By: Scott Jennings
“Let me tell you why the Bush tax cuts are terrible for someone like you,” he said, displaying the same aplomb and glee for debate I remembered from years earlier.
It was 2005, and, even on a busy day at The White House, I gladly took the call from Dr. Paul Weber, the first Director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and my undergraduate academic mentor. I was a 27-year-old staffer for President George W. Bush, talking to an old friend who set me on course for the most interesting job I ever had.
Our free-flowing debates had challenged me since the spring of 1996 when Weber talked me out of going to another college and into accepting the McConnell Scholarship. He was always cogent and entertaining, and he taught me to be agile in my arguments, a useful skill in my line of work.
I chuckled as he made his case, recalling those old days in a sweltering Ford Hall where he taught us to think deeply about the issues shaping our politics and our world.
The discussions Dr. Weber had with students during McConnell Center gatherings and political science classes are precious memories from a four-year educational experience that a country boy like me could never have imagined growing up. That’s the beauty of this scholarship – they find kids interested in leadership and civic engagement and then give them a four-year experience not available anywhere else in the world.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the McConnell Center’s founding. It has turned out over 200 “McConnell Scholars” and dispensed $3.5 million in scholarships. Weber directed the center from its founding in 1991 until 2000 when he handed the reigns over to Dr. Gary Gregg, who has taken it to levels far beyond what I experienced in its early days. Gregg’s leadership has been nothing short of brilliant.
The McConnell Center programming in its current iteration is stunning – speeches by high-profile political and world leaders (a President, Vice-President, Speaker of the House, Supreme Court Justices, just to name a few), workshops to encourage a deeper understanding of Kentucky perennial issues and the U.S. Constitution, and international travel create a robust academic experience for students already getting a high quality bachelor’s degree from U of L.
The center chooses ten students each year to receive a four-year scholarship, so long as they at least minor in political science, keep a strong GPA, provide community service in Louisville, and participate in the rigorous McConnell Center programming. Even Ivy League kids don’t get access to the people and experiences you find at the McConnell Center.
“I don’t know of another program in the nation that has our unique blend of liberal education and career development,” Dr. Gregg tells me. “We bring in scholarly experts and award-winning authors from around the nation to lecture, lead seminars, and mentor our students. We are a school without boundaries and with a limitless faculty. The average Ivy League student never has the kind of opportunities offered to McConnell Scholars.”
The McConnell Center has grown since Weber’s day to educate important groups beyond its students. McConnell Center staff have spent thousands of hours in professional development training with Kentucky teachers and with U.S. Army personnel in Strategic Broadening Seminars. The McConnell Center is only the second civilian institution ever to be asked to provide this kind of programming.
“It’s fulfilling work,” Dr. Gregg says. “Soldiers are taking the lessons back to their units, multiplying our impact throughout the Army. What we do is a concentrated version of what we have been doing for the McConnell Scholars. We provide them an environment in which to think, learn, grow, and prepare to lead. We offer lessons from history, literature, philosophy, and politics that we are convinced makes them better leaders and soldiers.”
But even as it grows to train people other than college students, the mission of the center will always focus most on its undergraduate scholars, Dr. Gregg says.
“The quality of the applicants for the McConnell Scholars program has risen steadily over the last twenty years. ACT scores are higher, GPA’s are higher, students are more engaged in leadership and service in high school, and they are more dedicated than ever to serving our Commonwealth.”
I came home to Louisville for Weber’s funeral in 2005, just a few months after that phone call. It was the most joyous memorial I’ve ever attended, replete with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Many wept that day for the loss of someone who truly altered the trajectory of so many lives for the better.
Although Weber has been gone ten years now, the Center he pioneered lives on, continuing his mission of identifying, recruiting and nurturing Kentucky’s next generation of great leaders. Kentucky high school seniors with a passion for leadership, scholarship, and service – the Center’s guiding principles – should consider applying to what has become one of the most prestigious and impactful scholarship programs in the nation.
Scott Jennings has been an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. He graduated from the McConnell Center in 2000. His firm has a consulting contract with the University of Louisville Foundation.