Since its completion in 2008, the brick- and marble-clad Howard Baker Center has established an iconic presence on the University of Tennessee campus. The building’s $17 million cost was covered entirely by private donations, and the center also operates without any funding from the university or the state. (Its principal sources of revenue are the income from a $6 million endowment and a $4.7 million federal grant, which was shepherded through Congress by some of Baker’s former Senate colleagues.)
The center is a fitting tribute to the man who was perhaps Tennessee’s most influential legislator of the past century. His 18 years of service in the U.S. Senate, from 1966 to 1984, included stints as both its minority and majority leader. After his retirement from that post he became chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and later served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Fittingly, the museum that occupies most of the first floor of the three-story building not only chronicles Baker’s career, but also offers exhibits of other prominent Tennesseans of his era on a bipartisan basis—which was Baker’s hallmark. Displays of Democratic Senators Estes Kefauver and the Al Gores (Senior and Junior) are all featured, as are Baker’s fellow Republicans Bill Brock, Bill Frist, and Fred Thompson.
The most compelling exhibits are interactive, multimedia portrayals of the three involvements for which Baker is most remembered—namely, his role in the investigation of the Watergate scandal, the ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, and the Iran-Contra affair that shook the Reagan White House. Expository videos are accompanied by actual documents, including a transcript of the “smoking gun” tape that infamously answered Baker’s famous “What did the President know and when did he know it” question about Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up.
Across a rotunda from the museum is the Toyota Auditorium, which seats up to 200 for speakers and symposiums. Upcoming programs include:
• An assessment by a local attorney of the outlook for changes in last year’s landmark health care law that would affect employers (February 28)
• A talk by Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaidaie (March 4)
• A lecture by Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, on the impact of climate change on water resources (March 9)
• A talk by Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyakon, on nuclear security issues (Date TBA)
• A symposium conducted in partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists on the public’s right to know (April 1)
Regularly offering public programs like these is just one of several ways in which the Baker Center seeks to fulfill its mission “to develop programs and promote research to further the public’s knowledge of our system of government while highlighting the critical importance of public service.”
The center’s archives, which occupy most of its second floor, include 625 boxes of documents pertaining to all facets of Baker’s public life, as well as his personal correspondence. The contents of each box are made readily accessible via a meticulous master index and are open to the public, as well as scholars and journalists. A University of Oklahoma history professor has recently drawn upon them for research on Republican party efforts to reach out to African-American voters in the late 1970s.
As extensive as they are, the Baker archives are dwarfed in size by a 1,716 box collection of Kefauver’s papers that were donated to the university after his death in 1963 and originally housed in Hoskins Library. These, too, have been the subject of extensive research on the work of the celebrated Kefauver Committee that investigated organized crime in the early 1950s.
Another Baker Center emphasis is on engaging both UT students and area high-school students in public-policy research projects. Each year, about 25 UT upperclassmen are chosen as Baker Scholars; they engage in year-long research projects selected with the help of faculty advisors. While the Baker Scholars don’t get monetary awards, their research projects can qualify for course credit and other forms of recognition.
Each summer, about a dozen Knoxville-area high school students are selected to spend a week on campus addressing public-policy issues of their choice under the supervision of the center’s director of student engagement, Leah Adinolfi. “They take a problem from beginning to end, looking at what other places have done to address it, and come up with a proposal of their own for our community,” Adinolfi says.
In all, the Baker Center has a full-time staff of seven headed by Carl Pierce, a UT law professor, who assumed the post in 2009 after his predecessor, Alan Lowe, left to become director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
The center’s director of archives, Matthew Brown, stresses that they adhere to the same standards as presidential libraries, and Knoxville benefits from everything the center has to offer.