The Les Aspin Center for Government: a rich history
Marquette University's Les Aspin Center for Government was originally established by Rev. Timothy J. O'Brien, Ph.D. In 1988, he began to coordinate internships in congressional offices and on political campaigns for interested students. Though these internships originally took place in Milwaukee, there soon developed enough interest to explore an academic program in Washington, D.C.
The first summer program took place that same year, when 27 students joined Father O'Brien in Washington, D.C. for what was then called the Marquette University Washington Program. During the next several years, Father O'Brien brought nearly 35 students each summer to the center for course work and internships on Capitol Hill. The efforts of individuals like Congressman Gerald Kleczka were instrumental in building the program's foundation.
The program expanded, and by 1993 it conducted its first semester session. Father O'Brien, along with distinguished Marquette faculty members — including George Reedy, journalism professor and former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson — taught courses on the United States Congress, the presidency, interest groups and the role of media in politics.
Forever changed, forever distinguished
The Washington, D.C. program was forever changed when Marquette hired Les Aspin in 1994. The former secretary of defense returned to Wisconsin — the state he had represented in the House of Representatives for more than 20 years — and joined Marquette's faculty, of which he had been a member in the Economics Department before entering politics.
As Marquette's distinguished professor of international policy, Aspin began working closely with Father O'Brien to expand the university's presence in Washington, D.C. and fully develop the internship program. That required a building, and a property for the center was soon identified to provide classroom, office and meeting space. The center is located on East Capitol Street in Washington, D.C., just five blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Aspin died suddenly in May 1995, just one year after returning to Marquette. At his funeral, held at Church of the Gesu on Marquette's campus, it was announced that the D.C. program would be renamed in his honor.
Under the direction of Father O'Brien, the Les Aspin Center began to offer year-round academic programming.
The work, however, of the Les Aspin Center, was not complete.
Beginning in 1995, the center's efforts to train and educate went global. That year, Father O'Brien took a group of Marquette students to Africa as part of a course about comparative democracies. Since then, students during winter break have traveled to Europe — London, Rome, Athens and Dublin — and Africa — Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana — to study and observe political processes.
A tremendously successful outgrowth of this first trip was the development of an effort to educate activists in African politics. With the support of the United States Agency for International Development, the Aspin Center began a series of democracy training programs for African leaders. Guided by a belief that problems that plague the continent — poverty, corruption, instability and HIV/AIDS — must be addressed through governance and the transition to democracy, these training programs target individuals who are active in their communities and dedicated to positive change.
The first program in 1996 brought 18 of these leaders from Kenya to study at the Aspin Center. Since then, the program has continued to expand, training more than 400 African leaders from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Liberia. Several participants have been elected to local and national office in their home countries.
Recognizing leadership and service
One aspect of the center's activities is honoring distinguished public servants. In 1995, the first Les Aspin Center Democracy Award was presented to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Since then, the award has been given to many notable public servants. The award recognizes individuals who have made lasting contributions to the principles of democracy and principled leadership.
The Aspin Center has also given the Les Aspin Center Distinguished Public Service Award to those who have demonstrated a commitment to a life of service.
Local intern initiative
Although the Les Aspin Center continued to flourish, it became evident that some Marquette students could not travel to Washington, D.C. So in 2005, the Kleczka Internship Program, a local initiative, was developed, inspired by retired U.S. Congressman Jerry Kleczka and his desire to mentor future Wisconsin community leaders.
Housed on Marquette's campus in Milwaukee, the Kleczka program selects interns from all fields of study and they are placed in city, county and state legislative offices. Like the successful academic model of the Les Aspin Center, the Kleczka Internship Program combines hands-on internship experiences with classroom instruction to maximize the learning opportunity.
The Les Aspin Center is committed to instilling in its students the values of leadership, service and academic excellence. In the Jesuit tradition, it strives for the full development — intellectual, spiritual, social, and professional — of its participants. Its mission is not simply to educate. Rather, it prepares individuals for lives dedicated to the betterment of others.