by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Dr. Burdett “Bird” Loomis died in late September.  He served for many decades as a Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.  Though he never served in public office himself, Loomis’ advocacy of good government and sound decision making helped shape Kansas politics for nearly a half century.  Today, that legacy is endangered.  We all must honor his memory by fighting to uphold it. 

Bird spent his long career doing what professors do.  He published an extensive list of books and articles, including a co-authored book on interest group politics with Drs. Allen Cigler and Anthony J. Nownes which is still considered one of the standard texts in the field.  He served as a reviewer for scores of research articles and book manuscripts, including mine.  Bird also took on several administrative roles at KU, including Department Chair.  He spent a good deal of time in both Washington, DC and the state capitol in Topeka, and directed a very successful internship program.   

Since its inception, Bird was active in the Robert J. Dole Institute for Politics.  Located adjacent to the KU campus, the Dole institute is the first such place which follows the Presidential library model, but honors a U.S. Senator instead.  The Dole institute has a rich collection and a program of guest speakers, media events, teaching, and discussion sessions, many of which featured Bird as a speaker or contributor.  It will feel strange to attend events there without him. 

Bird was also highly active in the community, including authoring regular newspaper columns published around Kansas as part of a group called Insight Kansas, to which I also contribute.  He was considered one of the leading experts on Kansas politics, particularly from the 1960s to today. He and his wife lived in a gorgeous, three story house in Lawrence filled with original art.  They often hosted dinners for people at KU and in the community.  He did not have the chance to complete his edited book, The Arc of Politics, about Kansas politics since the early 60s.  I have taken over as editor.  Published by the University Press of Kansas, the book will appear in 2022. 

This long list still does not capture what Bird really leaves to us.  His coming-of-age as a political scientist happened when scholars of Congress and state legislatures alike were heavily invested in a vision of good government that transcended partisanship.  Bird was blunt and honest about politics, which he loved.  He particularly liked to quote an old-fashioned cartoon character named “Mr. Dooley,” who said, “politics ain’t beanbag.” He meant that it is not just a game, and it can be ruthless.  Yet Bird also believed that the whole point of the political process was making public policy, which helped people live better lives. In his 1994 book Time, Politics, and Policies, he worked with leaders in both parties to thoroughly document the Kansas Legislature’s short sessions and its last-minute rush to pass a budget, which happens nearly every year.  It happens in Congress and in other states as well.  The book remains a classic, but the problem he documented has not improved. 

Loomis’ legacy is in serious jeopardy today.  The current political climate prioritizes scoring political points over making good policy.  Meanwhile, in academia, civic engagement such as giving talks, serving on boards, and writing newspaper columns is downplayed or even actively discouraged in some circles, particularly at prestigious research universities.  There, faculty too often view such activities as beneath them, and tenure and promotion documents give little to no credit for them.  As a discipline, we are learning “more and more about less and less,” to quote another old-school political scientist, James Q. Wilson.   

As political scientists, we must all take heed from Bird’s example.  Research must be academically rigorous and well-sourced, but also engage real politics, real problems, and real people.  Civic engagement is a fundamental part of our job, not a distraction.  Scholarship and service compliment each other. 

Bird was a serious, well-respected, accomplished academic. In our projects together, sometimes he would gently chide me for focusing too much on my play-by-play analysis of political stories and current events.  He would remind me that it is also our job to develop academic theories and models to explain what was happening.  He was right.  For two decades, his feedback helped make me a better writer and a better political scientist–and I am just one of many, including legions of his former students from KU, members of the community, and colleagues.   

There are some in political science that seek to disengage ourselves, either ignoring our nation’s deeply fractured political climate, or treating it only as source material for research.  That is not what Bird would have done.  We can all honor his legacy by staying up to date and well-read in political science, but also deeply engaged in the affairs of our communities, state, nation, and world. 


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter