Head of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management
College of Human Sciences
Martin O'Neill, the head of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management in the College of Human Sciences, was born and raised in Northern Ireland. He earned three degrees from the University of Ulster in the U.K. and joined the Ulster faculty to teach hospitality and tourism. After six years, O'Neill accepted a three-year sabbatical appointment to join the faculty at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. After almost six years, he came to Auburn for another faculty position. In addition to running the department, O'Neill is known for providing Auburn students with an opportunity to backpack through Europe each year. He developed the same tour while at Edith Cowan. Since moving to the Plains, three O'Neills have earned Auburn degrees – his wife Ann Marie (2008), who works at the Scott-Richey Research Center at the College of Veterinary Medicine, and two of his four children, Conor (2010) and Eoghan (2011).
1. What brought you to the United States, let alone, Auburn, Ala.?
I had never heard of the place until 1998. I was working at Edith Cowan when Bill Kent, the Hotel and Restaurant Management program director at Auburn, came to my class on an exchange. I got to know him and his students, and we collaborated on a research project with Susan Hubbard at Auburn. The next year, I met Bill while visiting Auburn with a colleague. It was a pre-football Friday, when RVs could park anywhere on campus. I thought the atmosphere was electric! The next day, I met up with Bill and went to the game. I enjoyed it, but couldn't understand a thing anyone was saying! I kept up my research collaboration with Bill and Susan, and when there was an opening in the college, I got a call. I interviewed here in 2001 while I was on an exchange with my students. I said yes, and then no, to the offer. But then Dean June Henton tracked me down in Singapore in 2002 to make the offer again. My wife actually made the decision for me. She figured a seven-hour trip from Atlanta to Ireland was much better than the 27 hours from Perth to Ireland. In December 2003, I came here on sabbatical as an associate professor without tenure, and we sort of got to like it. It's very much like home in Northern Ireland. Everyone is neighborly and it's all "sir" and "ma'am." Now here we are, 10 years later.
2. Auburn University hosted the 17th annual Graduate Education and Graduate Student Research Conference in Hospitality and Tourism in January. How did it go?
It was fantastic! I think Bob Bosselman, professor and chair of the Department of Apparel, Educational Studies and Hospitality Management at Iowa State University, said it best when he said, "What a great operation you have at Auburn. I think everyone was stunned to see the level of the program. You were a well-kept secret, but no more." Visibility is a big part of our mission. We've always professed something unique, but we needed people to see it. We had to compete with much, much bigger programs across the country, like Penn State, Virginia Tech and Houston, to be awarded the bid to host the conference. When we got it, we decided we would knock their socks off! We did everything over the top, but really well. Not one aspect of the four-day conference for 300 people went wrong. Everyone from the deans and department heads of the various colleges and schools to the graduate students were absolutely floored by everything we did. It certainly did afford us a lot of positive exposure. Kaye Chon, the conference founder and dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, asked why we executed it to the extent that we did. I told him we wanted to do it big for our 25th anniversary, and he said it would be hard for any other school to top us.
3. The Hotel and Restaurant Management program received professional accreditation by the Accreditation Commission for Programs in Hospitality Administration in 2011, and 2012 marks the program's 25th year. What can we expect to see out of HRMT in the future?
We are thinking about starting a visiting lecture series this fall to accompany the current issues course in our master's program. We also will be focusing a lot more on international programming. You cannot teach the business of hospitality and tourism without an international focus. We are busy working on developing a series of international partnerships that will open the door for undergraduate, graduate and faculty exchange, as well as facilitating joint research projects. We are also interested in furthering our reach through distance education initiatives. Perhaps the most unique proposal will be our graduate certificate in brewing science and operations. This is three-way collaboration between our department, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Agriculture. This program speaks to a number of the university's current strategic priorities including revenue generation, distance education and inter-departmental collaboration. It comes on the back of an explosion of interest in the home and craft brewing sectors both in and out of state and should tap (excuse the pun) a very lucrative niche market in the educational domain.
4. You say you root for the Auburn Tigers, but you claim you don't understand the American game of football. How can that be?
It took me about a year to understand the bloody game! I was used to watching rugby and soccer where players ran for 90 straight minutes. These guys run for 15 seconds and stop. I tried to watch baseball too, but I couldn't get past all the stopping and starting. But don't get me wrong, I like the game of football and I like to see it played well. I like to see Auburn play well. When they don't, I get quite frustrated, as many others do. If another team is playing better, I will support them. I am a self-professed fair-weather fan.
5. I understand you are a fan of outdoor leisure activities, including hunting and fishing. Is that why you enjoy the A&E reality series, Duck Dynasty?
I love the outdoors! Growing up in the country as I did, I learned to enjoy hunting, shooting, fishing, walking and running. Duck Dynasty is wonderful stereotypical Southern living that is so far removed from Southern living. Whatever the story, it reminds me of my childhood. I find it so easy to resonate with its sense of community. Family values are very important to them and me. At the end of the debauchery and shenanigans, there's always some life lesson about community and family. This is why it was very easy for me to settle here. This community is much attuned to what I grew up with. It feels natural to me. I laugh my head off when I watch Duck Dynasty! I think it's the best reality TV on TV. I know it's not real, but it's just wonderful.