Our Story


The KU School of Public Affairs and Administration has its roots in the late 1930s and early 1940s when Professors Edwin O. Stene and Ethan Allen, in the Department of Political Science, conducted seminars to aid practicing city managers in their professional development. Following World War II, these efforts took the form of workshops and seminars offered at an annual spring “school” for city managers. In 1948, with support from the Carnegie Foundation, the first students enrolled in the MPA program established under the direction of Edwin O. Stene. An interview with one of these first graduates, Harold Horn, details a career that reflects the way the profession evolved in the postwar years.

The most important traditions in the MPA program—study of cutting-edge social science research combined with practical experience—were formed early. Professor Stene’s use of the case method and his close working relationships with both former and current students were critical factors in the emergence and ultimate success of the formal degree-granting program.

Entering classes in the early years consisted of seven to eleven students; this facilitated close involvement between instructors and students as well as the monitoring of their second year internship experience. Incoming classes grew slowly under Stene, finally reaching a maximum of fifteen students. He developed a tradition of each intern-option class getting to know closely students from the class immediately ahead as well as the class that would follow. This networking continues to this day and ensures continuity among alumni who often begin lifelong professional and personal friendships while on campus.

Program Expansion and Refocus

In the 1970s the program expanded both in the number of students and in the breadth of the curriculum; health care administration and general public management were included as MPA concentrations alongside the traditional local government option. By 1976 the program was admitting over 40 full-time students annually. Classes were offered for the first time in Topeka in 1975 accompanied by a university investment of resources in the Capitol Center. In 1978, the MPA program began offering classes in the Kansas City area. In 1979, there were approximately 150 part-time students enrolled in the MPA program.

Faculty and staff size increased as the MPA program expanded. One major addition came with the creation of the Stene Distinguished Professorship developed at the initiation and persistence of the MPA intern-option alumni. From 1982 to 1984, the Stene title was held by Charles H. Levine. Professor H. George Frederickson held the title 1987-2013. In 2013, Rosemary O'Leary, already a Distinguished Professor at Syracuse University, joined the faculty at KU and became the third Stene Professor.

A period of reflection, reduction and return to the basics began in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s. The health option was spun off to become a freestanding department. The MPA program recommitted its focus to preparing local government managers and retained the off-campus programs serving working students.

From Program to Department

Academically housed within the Department of Political Science until 1984, the MPA program had a director appointed by and reporting to the chair of the Political Science Department. In 1984, following recommendations by a special committee composed of representatives from faculty, students, and program alumni, and with the support of the dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the MPA program became the Department of Public Administration.

The new Department was located within a newly created Division of Government which also housed the Department of Political Science. The divisional structure reflected the roots of the KU MPA program as well as a continued commitment to the intellectual tradition in democratic theory established by Professor Stene and his colleagues.

New Opportunities in the New Millennium

In July 2003, at the initiative of the two departments, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dissolved the Division of Government, and the Department of Public Administration began functioning as a fully independent department within the College.

In 2002, an undergraduate major was added at the Edwards Campus in Overland Park, Kansas; since that time we have added an undergraduate minor in public administration as well. In 2004 an independent Departmental PhD in Public Administration was added. In 2008, the Public Management Center, located in Topeka, Kansas, which provides training to public service managers and staff, came under the administrative direction of the Department. The PMC offerings include the Kansas Certified Public Manager Program, the Emerging Leaders Academy, the Law Enforcement Leadership Academy and a variety of custom courses for public service organizations.

While there have been many administrative changes over the years, the KU MPA program has maintained its focus on city management, achieving the rank of #1 in U.S. News and World Report in 1998 and maintaining that rank ever since, most recently for the 2017 rankings.

Graduates of the intern-option MPA program have become city managers in municipal governments across the country from Falmouth, Maine to Santa Barbara, California; from Washington, D.C. to Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio in Texas. Five graduates of our program have been elected president of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA): Bob Kipp (ICMA '77; MPA '56), Larry Gish (ICMA '78; MPA '54), George Schrader (ICMA '79; MPA '55), Buford Watson (ICMA '86; MPA '60), and David Limardi (ICMA '08; MPA '78). Meanwhile, graduates who completed the MPA part-time while working in a variety of governments and nonprofits have served as police and fire chiefs, heads of state agencies and departments, and in an array of other public sector leadership positions.

Graduates of the undergraduate and doctoral programs are adding to this tradition of excellence. Our undergraduate students of promise are increasingly competitive for admission to the MPA program and are working in the Social Security Administration, the Veteran's Administration, Catholic Social Services, Johnson County, Kansas Government, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to name a few. Graduates of our doctoral program are faculty members at Florida State University, George Mason University, American University, and Army War College.

Continued Faculty Excellence

The quality of the faculty remains exceptional. Faculty members participate on several editorial boards for prominent journals in the field, hold leadership positions in a variety professional organizations, and have received prestigious awards from scholarly associations. The Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory (JPART), established by Distinguished Professor George Frederickson is well respected in the field and administratively housed in the School. The stature of the School of Public Affairs and Administration within the University of Kansas is also recognized, with several faculty members currently or recently serving in significant leadership positions in the University administration.

The 2011 Trifecta

With the addition of new degree programs and the Public Management Center, we began to look more like a professional school and less like a traditional department in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. In 2011, Dean Danny Anderson and Provost Jeff Vitter agreed and supported our request before the Kansas Board of Regents to become a school. As of July 1, 2011, the Board of Regents approved the creation of the School of Public Affairs and Administration within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Also in 2011 we established a partnership with engineering firm CH2M HILL, one of the nation’s leading providers of governmental services, to focus on three areas of mutual interest: educating emerging local government leaders in new strategies for service delivery; developing leaders and collaborative capacity in local government organizations; and conducting research on excellence in public-private collaboration.

And finally, we were able to announce with great excitement that Rosemary O'Leary joined our faculty as the third Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration. In 2007, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences honored O’Leary with its Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award. She holds bachelor’s, law and master’s in public administration degrees from KU, as well as a doctorate from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Dr. O'Leary is also the author or editor of 10 books and more than 100 articles and book chapters on public management. She has won 10 research awards and nine teaching awards. She is the only person to win three National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration awards for Best Dissertation (1989), Excellence in Teaching (1996) and Distinguished Research (2004). She is an elected member of the National Academy of Public Administration, and she was a senior Fulbright scholar in Malaysia and in the Philippines.