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Kenneth Thompson: A passionate belief in public education about government
Kenneth Thompson
Photograph Courtesy of the Miller Center
Kenneth W. Thompson in his office at the Miller Center, where he has guided the center to national prominence for the study of the U.S. presidency and government, and where he has persuaded many an expert to share his or her views on current or historical issues at the center’s weekly forums.

By Robert Brickhouse

An influential teacher for hundreds of students and the author or editor of dozens of books, politics professor Kenneth W. Thompson has spent another important segment of his half-century career on the telephone.

Believing that part of the mission of education is to enlighten all citizens about how their government works, he has arranged for a nonstop parade of top officials, scholars and journalists to speak at public forums sponsored almost every week by the Miller Center of Public Affairs. He retired in 1998 as the center’s director and will step down this month as head of its phenomenally popular forum program.

While teaching, writing and guiding the Miller Center to national prominence for the nonpartisan study of the U.S. presidency and government, Thompson has persuaded a stream of Cabinet secretaries, congressional leaders, government lawyers, judges and others to share their insights in question-and-

answer sessions with local residents, faculty and students. Two former presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, have spoken at Miller Center forums. Journalists like Jim Lehrer, Mark Shields and Sander Vanocur, known for their access to information, regularly show up on Miller Center agendas.

A bulging, old-fashioned Rolodex sits by Thompson’s kitchen telephone at home, holding a mere fraction of his main phone number list at the Miller Center.

He has lined up most speakers personally, an average of one or more a week, to give their views on current or historical issues. The forums, which regularly draw audiences of 200 or more, have become one of the University’s most visible and respected programs.

Although the speakers receive no honorarium, Thompson is able to entice them to Charlottesville as a public service and sometimes by relying on the appeal of U.Va.’s “Jefferson mystique.”

A vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation for a decade before joining the U.Va. faculty in 1978, traveling the world and working closely with government officials, “I had lots and lots of contacts,” Thompson recalls. When he first began urging them to visit, “Often people owed me something. Now it’s a privilege to speak at the Miller Center.”

Each week he has also familiarized himself with the speakers’ latest work and the issues at hand so he can smoothly moderate the forums with his characteristic warmth and humility.

A key part of the center’s mission and his own personal belief, said Thompson, is that academics cannot be divorced from the public arena.
There is a benefit both ways in making public talks, he believes. Not only is the public learning, but “you can educate the speaker. With good questions from the audience” — a hallmark of Miller Center forums — “a person might reconsider a stand.”

Many speakers over the years have visited as part of the Miller Center’s many oral history programs about U.S. Presidents and also met privately with scholars. Others have been part of the important national commissions that Thompson established to shed light on thorny governmental issues. These have included making key recommendations about presidential disability, nominating vice presidents and handling press conferences and the media.

Now with the popularity of the Miller Center, Thompson, who received his Ph.D. in international relations in 1950 at the University of Chicago, has plenty of suggestions for speakers. And with such present or former Miller Center board members as former Chief Justice Warren Burger, Senator Howard Baker, Attorney General Griffin Bell, journalist R.W. Apple, and Virginia Governor Linwood Holton, Thompson has no shortage of help with inside contacts. Not to mention the aid of the center’s longtime executive assistant, Shirley Kohut. She helps arrange all the travel details of visiting speakers and, among the hundreds she has worked with, “she never forgets a name or a face.”

Thompson is at ease with all sides of an issue and determinedly nonpartisan. When he has a deeply partisan speaker, he will often arrange for a balanced panel discussion to follow or choose a knowledgeable critic to ask a question.

Among the most candid of speakers about their work, Thompson recalls, were President Carter and his wife Rosalyn Carter, both of whom, in separate visits, spoke passionately about human rights and offered personal insights about the Middle East peace process.

Other forums, such as a recent panel with former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, drew overflow crowds to hear inside views on the current world situation.

The forums confirm the idea that “we are a country of people committed to involving themselves,” Thomson says. “They show the educational value of citizens trying to make sense of complicated things.”

As Miller Center historian George Gilliam takes over the duties of the forum program this fall, Thompson still plans to fill in as moderator when needed. And he will continue to teach “the usual”: an introduction to international relations and a seminar on the workings of government.


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