By Nancy Gallagher
Catherine McArdle Kelleher was a force to be reckoned. At the University of Maryland, we know her best as a founding faculty member of the School of Public Policy (SPP, 1982), the founding director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM, 1985), the founding president of Women in International Security (WIIS, 1987), and as a College Park Professor at the end of her career. But her passion for advancing international security policy, elevating women’s standing in government and academia, and helping individual colleagues, students, and friends went well beyond that.
Catherine Kelleher passed away on February 15, 2023, at Necitas, her assisted living care facility in Silver Spring, MD. The cause was complications from atrial fibrillation.
Catherine was the quintessential scholar-practitioner. She became a champion for women’s education and professional advancement during her undergraduate studies at Mount Holyoke College. As a Fulbright Fellow at the Free University of Berlin right before the wall went up, she studied deepening Cold War divisions and drove East German dissidents to freedom. At a time when few women earned advanced degrees, she completed a Ph.D. in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She then became an Assistant Professor at Barnard College, teaching young “co-eds” how to think strategically about diplomacy and defense. None of this was easy, but Catherine’s drive and determination got it done.
Always looking for new challenges, Catherine rose through the academic ranks to become a full professor at the University of Denver in 1979 after serving on President Carter’s National Security Council staff. She was in the Military Strategy Department of the National War College when she interviewed to become one of four faculty tasked with creating an interdisciplinary School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Few precedents for this endeavor existed in the early 1980s. Disciplinary divisions in academia were deep, and public affairs programs primarily focused on management and leadership of national and state-level governmental agencies, not international relations. Others had talked about doing something similar, but nobody had found a way through academic impediments to achieve it.
At CISSM’s 30th anniversary celebration, Catherine confessed that she never expected to be hired because she had abruptly ended her interview dinner by telling her prospective UMD colleagues the four things they needed to do, then excusing herself to run a war game. But the founding dean of what was then called the School of Public Affairs liked Catherine’s vision and her take-charge style, so he placed a bet on the “interdisciplinary gamble” she proposed. Instead of being established inside a traditional department as a place where theory could be applied to real world problems, or borrowing the time of faculty members whose “real” home was in disciplinary departments, the new School was an independent, albeit tiny, unit with its own faculty, students, and resources. It became one of the few places at UMD where faculty and students from across campus regularly discussed important issues of the day from a range of different perspectives. Catherine recalled that then and now, “lots of people speak the interdisciplinary lingo, but don’t practice it much. We do.”
As CISSM’s self-styled “founding mother,” Catherine envisioned the need for a new type of security policy research institution, then brought it to life. President Reagan’s rapid military build-up and his “evil empire” rhetoric was stoking concerns that conventional military confrontation in Europe could lead to a global nuclear war. Yet, few academics saw security policy as an appropriate subject for rigorous scholarly research or wanted to soil their reputations by trying to reason with government officials. Catherine was the only woman, and the sole academic from a public university, on a committee assembled to help leaders of major private foundations change the prevailing “bombs and bullets” approach to security studies. This group sought to educate future leaders to consider more fundamental questions about the appropriate scope and use of force as an instrument of foreign policy by a democracy, and to raise the caliber of independent advice available to senior government officials. Advice from Catherine and other members of this group convinced the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation to provide start-up funding for a network of academic centers where professors, researchers, and students would do rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of critical security challenges, then publish their findings, make presentations, and provide confidential advice in ways designed for maximum policy impact.
Catherine described CISSM as a “hubbing place,” where different types of people with diverse perspectives mixed ideas to create new approaches to security in a rapidly changing world. Her expertise involved European security policy and conventional arms control, but her interests ranged far further. Early collaborative projects at CISSM included research on defense spending with Mancur Olson in the UMD Economics Department, work on civil-military relations with Mady and David Segal of the Sociology Department, and a critical evaluation of nuclear deterrence with Frank Kerr (Astronomy and Astrophysics) and George Quester (Government and Politics).
Catherine also conceived of CISSM as an inspiration and an incubator for future leaders in international policy. She wanted students to get an early taste of how the research world and the policy world could interact constructively. She brought active duty military officers to spend a year at CISSM, both to expand their intellectual horizon and to help civilian students understand how the military services were rethinking their role in the post-Cold War world. She also championed a program to bring promising young leaders from less developed countries to UMD and Washington, DC so they could gain a fuller understanding of what they could accomplish in their own countries.
One of Catherine’s great frustrations was how much harder it was for women than men to make an impact on security policy. She and a small group of other women who had gotten Ph.D.s in the 1960s, including Angela Stent and Enid Schoettle, felt like doors that had opened briefly for them had closed again by the 1980s, turning the security studies field back into a “boys club.” WIIS was established at CISSM to pry those doors back open again by mentoring young women and creating professional development opportunities for them. One of their favorite tactics was to send a “nastygram” to panel chairs, workshop organizers, and hiring officials who only included men because they thought there were no qualified women, giving them a list of exemplary women to choose from. Many of the women who currently hold top security-related positions in government, academia, and non-governmental organizations gained self-confidence, strategic skills, and practical tips for handling sticky professional situations through their association with Catherine and other formidable women in the WIIS network. My own career got a much-needed boost when I was offered a year-long WIIS fellowship at CISSM in 1995 to turn my dissertation into a book and organize a workshop featuring women who were bridging the gap between theory and practice of arms control.
The Clinton administration opened its doors to Catherine, her former students, and other women in the WIIS network. She served as the Secretary of Defense’s Personal Representative in Europe and Defense Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to NATO. She spent another two years as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia before becoming Director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, then a Professor at the Naval War College and a Senior Fellow at Brown University. She ended her career as a College Park Professor at the University of Maryland, helping to prepare a new generation of security policy students to think critically and creatively about evolving Euro-Atlantic security relations, missile defense, nuclear disarmament, climate change, and many other topics.
Throughout it all, Catherine kept moving forward like a ship under full sail, navigating around icebergs, clearing the way for others. She wanted those who follow in her wake to be willing to think seriously about any issue of broad and enduring importance, without getting consumed by trivial or “coopted into current nonsense.” She sought to instill in us a broader focus and a strong moral compass to guide our research and our public service. We will miss Catherine deeply, while doing our best to carry on her good work. With courage and compassion, we will continue to strengthen CISSM as a locus for interdisciplinary innovation that improves security policy, and as a challenging yet nurturing environment that provides young women and men from all backgrounds with the knowledge, confidence, and access they need to change the world.
On behalf of the entire University of Maryland community, the School of Public Policy extends our deepest sympathies to Catherine’s family, friends and colleagues. To honor Catherine and her legacy, gifts can be given to the Catherine M. Kelleher Fellowship Fund for International Security Studies, which supports an exceptional graduate student pursuing their master’s or doctoral degree at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. We welcome community members to share condolences and remembrances in the comments below.