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H. George Frederickson - Professor Emeritus

He has risen to the top of his field...become one of the most influential people in the field of Public Administration...founded a professional organization and a journal...and ultimately reached a point where doctoral students attending the same conference as him ask their KU colleagues what it would be like to actually talk to him.

Welcome to a day in the life of H. George Frederickson. George has served on the faculty of the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration for 26 years, earning the Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professorship in 1987. As he embarks upon a new chapter in his career, that of Distinguished Professor Emeritus, we asked the faculty and doctoral students in the School if they would like to tap into George’s wisdom, and no subject was off limits. They submitted their questions, and George has responded.

Q: What was your favorite Minnowbrook? I, II, or III? Why?

A: Even with its failings, Minnowbrook I was my favorite. At the time (1968) there was a rebellious mood among the young, and for good reasons. Big questions were in the air; questions of justice and fairness; questions of war, asking whether there could be a “just war,” and asking who should fight that war. The field of public administration seemed dull and stodgy, ripe for an overhaul; because in our youth we imagined that we were up to that overhaul. The “Minnowbrook Idea” was to assemble young or emerging scholars to get their views and opinions of public administration. I was one of those young scholars at Minnowbrook I, as well as one of the organizers, so it follows that Minnobrook I would be my favorite.

Twenty years later I organized and managed Minnowbrook II in 1988. In accord with the Minnowbrook Idea, Minnowbrook II was mostly comprised of young or emerging scholars and seemed to lack the spontaneity and passion of Minnowbrook I. I was invited to Minnowbrook III in 2008, as a courtesy, to be an observer, a kind of ancient voyeur. Much has changed in the 45 years since Minnowbrook I. The field of public administration is very much stronger now both in its theoretical and empirical moorings and in its academic degree programs. But many of the big questions of 45 years ago are still big questions, and new and vexing problems face the field, most particularly high levels of outsourcing or privatization and a decline in the reputation of governments. There is so much to do. I wish I were young again and could be a part of doing it. Minnowbrook IV will be in 2028 and I plan to be there.

Q. It is not a particularly well-kept secret that you are a frequent customer of Spangles and are especially fond of their hamburgers. In your experience, when one is eating a hamburger for breakfast, which toppings are most appropriate and which are to be avoided?

A: The hamburger for breakfast is to be fully dressed with tomato, lettuce, onion, and pickle, with a few added slices of jalapeno peppers to help kick start the day. Spangles serves a good hamburger as does Sonic, the In-and-Out Burger, and Five Guys. McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s do not measure up and are to be avoided. The traditional American breakfast is also to be avoided, and particularly the revolting custom of eating the eggs of the chicken. Think about it.

Q. Of all your articles, books, and various other projects, does one stand out as your “favorite”? (Not necessarily your most famous or most cited but one that, for whatever reason, was particularly enjoyable in terms of process or outcome or whatever else goes into making something a “favorite”).

A. Although it is a tough call, a project would be my favorite. For as long as I have been in public administration it has been my opinion that the field needed its own first class, unapologetically theoretical and empirical scholarly journal. The idea that eventually resulted in the creation of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory (JPART) had its origins in the late 1960s. It was not until the late 1980s, after I left academic administration and joined the public administration faculty at the University of Kansas, that the time was right to establish JPART. The first issue appeared in 1991, so JPART will have its 25th birthday in 2016. JPART is now the leading journal in the field and was highly instrumental in the creation of the Public Management Research Association, the leading professional association in academic public administration. Put simply, JPART has been consequential. I suspect that long after my books and articles are forgotten, JPART will still be an influential voice in public administration.

Q. Why were Knute, Thor, and Bureaucratic Erectus not mentioned in your final lecture series?

A. I did consider a fifth retirement lecture, Further Up The Bureaucracy. But such a lecture did not seem appropriately serious, especially for a distinguished professor. I can report, however, that the film rights to Up The Bureaucracy have been sold to the Coen Brothers. Knute will be played by Jeff Bridges and Thor will be either Owen Wilson or Sacha Baron Cohen. I will be making a cameo appearance as Max Weber.

Q. What is the biggest difference between being a professor now and when you started? What are the strongest similarities? And/or what is the biggest change in the field you have seen since you were a new assistant professor?

A: There are two questions here.

Question A: The biggest difference in being a public administration professor now and when I started is the modern application of formal performance measures to teaching, research, and service. Performance regimes reduce risk taking and increase tenure and promotion anxiety. The influence of performance regimes on professorial creativity is debatable, and in that debate I am inclined to take the position that they reduce creativity. I worry that the excessive application of quantitative performance measures results in pushing the professoriate in the direction of an indistinguishable isomorphic lump.

Closely associated with performance regimes in academia is the modern day practice of program ranking. The pursuit of higher rankings causes schools of public administration (law, education, social work, medicine, liberal arts, and colleges, universities) to mimic so-called best practices, to chase the same well-known faculty members and to tend in the direction of indistinguishable isomorphic lumps. That the University of Kansas is the best in the country in education for local government leadership is certain, and we do not need U.S. News & World Report to tell us so.

Question B: The biggest changes in the field of public administration have to do with scale and breadth. The field of public administration is very much larger than it was when I started in the 1960s. Most universities now have programs in either public administration or public policy. Our professional organizations—ASPA, NASPAA, APPAM, APSA, and PMRA—are well established and recognized. The accreditation of master’s degree programs is routine. In addition, public administration is increasingly international. There was one journal when I started—the Public Administration Review. Now there are several general journals and many so-called sub-field journals such as the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, the National Tax Journal, the Urban Affairs Quarterly, and many more. So modern public administration is both bigger and broader than it was. And it is very much better than it was when I started.

Q. You drink diet cola in a plastic cup from a particular restaurant in Lawrence. How many cups, on average, do you drink a day, and for how long have you been doing that?

A. Several. For a time I experimented with taking diet cola directly into the blood stream through an intravenous drip. Not only did this prove awkward and cumbersome, an ugly rumor was spread that the product being dripped was not diet cola but was in fact Mountain Dew. To stop this baseless slander I returned to taking diet cola through the traditional digestive organs.

Q. What are the main sources for your creative inspiration and what helps you to overcome creativity roadblocks?

A. Creativity and innovation start with hard work. But not all hard work results in creativity. My father once criticized me for having done something poorly. I replied that I had worked hard. He replied to me saying “a horse works hard,” his way of telling me that doing something well requires both hard work and at least some imagination. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient, particularly to those of us who work with words and ideas. In my little world of words and ideas it has been my experience that the harder I work the more likely I am to be creative.

Q. What has been the most difficult part of the job for you, how did you realize it, and how did you manage/overcome it?

A. Priorities. There are many worthy and deserving scholarly and/or administrative tasks needing to be done—a condition summed-up by the phrase “so much to do, so little time.” To me the problem has not been one of choosing between good and bad tasks or projects, but choosing between good and better projects. Forty years ago I selected social equity as a scholarly priority because it seemed important to the field of public administration and because it was personally motivating. Over the years, however, my attention to social equity as a priority, waxed and waned, as other priorities crowded it out. Looking back, there were interesting projects (my work with the Kettering Foundation on civil society and civic engagement comes to mind) that took a great deal of time, time that might have been given to social equity. So, setting and sticking with priorities has been difficult for me. How did I overcome it? I didn’t but I just kept working, following the advice of Woody Allen, “80 percent of life is showing up.”

Q. Before coming to KU you were the president of Eastern Washington University for ten years. How would you compare university administration to being a university professor?

A. The most important thing I learned while in the practice of administration is that what I studied and taught in public administration was almost always relevant to the day-to-day challenges I faced. In our campus ivory towers we deal in abstractions, theories, case studies, and analytic evidence that may seem distant from practical application. My experience was just the opposite. My generalized knowledge of public administration informed my daily work, saved me from mistakes, and gave me perspective. Furthermore, I witnessed others in the same line of work but without backgrounds in public administration making rookie mistakes such as not knowing how to work with trustees, and not knowing how to delegate.

How shall the practice of administration be compared to the study and teaching of administration? Let me answer the question this way.

High performance public administration teaching and research (please note that I emphasize high performance) is much more difficult than high performance administrative practice. Administrators have deferential staff, routines that validate their importance, days that are filled with meetings put together and operated by others, shared understandings of the purposes of the organization, and distance in both space and time between decisions and organizational outcomes. The daily, weekly, and monthly routines of administration, while tiring, are a form of imposed discipline, a “path” that is well marked and, if followed, generally results in an orderly, stable, and well managed organization.Administrators who go on about how hard they work, how difficult their decisions are, how nosy the media are, how nutty elected and politically appointed officials can sometimes be, sound as if they are defending their own worth, even when it is not being challenged.

High performance teaching and research is another matter. The disciplines of scholarly work are usually self-imposed. The path to a creative idea or a new formula is seldom marked. The distance between a seminar and its effects on students or a research finding and its influence on the body of knowledge is measured in decades. Scholarship is often untidy, unpredictable, and difficult to manage, but being well organized can help, so long as organization is not overdone. Note that the key modifier is “high performance.” To be sure, much administrative practice and much scholarly teaching and research would not be described as high performance. In my experience trying to achieve high performance in scholarship is more difficult than trying to achieve high performance in administration.

Q. What was the most embarrassing moment of your professional career?

A. I was the plenary speaker at a large event several years ago. The primary participants were seated on the platform for a rather long time while introductions, recognitions, and other business was conducted. By the time the program got to me I was already experiencing the call of nature. Being a stout fellow I decided to practice mind over bladder and began my address. In a few minutes it was clear to me and to the audience, inasmuch as I was squirming about, that I would not make it. The question was: what to do? I said something like this: “We are all adults here. I must excuse myself for a few minutes. Discuss the subject among yourselves. I will be right back.” As I stepped out of the auditorium I noticed several other older men also leaving their seats. Although I returned I have always suspected that they did not.

The second most embarrassing moment in my professional career is answering these questions.

Q. What gives you hope?

A. My wonderful colleagues and students.


On most days, George can be found in his office in 4060 Wescoe Hall. He can be reached at gfred@ku.edu.