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Archive for Saturday, January 24, 2004

Departing KU official carries inspiring family legacy

January 24, 2004

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Janet Murguia, Kansas University's executive vice chancellor for university relations, will be leaving KU within a short time to become director and chief operating officer of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy and public policy organization in the United States.

The Kansas City, Kan., native has been serving as a member of La Raza's board of directors for the past year and a half, and now will become the top operating officer for this powerful and growing organization. Chances are, she soon will become La Raza's CEO. Her brother, Ramon, also served as chairman of the La Raza board for a number of years.

Janet Murguia came to KU in 2001 and immediately had a high profile. She was brought into the KU family to "tell the KU story," a tremendously important task for the university but one that has not been done effectively for far too long. KU has suffered in many ways due to its inability to do a good job of informing the public as well as state lawmakers about the important role the university plays in helping shape and drive the state's economy, as well as its future.

The Murguia family story should inspire all Americans. It is a story of what can be accomplished in this country if an individual takes advantage of opportunities and education.

The Murguias grew up in the Argentine district of Kansas City. Three daughters and three sons shared a small house with their parents with the father working in a Kansas City steel plant. Janet and her twin sister, Mary, eventually came to KU, where Janet received her undergraduate and law degrees. Her sister is a federal judge in Arizona, and one of her brothers is a federal judge in Kansas City.

Before returning to KU, Janet served in the White House during the Clinton administration and was considered one of the closest advisers to then-Vice President Al Gore when he sought the presidency.

The members of the Murguia family and what they have accomplished are a terrific story and should serve as a model of what can be accomplished in the United States if one has the desire, drive and commitment to succeed.

Whether Murguia had a fair start in her relatively short career as an executive vice chancellor at KU is open to debate.

At a time when money was short at the state's universities, the very positive, confident and attractive Murguia stepped into her office with a salary close to $200,000 a year. That didn't please many on the KU campus. As she worked as a lobbyist in Topeka, her previous role as a senior Democratic strategist also didn't sit well with legislators with strong GOP ties.

Because the KU story has not been told in an effective manner, Murguia faced many challenges, including the fact that she often was compared with Kansas State University's main lobbyist, Sue Peterson, who is held in high regard by state lawmakers. KU's critics, as well as its supporters, did not hold back in voicing their concern or disappointment that Murguia didn't get the same good marks as Peterson in the eyes of many lawmakers.

There's no question that Murguia is a talented individual with a great deal of drive. It's very possible she is an example of trying to place a round peg in a square hole. She just didn't fit in the job where she was assigned, or perhaps she had too many responsibilities. Chances are, there are other KU jobs at which she would have been far more effective.

There's no doubt she will play an important and effective role at La Raza. In an election year, her office is sure to be jammed with candidates or their advisers seeking support for their election efforts. As noted above, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the country, and La Raza, one of the most powerful -- if not THE most powerful -- Hispanic organizations, will be headed by the very able, astute and politically savvy Murguia.

It is unfortunate Murguia was not able to use her many talents to benefit the university.

Chancellor Hemenway knows the importance of KU doing a far better job of telling its story, not only to Topeka lawmakers but throughout the state. He wants to strengthen this effort, but, unfortunately, the use of Murguia in this role did not pan out as well as he may have hoped.

Maybe she was handicapped in this effort before she even traveled to Topeka by the combination of some hostility, jealousy or turf wars within the university family. Her salary exceeded that of most KU academic and administrative officials except the chancellor, and she was introduced in Kansas as a senior aide to Vice President Gore.

Now, KU is putting together a makeshift public relations effort with a relative newcomer with few Kansas ties, Kevin Boatright, heading the task, assisted by Jon Josserand, who has been a lobbyist for KU for some years and a new hire by the name of Kathy Damron of Topeka. Damron is a former staff member for Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and former Gov. Mike Hayden. The three-person team of Boatright, Josserand and Damron has an important, challenging task ahead and not much time to get it done.

Murguia's friends wish her well in her new job, and there is every reason to believe she will do a top-flight job with La Raza. It's this writer's guess we'll be seeing her name in news reports with increasing frequency in the months and years to come. The cards are not stacked against her as they may have been during her time on Mount Oread.

Perhaps, by one means or another, she will be able to do more for KU in her upcoming Washington position than she was as a KU executive vice chancellor and director of the school's lobbying efforts.

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