Local Obituaries

Ex-UK chancellor Robert Hemenway, who pushed for more diversity at UK, dies in Kansas

Robert Hemenway, who spent most of his career at UK, died Friday at age 73.
Robert Hemenway, who spent most of his career at UK, died Friday at age 73. 2004 Herald-Leader file photo

Robert Hemenway, a biographer of Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston and an education leader who pushed for greater diversity at the University of Kentucky during his six years as chancellor, died Friday in Lenexa, Kan., from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 73.

Hemenway had been chancellor of the University of Kansas from 1995 to 2009, when he retired, and chairman of the NCAA Board of Directors. But he spent most of his four-decade career at UK, including stints as chairman of the English department from 1981 to 1986 and chancellor of UK's Lexington campus from 1989 to 1995, back when the UK system also included the community and technical colleges.

As UK chancellor, Hemenway searched the country for respected female and minority academics to hire as faculty and administrators, arguing that Kentucky's flagship university must be more diverse. Among his recruits was J. John Harris III, who was appointed dean of the College of Education in 1990 — the first black administrator to hold a dean's post at UK.

Shortly before he left UK for Kansas, Hemenway proposed an ambitious plan to double the number of black and female faculty members, black students and National Merit Scholars. He called it "The New Agenda."

"Bob had that commitment. He constantly pushed the deans — I know he pushed me — if their faculties had few women and blacks, to go out and recruit them," said Bradley Canon, a retired UK political science professor who was acting dean of the College of Arts and Science under Hemenway.

In a 1991 book review that he wrote for the Herald-Leader, Hemenway rejected criticism by some conservatives that affirmative action was creating a "victim's revolution" on college campuses. Universities should reflect society, and they should not fail to educate any group, he wrote.

"Universities must demonstrate that democracy depends on principles of free speech, respect for the constitution and rigorous academic standards," Hemenway wrote. "The test of the modern university will be whether it leads us toward a new multicultural, multiracial democracy or succumbs to the racial fears and cultural chauvinism that would destroy it."