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A move from library to Clinton School 

THE DEAN: Skip Rutherford
  • THE DEAN: Skip Rutherford

The Clinton School of Public Service came into existence contemporaneously with the Clinton Presidential Library and is housed in a former railroad station next door to the center. The school graduated its first class in 2005. A part of the University of Arkansas system, the school started in 2005 with 16 students from all over the country, and abroad. Twenty-two students were there for the 2006 school year, and the school is expected to grow further. Having Skip Rutherford as dean won’t hurt. He’s well connected.

Though he’s never held or sought an office higher than president of the Little Rock School Board, Rutherford has been in the middle of Arkansas politics and government for 30 years, starting when he was barely out of college. Other civilians who’ve acquired comparable influence were generally men of great wealth. Rutherford is valued for his political smarts, his ability to get along with all those who need to be gotten along with, and his skill at “Communicating, Rainmaking and Networking,” to quote the name of a course he taught last spring at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville.

Rutherford was a fund-raiser as well as the local coordinator of construction for the Clinton Library. He’s been a friend and supporter of Clinton since they met at Fayetteville in 1974, when Rutherford was doing public relations for a bank and Bill Clinton was running for Congress. (A race Clinton lost, incidentally, running in a Republican congressional district against a popular incumbent. Soon he was winning races, running statewide.)

As dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, Rutherford succeeded former governor and U.S. Sen. David Pryor, for whom he once worked. He left an executive position with the advertising agency Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods to accept the deanship.

The Clinton school is the seventh university-based program named for a president. The others are Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, Harry Truman at the University of Missouri, John F. Kennedy at Harvard, Lyndon Johnson at the University of Texas, Gerald Ford at the University of Michigan and George Bush (the first) at Texas A&M. For an idea of potential future growth at the Clinton school, the Johnson School of Public Affairs began in 1970 with 18 students and now has 312; the Bush School of Government and Public Service started in 1997 with 19 students and now has 125. The Clinton school is the first to offer a master’s degree in public service.

Rutherford said the school was unique also in its emphasis on practical application of what is taught. “Engagement” is the word he uses. “Our students are making a difference in the world,” he said.

The Clinton school’s program is enriched by “a series of distinguished speakers,” Rutherford said. The list of speakers is indeed impressive: former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, former senator John Danforth, former vice president Dan Quayle, former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, among others. Former President Clinton, who has an office in the presidential center, has been known to pop in at the school.

Pryor undoubtedly was instrumental in persuading all those notables to come to Little Rock. He likely will do the same in the future. He’s stepped down as dean, but he’s still associated with the school, holding the title of founding dean.

Like Pryor before him, Rutherford is not an academic, although he’s taught courses at various colleges and universities in Arkansas and might teach at the Clinton school sometime in the future. His lack of academic credentials won’t hamper him, Rutherford said, because the school has Dr. Tom Bruce as academic dean. Rutherford will focus on administrative matters, fund raising, recruitment and communications. “We have a significant effort under way for private-sector contributions,” he said.

Since 9/11, the December 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, there’s been a huge interest in public service, Rutherford said. “We’re off to a good start” in meeting the demand, he said.

As for the future, Rutherford said the school hopes to establish a degree program for people who are already working executives. And expansion is inevitable. “We hope to have a definitive plan in the future,” Rutherford said. A proposal to put a classroom in Curran Hall, a restored 1842 mansion that is now a visitors’ center for the city of Little Rock, was dropped after preservationists who’d raised money to restore the building objected loudly. It was a rare public-relations setback for a man who’s supposedly an expert in public relations. Of the Curran Hall incident, Rutherford says laconically, “That didn’t work out.” Most things do for him.

— By Doug Smith

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