rights. His humanitarian work in New Orleans and internationally was tireless.”
Survivors include his wife, Margaret; three sons, Paul, Andrew and Peter; a brother, Fred; and nine grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 10 a.m. to noon Monday at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, 6367 St. Charles Ave., with a Mass to follow at noon. Burial will be private.