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Professor Andrew S. Bergerson introduces his "surprise guest" - U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Allan Katz - to his History 208: World Civilizations class.


Ambassador Tells Undergrads 'Context is Everything'

U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, UMKC alum Allan Katz, visits World History class

Professor Andrew S. Bergerson billed Allan Katz as a “surprise guest” at his undergraduate History 208: World Civilizations class. But given the hallway buzz, well-dressed dignitaries in attendance and multiple cameras in the room, it couldn’t have been too much of a surprise when the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal strode into the room March 7 to deliver a guest lecture.

Allan Katz is a UMKC graduate, attorney and, since his 2010 presidential appointment, ambassador to a key U.S. ally in Europe. During his undergraduate days at UMKC, he served as student government president and founded the university’s Robert F. Kennedy Symposium. He graduated from UMKC with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1969.

Katz spent much of the day at UMKC, including a breakfast with faculty and alumni; a private meeting with Chancellor Leo Morton and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Gail Hackett; and a discussion with Mel Tyler, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, and current student government leaders. That evening, Ambassador Katz was the featured guest at a dinner sponsored by the International Relations Council, held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

It was during his classroom lecture, however, that he had the opportunity to speak directly to undergraduates about the value of the education they were receiving.

“I often find myself in conversations where I surprise myself by knowing things, and sometimes I ask myself, ‘How did I know that?’ And of course, the answer is that it comes from being a student of history here at this university,” Katz said. “Your education provides you with context, and context is everything.” 

He relished the opportunity to return to a classroom where he had actually been in class some 40 years earlier.

“This building used to be the law school,” he said. “And I’m looking at the back row where I used to sit and try to hide.”

The main topic of his lecture was "Portugal: Where it is today, and how it got there." Over the course of 45 minutes, he discussed the country’s history as a 16th century world power and colonizer of a global empire, through its 40-year 20th century dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar, and its precarious but ultimately successful – and bloodless – revolution and transition to a pluralistic democracy. All of these factors, he said, impact the country’s current status as one of several members of the European Union struggling to deal with heavy public debt that is endangering the European banking system.

Katz said that some observers tend to lump together the various troubled national economies within the European Union, viewing them as having similar problems and similar degrees of difficulty. While the economy of Greece remains at serious risk, he said, Portugal’s economy is in much better shape, with strong international trade relationships – including some with former colonies such as Angola – and a resilient population able to meet the challenges they face. He lauded the Portuguese for their ability to overthrow a dictator during the Cold War, avoid a Communist takeover in the process, build a multi-party democracy, absorb a huge influx of immigrants from the colonies it was shedding – and do it all without bloodshed.

As a current rotating member of the United Nations Security Council, Portugal has been a steadfast U.S. ally on current issues, Katz said. Portuguese support for the U.S. is a centuries-old tradition, he added, because it was the first European nation to recognize the fledgling United States of America, in 1791.

In a later conversation with the editorial board of The Kansas City Star, he said the U.S. “is a pillar of Portugal’s view of their place in the world.”

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"I often find myself in conversations where I surprise myself by knowing things, and sometimes I ask myself, 'How did I know that?' And of course, the answer is that it comes from being a student of history here at this university."

Allan Katz, UMKC alumnus and U.S. Ambassador to Portugal

Above, UMKC alumnus Allan Katz chats with a student after class about internship opportunities at U.S. embassies abroad. Below, Katz discusses Portugal's history and current economic problems with students.