Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Services for Dr. Clara Penniman on Saturday

Professor emeritus Clara Penniman, founder of the La Follette School's precursor, the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, passed away Friday, January 30, at age 94.

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Services will be Saturday, February 7, at 2 p.m. at the Resurrection Chapel in Oakwood Village West, 6209 Mineral Point Road in Madison.

A nationally prominent scholar of taxation and public finance, Penniman started the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration in the late 1960s, serving as its first director. The center grew into today's Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs.

"Clara was a longtime and generous supporter of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, from its very beginning as the center," says public affairs professor Karen Holden.

Penniman established the Clara Penniman Fund at the La Follette School in 1998 to support students financially. She also set up the Penniman Prize, which is given at graduation to the graduate student in public affairs who writes the most outstanding paper. The school first gave the prize in 1986, two years after Penniman retired.

What Penniman taught 37 years ago still rings true for 1972 center graduate Peter Detwiler. "Professor Penniman contributed to my professional preparation by taking a chance on a young graduate from a small, West Coast, Catholic, liberal arts college and exposing me to the wonderful diversity, excitement, and opportunity that the Madison campus offered in the early 1970s," Detwiler says. "She also provided a sympathetic ear when I was searching for my professional direction."

Detwiler, now staff director for the California Senate's Local Government Committee, adds that he appreciates Penniman's generosity, including a picnic on her farm property. "Her patient attention helped me cope with the university's academic expectations and the Midwestern culture shock," he says. "When helping my own students in Sacramento State's master's program in public policy and administration, where I teach part time, I remember how important her time and attention were to me."

After working for the State of Wisconsin for 10 years, Penniman completed her bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when in her 30s. She returned to UW in 1954 after earning her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota. She became the first woman to serve as chair of the Department of Political Science from 1963-66.

Penniman served on the governor's Tax Impact Study Committee in 1959 and participated in many policy discussions about the university in the subsequent two decades. She served on the committee that recommended a virtual end to en loco parentis policies in 1968; the governor's panel that oversaw the 1972 merger of the University of Wisconsin System; and the University Committee with a stint as its first woman chair in 1974, the same year she was named the Oscar Rennebohm Professor of Public Administration.

Clara Penniman played a crucial role in the university merger discussions, say professors Dennis Dresang and John Witte, who hold joint appointments in the La Follette School and Department of Political Science. "Clara Penniman was a very tough negotiator when she was Madison's representative on the committee that merged the university and state college systems," Witte says. "She had as one of her goals keeping the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation as a Madison entity. In that she was successful."

The alumni associations of the universities of Wisconsin–Madison and Minnesota recognized Penniman for her achievements. She was elected president of the Midwest Political Science Association in 1965; she served as vice president of the American Political Science Association in 1971-1972; and she was elected as fellow of the American Academy of Public Administration in 1974. Penniman was active with the North Central Association of Universities and Colleges, where she reviewed accreditation of colleges and universities. She participated in the League of Women Voters, serving as the Madison chapter's president from 1956-1958 and on its state board.

Penniman published several books and articles, primarily in the fields of tax administration and public administration, including the 1999 book Madison, An Administration History of Wisconsin's Capital City 1929-79, co-authored with Paula White.

She is survived by her sister-in-law; three nieces; two nephews; 21 grandnieces and grandnephews; and 12 great-grandnieces and nephews.

Penniman remained interested in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the university as a whole, Holden says.

"Professor Clara Penniman provided wise and valuable leadership in the founding years of the precursor to the La Follette School of Public Affairs," says Dresang, who served as associate director and then director of the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Her commitment to excellence left a legacy that benefits all of us."