by Pat McSparin // Spring 2012
The U.S. ambassador to Portugal began sharpening his diplomacy skills outside the UMKC chancellor’s office more than four decades ago. As the university’s student body president his senior year, Allan J. Katz (B.A. ’69) co-founded the Student Government Association’s Robert F. Kennedy Symposium. The topic of the first symposium was dissent, and the Board of Curators threatened to cancel it because the student group booked controversial speakers.
“In some ways, we understood politics better than the administrators,” Katz says. “We created situations that made them uncomfortable and at a certain age, you consider that to be a rather amusing occupation. James Olson was the chancellor, and I think he was happy when I graduated.”
After graduating from UMKC, Katz earned his law degree at American University, entered a career as a lawyer and gained experience with public policy issues. He served on the Florida Citizen’s Insurance Board, on the Tallahassee Joint Planning Board, and as city commissioner for Tallahassee before receiving his ambassador nomination from President Barack Obama. The United States Senate confirmed Katz to serve as ambassador to Portugal in March 2010, and while he says he has the best job in the world, he acknowledges the role of an ambassador is filled with challenges.
Last spring, the Portuguese parliament was dissolved and the prime minister resigned. Portugal was caught up in the Euro crisis, and a new government took charge after an election in June. “In times like this, we recognize that United States and Portugal have a long and wonderful history, and we’re trying to make sure nothing changes in the relationship between our government and theirs,” he says. “Fortunately, nothing has changed, and it continues to be a positive relationship.”
Katz is working on several priorities, including a conference targeting childhood obesity, Holocaust education in Portugal, and strategies to improve American trade abroad. One program Katz helped launch—Access Africa—brings Portuguese and American companies together and helps them conduct business in Africa. While Portuguese companies maintain relationships with their former colonies, Katz says American companies don’t have the same experience and often don’t know how to operate with those countries. Because of the program’s success in increasing trade and investment in Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) Africa last year, the program will continue this year with an expanded scope.
While building and maintaining relationships between two world powers are skills he’s spent his life honing, Katz says there will always be parts of the job he never gets used to. Few professions require a person to be surrounded by security at all times and take crisis calls in the middle of the night. But Katz is quick to assure that he’s not complaining, as exploring Portugal and its people are also part of the job description. “Portugal is a remarkable country,” he says. “It’s a country with borders that have not changed in 1,000 years. It was a great empire. The food, the wine and the overwhelming sense of humanity the Portuguese have—it’s stunning.”