Presidential candidate: Bruce Bursten
December 14, 2010Tweet
A Midwesterner by birth who characterized himself as the “quintessential, stereotypical math nerd,” when he entered the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, Bruce Bursten said that very experience shaped him in terms of the importance of a liberal arts education – something that appeals to him about Binghamton.
“This is a public university with the same sort of University of Chicago view of the importance of a liberal arts education,” he said.
Though he attended a private university, Bursten worked to put himself through school, earning his bachelor’s degree in three years to save money and minimize debt. The lessons he learned have stayed with him: gratitude for his education and a belief in access to higher education.
“Chicago also gave me my first experience of understanding research,” Bursten said. “It was a life-changing experience and reinforced what I wanted to be when I grew up.” While there, he also had his first taste of what academic leadership was about when he was asked to represent undergraduates on a president’s council.
Bursten discovered his love of teaching while working toward his PhD. “I found I really liked teaching and it was really important,” he said. “I found the teaching experience very gratifying and teaching can give you instant feedback.”
It also makes a difference, he said, and making a difference is key. After 25 years at Ohio State, he was recruited to the University of Tennessee as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, where “it’s been possible to make a difference since 2005.
“The overarching part of my experience and why I am in front of you today is my desire to make a difference through academic excellence,” Bursten said. “What drives me is wanting to make places better.”
Calling Binghamton an extraordinary institution, Bursten said that the campus should trumpet its excellence as proudly as possible. “It pervades the notion of what you do at Binghamton, especially in undergraduate education,” he said. “It’s what your brand is built on now and it’s an absolutely wonderful brand to have, but there is still a lot to be done.”
Speaking of the sense of anticipation about a new president coming to campus, Bursten acknowledged there must be some uneasiness about the future, especially with state funding challenges in New York state. The new president should try as much as possible to allow faculty and staff to teach students and do research and do great things, he said.
That’s the kind of environment that appeals to Bursten, and what he sees at Binghamton. “What I told the Search Committee was there is a sense of collegiality and unselfish excellence that resonates with my core values here,” he said. “What I see is a sense of really wanting to make people better; themselves, their students and this community.
“Universities are fascinating organizations and from the outside others must look at times and say you’re doing what—and why? People do not understand what we do,” Bursten said. “Part of our challenge is to make sure they understand the importance of what we do at major research universities and how that differs from elsewhere.”
Bursten recently chaired a task force at the University of Tennessee charged with moving the school forward. As a result, he knows that Binghamton has remarkable results in terms of outcomes. “You should be most proud of your four- and six-year graduation rates,” he said. “But do people at home really care or notice? They don’t, and one of the challenges your next president has will be to make that point over and over again without being obnoxious. It’s part of that Binghamton brand and part of what you do that is so extraordinary here and that you do better than most universities. You should be able to move forward with great confidence.”
At the fore of the University’s challenges, however, are certain perceptions, Bursten said, noting first that there are more pressing needs for state investment. “Nobody has ever lost an election for not supporting education, so we have to make the case differently,” he said.
One perception: that research and scholarship aren’t worth the investment unless they immediately lead to job creation. “When we train students correctly, they know how to think critically about a lot of things,” he said. “They’re not trained for a vocation, they’re trained for life, but we’ve done a lousy job of explaining that and we still have to hammer this message home.”
Other perceptions about higher education Bursten outlined include the need to be more accountable and getting students to graduate, and the idea that investment in community colleges is somehow more efficient than investment in research universities.
“It’s up to us to make sure they’re looking at the big picture,” he said. “In recent years, there has been the additional threat of for-profit universities built on a business model of marketing, federal guaranteed student loans and heavy lobbying. It’s part of the landscape in which we operate.”
Asking what can we do better and what do we need to do better, Bursten referenced the creation of the California education system that transformed public higher education in the United States and became a model for what ultimately became SUNY. “It did lead to a stronger system of public universities and let me remind you about why we have to do our work to change perceptions,” Bursten said.
California’s original master plan established a three-tiered system with the goal of enrolling 20 percent of its students in the top tier, 30 percent in the middle tier and 50 percent in the bottom tier. Today’s California numbers are skewed, Bursten said, with only 11 percent of students in the top tier and 20 and 69 percent of students in the middle and bottom tiers, respectively.
“We have shut down in California the access to the best places available that truly are going to take citizens of that state and move it forward,” he said. “It’s the challenge New York has and California has, and one needs to break one of the unbreakable parts of the way the state university system operates. One must try and set Binghamton and the other three university centers apart with an emphasis on quality.”
Bursten said that will happen by teaching better than the others and doing things well in an affordable way that provides access.”The tuition gap between publics and privates has grown and at the same time the perceived quality gap has gone up as well, so we still have a job to do,” he said.
Binghamton will need to focus on quality rather than quantity, Bursten said, including who our students are and why there is value added. “What is it that makes us different?” he asked. “We need to say it with pride.”
Funding and expectations will be intertwined into the future, he added. “The national trend will be that public research universities will become more privatized,” he said. “There has to be a lot of conversation to get us off this disconnect about what the state expects us to do and what we expect from the state.
“I continually remind people that our best intellectual property is that we produce well-trained, critically thinking young men and women who can go out and make this a better world and it’s up to us to make sure people realize that what’s important is to have a degree from the right university, not just a degree,” he said.
It’s a fact that Binghamton wants to move forward, Bursten said. “Your reputation is strong because what you do well, you do extremely well,” he said. “Whatever changes are made in the near term, you must preserve the distinctive excellence in undergraduate education that is what has made you what you are today.”
With ambitious growth prospects for Binghamton in the strategic plan, any growth must be done carefully, artfully, he said. With four sources of revenue: state allocations, tuition and the addition of more out-of-state students; research funding and private fundraising. “Any growth will have to be done carefully and you must increase the size of the faculty,” Bursten said. “There are ways that partnerships can be built to increase funding.
“The area of tremendous growth is in private fundraising,” he added. “This university hasn’t truly tapped the loyalty, passion and love of your alums.”
Finally, the best ambassadors of your success are your students, Bursten said. “Send them to any place where people are interested in seeing them and they will do a wonderful job.”
To read about Gary Miller’s open forum, click here.
To read about Susan Jeffords’ open forum, click here.
To read about Jonathan Alger’s open forum, click here.
To read about Uday Sukhatme’s open forum, click here.