Archive for Sunday, January 22, 1995

The book on Hemenway: KU’s incoming chancellor a crusader for education

January 22, 1995


— Robert Hemenway adjusts his bifocals, adding to a cluster of smudges on the left lens. He props a knee against the office conference table. The University of Kentucky cabinet meeting commences.

Like hundreds of meetings orchestrated by the UK chancellor, this 7:30 a.m. rendezvous is an intentional mixture of order and disorder.

"We'll have to temper our normal salty language," Hemenway jokingly cautions a dozen vice chancellors, deans and staff, alluding to the reporter sitting in.

On cue, as if to echo the alert, a fire truck blasts a warning. Firefighters race past Hemenway's 10-foot-tall windows in the Administration Building. Heads turn to South Limestone Street, perceptible by street light.

"There are no chemistry exams this early!" proclaims Vice Chancellor Jack Blanton, dismissing everyone's suspicion a UK student pulled the fire alarm to avoid a test.

Blanton, distinguished by his flamboyant oratory, proceeds to violate the salty-language edict. No matter. This is a Hemenway cabinet meeting.

UK administrators address the budget, tenure, hiring, affirmative action, fund raising, student disabilities, a blown boiler. Hemenway splices the exchange with stories, suggestions, declarations. He muses about his pending departure from the university.

Robert "Bob" Hemenway, 53, becomes the 16th chancellor at Kansas University in a few months. He's bringing a style and personality from Bluegrass Country that sets him apart from former Chancellor Gene Budig.

He says he follows humbly in Budig's foot steps.

"I really do believe he's left big shoes to fill."

`I have a dream...'

With the temperature at 37 degrees under gray skies, Hemenway takes to the streets of Lexington. It's the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 66th birthday.

Locking arms with African-Americans, he leads 2,200 people on a peaceful march from West Vine Street to Rose Street, east on Main Street, across Martin Luther King Boulevard, back to Heritage Hall.

Hemenway -- a white college professor from the Midwest -- is welcome in this African-American community's inner circle. These folks know he pays more than lip service to diversity.

Civil rights leader C.T. Vivian, a former top aide to King, tells the post-march rally he regrets Hemenway's decision to leave Lexington.

"It's too bad. You're losing a good man in Hemenway."

After the singing, prayers and speeches, Hemenway puts the day in perspective.

"It serves us all well to take this day in January and to remember what Martin Luther King stood for. I think what he stood for is the possibility of living together productively as a nation of many people, many races, many differences."

Universities are one place to plant seeds of harmony, he says.

"I don't have any illusions about how hard it is to obtain."

Rock the house

Hemenway's hiring guarantees a musical first.

The family's move to Lawrence means a member of Three Liter Bucket -- 11-year-old rocker Zack Hemenway -- will rattle the leaves outside the KU chancellor's house on Lilac Lane.

"We started the band in November," says Zack, demonstrating his prowess on a Fender bass.

In his absence, brother Matt will keep the music alive in Lexington. The UK freshman cavorts with a trombone in a different band, Too Fat To Skate.

Midwest values

Myrle and Leone Hemenway put their young son, Bob, on the track to success.

"One of my more vivid memories is sleigh riding in the winter," Hemenway recalls at his office. "My dad and I would go sledding on this great hill. I thought it was 40 blocks, but it was probably more like five.

"In the summer, my dad and mom remember that I had a tricycle that I would ride down this hill ... and careen into our driveway on two wheels. They tend to attribute some of my energy and dynamism to those early workouts."

The elder Hemenways were teachers. Both expected their children to work as hard in school as a hound dog at the start of hunting season.

"In high school, he got a B or something in physics," said John Ewing, former junior high principal in Hastings, Neb., where Hemenway spent most of his youth. "He was just devastated."

Hemenway's sister, Pam, also excelled. She's chair of the art department at Washington and Lee University.

Getting a fresh start

Hemenway makes another trek to Jayhawk land this weekend.

The agenda includes a Friday meeting with KU Medical Center leaders. Expect him at Saturday's mega-tilt between the KU and University of Connecticut basketball teams in Kansas City, Mo.

By April 15, Hemenway intends to take up residence in Lawrence.

"What I'm planning on doing is spending a month without portfolio, in order to get to know people and get a chance to talk to people," he said.

He won't formally take the reigns from Interim Chancellor Del Shankel until May.

Great American novel

During an interview, the KU chancellor-elect is amused by recollections of his years at Hastings College and a semester in Mexico City.

"I was 19 or 20," Hemenway says. "I'd never been out of the country. Actually, I'd never been on a plane before. My intention was to go there and write the great American novel."

The trek didn't produce a best seller, but Hemenway decided to transfer to University of Nebraska-Omaha. He amended a goal of becoming a high school teacher at the urging of a UNO professor who convinced him to be a college professor.

Hemenway thought about attending KU's graduate school, but accepted a better financial offer from Kent State University. He earned a doctorate in English in 1966 at the age of 24.

Hemenway's first academic job was as an assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky, the beginning of an on-again, off-again relationship with UK.

He left for University of Wyoming in 1968, but returned to UK five years later. In 1986, he became liberal arts dean at University of Oklahoma. UK called again in 1989, hiring him as chancellor.

"It's fair to say this will be my last departure from University of Kentucky," he says.

Hemenway wants to be KU's chancellor for a decade or so.

TV on the blink

On the way to lunch in UK's Student Center, Hemenway passes a room full of mesmerized students. The attraction isn't a physics lecture. It's the latest installment of "Days of Our Lives."

"Oh," he says, shaking his head. "I'm a TV skeptic."

At home, the customary 25-inch color tube doesn't dominate the living room. Zack Hemenway bought the only TV in the house at a garage sale. But the $50 set is nowhere in sight.

"Leah put it in the closet," Hemenway says. "She thought both he and (brother) Arna were watching too much of it.

"I think we don't question enough the values that are communicated on TV. You wonder what kind of society is going to evolve when young kids are basically programmed to buy, buy, buy from a very early age."

Zora Neale Hurston

Beth Schultz, KU professor of English, recalled Hemenway's 1977 biography of Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston "was like fireworks."

"I credit this particular biography for having a catalytic effect on the course of African-American women's studies," she said.

The book is a "real pioneering study" that "has worn well," said KU professor Bill Andrews.

Tell that to the folks at UK's campus bookstore or Joseph Beth, a massive Lexington bookstore. Neither stock a copy of Hemenway's book.

"I'll have to talk to them," the author chuckled.

Hurston's novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," changed Hemenway. He had to know more about the internal mood of this black writer. He bought a camper and began the search.

"In 1970-71, I traveled around the United States doing research. I spent six weeks in the parking lot of Yale's gymnasium."

Work on the book gave him an appreciation for the struggles of African-Americans. It led to a career in black-American literature.

"It seems to me if you're going to have something called American literature, it should also reflect the diversity and the multiplicity of the people who are out there writing literature."

What hobbies?

One of Hemenway's eight children, Robin, gets a kick out of her father's vita. It says his hobbies are duplicate bridge and jogging.

"I was teasing him about that," says Robin, a KU graduate student. "I know he's always played bridge off and on, but I didn't know he considered it a big hobby."

Hemenway admits most of his jogging is confined to a treadmill.

His real hobby is reading. The family has 5,000 to 6,000 books.

"Almost all of my free time not spent with the kids or with (wife) Leah is spent reading," Hemenway said.

Doctoring a med center

Driving past the UK Medical Center, Hemenway expresses concern about the future of university teaching hospitals.

Hemenway's jurisdiction at KU will include KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. His preliminary analysis indicates KUMC trails management reforms occurring in the health-care industry.

"It's changing radically and overnight," he says. "The challenge is to get out in front."

During the transition from UK to KU, he's going to help hire a new KUMC executive vice chancellor.

"The executive vice chancellor is probably one of the most important decisions I will make as chancellor," he says. "I know there are good people out there."

Not far from class

UK students Rachel Farmer and Rachel Robertson are survivors of Hemenway's undergraduate course in American lit.

"He would always put us in a circle, so we could have an open and equal discussion," Farmer said.

Robertson said the UK chancellor was prepared, interesting and personable.

"He didn't act like a person in a position of power," she said. "He was real down-to-earth."

KU students who'd like to match wits with Hemenway may enroll this fall in his 7:30 a.m. class on the post-Civil War period of American literature.

"I'll be there giving my best whether it be 10 or 50," he said.

Warning: Be prepared for a quiz at outset of each class.

Big bucks

Wayne Shumate and Hemenway stand in a kaleidoscope of color. Hundreds of seamstresses in Shumate's Paris, Ky., factory crank out Speedo swim wear for stores throughout North America.

"They're working nine hours a day, six days a week. Business is good," Shumate confides.

But the chancellor isn't in Paris to get a tailored Speedo.

He's driven past white-fence horse farms and stone fences built by slaves to make a fund-raising call on Shumate.

A 30-minute private conversation in Shumate's office apparently goes well. On this outing, Hemenway leaves with a jar of Shumate's favorite blackberry jam. He's optimistic Shumate will offer something more substantial to UK down the road.

"I like raising money," he says, speeding back to Lexington. "You're asking people to invest in an idea, the idea of a great university."

Bouncing ball

Don't be fooled by Hemenway's hefty 5-foot, 11-inch frame. Forget his third-string status on the Hastings College football team. So what if he was a role-player on the city's American Legion baseball club.

"I love big-time college sports," says Hemenway, who cherishes his UK basketball and football tickets. "They're the kind most Lexingtonians would kill for."

Hemenway believes in the value of intercollegiate athletics.

"Athletics ... become the focal point for much of the pride that a given state wants to invest in its young people."

First in, last out

Hemenway typically rolls out of bed at 5:45 a.m. After 30 minutes on a treadmill, he showers and reads the newspaper.

If all goes well, he flips on the lights at his campus office around 7 o'clock. He devotes the first part of the day to organizational matters -- a dean's or cabinet meeting, answering Internet computer mail.

"I do a lot of managing by E-mail," says

Budget cuts

Hemenway doesn't like every aspect of administration.

It was no fun making a 10 percent cut in the UK budget a few years ago. Slicing $13 million left college deans and program directors dazed.

The philosophy was: if a position is vacant, cut it; if travel is scheduled, cancel it; if a computer is unpurchased, forget it.

Hemenway's aggressive affirmative-action efforts also rankled.

"I have not always agreed with him on issues," said Dan Reedy, dean of UK's graduate school. "When Bob began to press his deans originally on making minority appointments, particularly African-Americans, I actually said once he was pushing too hard. He didn't let up.

"In hindsight, he may have forced some initial appointments that might be questionable."

Hemenway's ideas for year-round schooling, post-tenure review and restructuring the administration shocked.

It was no secret that the administrative styles of he and UK President Charles Wethington -- in charge of Hemenway and two other UK chancellors -- clashed.

Hemenway's emphasis on undergraduate education annoyed research-oriented faculty.

"He believes there are too many graduate students for the number of Ph.D. jobs available. I agree with him totally," said Bill Freehling, a UK professor.


Hemenway is a Democrat by tradition and independent by choice. He delights in politics, but doesn't publicize his preferences.

"I don't share that with anybody. I believe that the reason you have a curtain on the voting machine is ... for privacy."

Colleagues in the UK administration think it will be interesting to see how Hemenway interacts with Republicans Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas.

Hemenway says the notion he's a left-winger is exaggerated.

"I vote Democrats. I vote for Republicans -- whomever is the best candidate."


Ann Garrity and Mary Burg are Hemenway's administrative assistants.

They agree his candor, humor and openness surprise people who expect the chancellor to be a stodgy, ivory tower-style bureaucrat.

"People are disarmed, but don't be fooled," Burg says. "There's a steel-trap mind in there."

Garrity says people often wonder if she writes Hemenway's speeches.

"Bob doesn't need it. You can't put words in his mouth."

They marvel at Hemenway's 70-hour work regimen.

How can you make him angry? Show disrespect for a student.

Hemenway isn't materialistic, Garrity and Burg agree. The chancellor, who earns $144,000 a year at UK, drives an 1984 Mercury.

"I drive a car to get to work," Hemenway says. "We could buy a new car. What for?"

Brown-bag lunch

Hemenway regularly invites students to lunch in UK's board room. In exchange, students confide in him their opinions of the university.

While the sessions earn Hemenway praise from students, the ham sandwiches don't.

"I have a natural distrust for administrators," said Perry Brothers, an editor at the Kentucky Kernel, UK's student newspaper. "He'll talk to you straight up."

Brown-bag lunches open Hemenway's eyes to the needs of students. UK's approach to undergraduate advising was overhauled in response to students' comments.

"I want students ... sitting in that lavish board room to understand it's their university. They have a stake," he said.

Town meetings

Periodic "town meetings" on campus are another measure of Hemenway's management style. Last November, he conducted one to explain his vision for UK, known as "The New Agenda: 1995-2000."

It called for doubling the number of black faculty, female faculty and National Merit Scholars in five years.

"The mistake we've made in the past is to say, 'We can't do that at this kind of university' and then go on about our business," he said.

Testing tenure

Nearly 300 angry architecture students jam the Administration Building. They're annoyed that a popular teacher, Mark Clary, is being denied tenure.

Hemenway steps into the mob's epicenter.

"I appreciate the sentiment expressed by the students of architecture," Hemenway says, "and I would be glad to talk with any of you individually."

"We're here now," the crowd replies. "Talk to us now."

A 15-minute discussion leads to a 5:30 p.m. meeting with students in Pence Hall. At that gathering, Hemenway defends UK's tenure system.

Hemenway explains faculty evaluations must be based on three questions, in this order: Is the person a good teacher? If so, is the person a good scholar? If so, does the person serve the community?

"Someone can be a terrific scholar but at a public university if they can't go into a classroom and communicate their knowledge, then they ought to be at a research institute."

'My signature'

Hemenway's constant companion is a black journal. He records the day's activities, doodles and promises in hardback volumes.

"It's my signature," he says.

UK folks are aware of the journals -- 16 line his office shelf.

"It can be intimidating," Hemenway says. "People come in here claiming I made a commitment to them. I say, 'Okay, let's see what we agreed to.'"

If the journal is Hemenway's signature in the office, a light blue UK hat is his signature outside.

"I catch colds if I don't wear it," the balding chancellor says.

At KU, he'll keep a journal. The hat will be replaced by a crimson and blue model. Those are his color signatures now.

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