24 Apr 2020

Honoring Don Kennedy, Co-Founder of Campus Compact and California Campus Compact

A reflection by Catherine Milton, founding director of Stanford University’s Haas Center for Public Service.


Don Kennedy, former President of Stanford University and co-founder of Campus Compact and California Campus Compact, died on April 21, 2020 from COVID-19.

Don Kennedy’s first commencement speech as President of Stanford University called upon graduates to devote some of their time and talent to public service. His first use of discretionary money was to hire me, Catherine Milton, as his Special Assistant on Public Service. He understood the times —students were getting the message that “greed is good” and that making a lot of money was the career goal they were hearing.

But he knew that students had a deep desire to “make a difference” and if asked, they would serve.  He knew, from his first-hand experience as Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that service could give deep meaning to one’s life.  During his presidency at Stanford, Don made the public service center, now called the Haas Center for Public Service, a key initiative. Because of his national service and his efforts to create a Public Service Center at Stanford, he could speak with authority about the need for higher education to prepare students for lives of engaged citizenship. 

In 1985, when approached by Frank Newman, the head of the Education Commission of the States, to join a conversation with Howard Swearer of Brown University and Fr Healy of Georgetown University to figure out how they could use the presidential platform to impact the national conversation, Don enthusiastically joined forces. As his special assistant, I worked closely with Susan Stroud and Jack DeGoia, to help plan the first meeting of college presidents. Invitations went out to about a dozen college presidents and a few media and national leaders including John Gardner. Everyone came and the enthusiasm in the room was palpable. They were presented with guiding principles of the role of public service in higher education and the idea that college presidents should be leaders in this movement. Within a few short weeks, more than 100 university presidents signed on to the principles and the plan of action for what became known as Campus Compact.   

The three founding presidents chaired Campus Compact for the first three years.  Don’s rare combination of sharp intellect, savvy political intuitions, and a very quick sense of humor made the meetings enjoyable and productive. Don led the Compact’s early work on service learning, finding ways to encourage faculty to integrate service into the curriculum and to share best practices through the national Campus Compact.  The number of college presidents engaged with Campus Compact grew rapidly, and in 1988 Don partnered with UCLA Chancellor Charles Young to launch California Campus Compact. This spurred the creation of a state and regional network for Campus Compact and resulted in over 1000 higher education institutions joining Campus Compact over the next 30 years.

Don left his mark on thousands of colleges and universities in this country. He also helped to encourage Congress to create the Commission on National and Community Service, which led to the launching of AmeriCorps and Serve America. Helping to create Campus Compact was one of the accomplishments that made him the proudest and happiest. There are countless students who have been impacted by his vision and hard work.

To learn more about Don Kennedy’s life and accomplishments, read “He Changed the Face of Stanford”.