Rosemary O’Leary’s lifelong goal was to be a professor at Kansas University. When she graduated from KU more than three decades ago, she figured she’d be back to teach in a matter of years. She was off by a quarter century.
O’Leary is the new Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the School of Public Affairs and Administration, replacing H. George Frederickson, who helped the program reach great heights during his 26 years at KU.
O’Leary, who will also direct the school’s Ph.D. program, had been a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, but when the spot opened up at her alma mater, she knew she had to go for it.
“When I left 28 years ago, I said, ‘I’ll be back in three years,’” she recalled.
Instead it took her almost as long to return as the man she’s replacing was in his role.
Either way, she’s happy to be at KU, and is looking forward to the challenge of upholding the School of Public Affairs and Administration’s notable reputation.
The school has trained managers for cities and counties across the state, region and nation. Since 1998, its master of public administration degree in city management and urban planning has been ranked as the best in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. The school itself is ranked No. 7 overall, alongside the University of Michigan.
Frederickson said the School of Public Affairs and Administration was able to accomplish those feats by being selective in its admission process — it accepts about 15 to 20 graduate students a year — and having very active alumni.
O’Leary, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in Prairie Village, has long been interested in government administration.
“I’ve always been attracted to public service and teaching those who want to dedicate their lives to public service,” she said. “I honestly believe there’s no higher calling than to serve the public as a government official or in a quasi-governmental role.”
Frederickson, meanwhile, isn’t leaving the KU community entirely. The 78-year-old will be a professor emeritus at KU and remain in Lawrence with his wife, Mary. He said he will miss “being part of a group of very dedicated faculty members and students who built a very good public administration program.”
He leaves behind very large shoes to fill.
Frederickson won every major award in the profession; founded two scholarly journals, including the top research journal in the field; created a professional association for public administrators; and started the doctoral program at the School of Public Affairs and Administration.
“How do you follow a rock star?” O’Leary asked. “It’s impossible to replace George Frederickson, so I have to be me.”
She says she’ll continue to focus on the school’s bread and butter — local-government management — while also looking at the issue of collaboration, which is becoming more and more important.
“Given the enduring push to do more with less in government, the need for better, smarter collaboration will only grow,” O’Leary said.
The pair knew each other before O’Leary came on board at KU. She taught Frederickson’s son, David, at Indiana University.
“I once went to visit my son and Rosemary made me lecture to her class,” Frederickson recalled.
Even though he is retiring, Frederickson will continue to have a presence on campus. O’Leary, for one, will make sure of it.
“I want to keep him active as long as possible,” she said.