February 18 1999
At Kent State University in Ohio, four students were killed by National Guardsmen during a protest against the Vietnam War. At the University of Kansas, the student union was burned. The computer center was bombed. A student was killed near the campus when a youthful crowd that had been dispersed, reassembled. Another youth was shot in Lawrence as police responded to a report of sniper fire.
Legislative support and public confidence were shaken -- badly. In 1971, the Kansas Legislature cut $130,000 from KU's budget.
Rusty Leffel, a senior in economics in 1970, was among a group KU student activists first known as the Phantom Five. "We began working behind the scenes to build responsible student involvement in university issues," Leffel said, recalling his senior year. He now practices law in Overland Park.
The Phantom Five's philosophy was simple: they wanted to be part of the solution, he said. "We weren't a secret organization. We just worked behind the scenes. We focused on issues."
"The campus was torn apart. Students were polarized between the far right and the far left," Leffel said.
In the fall 1970 semester, Leffel enrolled in law school at KU. The Phantom Five expanded to 17 and then to 100 or more students working to gain support for the university. They coined the name Students Concerned About Higher Education in Kansas.
They mimeographed leaflets to distribute at football games, asking people to write letters to editors in support of KU. They raised money and ran full-page ads in newspapers on campus and in Lawrence, Wichita and Kansas City.
The ads shouted: "WOULD YOU VOTE TO ABOLISH THE UNIVERSITY?
-- A Cause for Concern." Their ad listed things readers could do to support higher education. Students visited legislators in their hometowns and in Topeka and invited them to visit KU's campus. "Our objective was to build a better university," Leffel said. Their efforts left a legacy for student leadership at KU and in Kansas
-- a formal student lobby for higher education. Today the student lobby is known as Student Legislative Awareness Board. When Leffel was preparing to graduate from law school in 1973, two classmates from his undergraduate years, Casey Eike and Jean Gorman, now Jean Gorman Rau, tried to think of a graduation present.
They decided to establish an award as an ongoing tribute to Leffel. "He came forward in a turbulent time at the university," Gorman Rau said in a recent phone interview. "We asked people to contribute. We weren't looking for grand amounts.
"We never dreamed that it would take off as it has," Gorman Rau said. "But I'm excited that something we started has become a way to recognize student leadership."
The first award was offered in 1973 and provided $25 in cash. Contributions to the fund have continued and compounded so that in 1998 three students each received $1,000 in cash.
Leffel, Eike and Gorman Rau will return to KU on Feb. 26 and 27 to celebrate 25 years of student leadership with many of the former Rusty Leffel Concerned Student award winners.
Story by Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853