A passionate belief in public education about government|
Photograph Courtesy of the Miller Center
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
crowds to hear inside views on the current world
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,
in as moderator
And he will continue to teach “the usual”: an introduction to international
relations and a seminar on the workings of government.