Bursten Passes the Baton

Bruce E. Bursten

Bruce E. Bursten

Having served as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee since September 2005, Bruce Bursten announced earlier this semester his decision to step down from the deanship to return to the faculty in the Department of Chemistry, where he holds tenure as a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. Higher Ground sat down with Dean Bursten to reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of his more than five years as dean of the largest college in the university and to get his view on the state of the college as he passes the baton to his successor.

HG: How did your journey lead you from a career in chemistry to the helm of Arts and Sciences?

BB: I was at Ohio State for 25 years before arriving here. I am a chemist by background, so I started my academic career in the Department of Chemistry at OSU as an assistant professor and rose through the ranks there. OSU is a huge university, and I found through service on committees and the like that the efforts of individuals truly mattered, even in a really big place. I eventually ended up doing a four-year term as department chair there, and I felt the leadership I was able to provide made a difference in my department. The appeal of being a dean came from that same desire to make a difference.

HG: As a scientist, why were you attracted to such a large, complex college that includes the humanities, visual and performing arts, social sciences, and natural sciences?

BB: The way the academic world works is that if you’re successful as department chair or head you end up on the radar screen for dean searches. I was contacted by a number of search firms regarding administrative positions, but I was happy at OSU and not interested in moving. But when I was approached by Tennessee and asked if I would be interested in the dean position, there were two things that were really appealing to me. First, the chancellor at the time, Loren Crabtree, had a goal of trying to move UT Knoxville into membership in the Association of American Universities. So the possibility of being able to make a difference in that effort was very attractive to me. And in my own research, I had done a lot of work with the Department of Energy, so I knew what sort of leverage Oak Ridge National Laboratory could provide for the university. It was also appealing to me was that it was in a college of arts and sciences as opposed to a college of science. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I felt I really grew because of the school’s strong, traditional liberal arts curriculum. I got a lot of value out of my courses in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences. If I were going to be a dean, to me, it was much more appealing to be in a college with an all-encompassing view of what we call the liberal arts. So it was a tremendous opportunity.

HG: Did your experience with and appreciation for the humanities help equip you for your work as dean?

BB: I believe strongly in what we do at major research universities in educating students to be critical thinkers and broad thinkers. I try to resist a “vocational” experience. I feel that if you’re going to get an education at a great university, you’re going to learn a lot and be pushed beyond the limits of what you thought you could know. That builds better people. I think that’s why it is special to be at a place like UTK.

HG: And how did your actual experience as dean match your expectations of the job? What parts of the position were different from what you expected?

BB: I had never been a dean so there was a learning curve that I think is unavoidable, and I’m grateful that my faculty, my department head colleagues, and most of all the college staff were patient as I learned on the job. It took a little bit of time to learn the rhythm of interacting with the departments and the difference between leading and managing, and leading and micromanaging. There’s an old saying that managers do things right, but leaders do the right things.

One of the things I found is that my voice as dean carried a lot of weight, and that was an adjustment. I had to be much more careful about what I said. In retrospect, I would probably change my message and my demeanor a little in my introductions to departments and so forth. There were times I was a little too blunt, and I could have done more good by being a little softer.

HG: There have been a number of administration changes since you took office. How have these changes affected your leadership of the college? How have you and the college responded to the decreased predictability?

BB: In the first few years there was a lot of instability at levels above the college; there were different chancellors, provosts, and presidents. As a faculty member you get used to the colleagues you work with, and they tend not to change that quickly. When you’re in a role like this where you have to work closely with leadership above you and with people within the college, every time there was an administrative change there was a new set of values to try to assimilate, a new working style. It was a challenge, but at the same time it allowed me to learn more about myself as a leader.

The school was set on a quest for excellence, and one of the biggest challenges was staying that course while everything was bubbling up around us. It was a little bit like trying to get past the obstacles that pop up in a video game. But again, we have a great team of people in the college and great departmental leadership. We didn’t all agree all the time, but because we were able to discuss things so openly we were able to stay on that course, although there were some speed bumps along the way.

HG: You mentioned the college’s “quest for excellence” in the previous response. What did you believe this to be, and how did you go about achieving it?

BB: Excellence is an easy word to say and a hard word to execute. What this meant was keeping excellence as the guidepost whenever we made a decision. It’s often the case that there’s an easy way to make a decision, and there’s a right way to make a decision. The challenge is keeping on track and always trying to make the right decision that fits in with the overall goal of increased excellence.

The decision I made to step down was also an opportunity for me to reflect on where we were as a college. I could ask the question: “Where are we as a college now compared with five years ago?” I think we’re a better college. I think we’ve accomplished more. I think the faculty has greater expectations of themselves and of their colleagues. I think we’re pushing our students more.

HG: In one of the first interviews following your appointment as dean in 2005, you expressed your concerns about the need to address faculty compensation and to recruit and retain the best faculty. Has the financial crisis set back your efforts to compete with peer institutions, given that the faculty and staff haven’t had a pay raise in three years?

BB: There are some special initiatives the university has had for recruiting outstanding faculty, particularly related to Oak Ridge. When I arrived, one of the things I had seen was that our faculty salaries were low. If you’re going to recruit people, you have to pay market value. So we raised starting salaries for faculty. We have done strategic, targeted hires that I describe as “eyebrow-raising hires.”

We’ve come up with some new ways of retaining people, because in the academic world it’s not uncommon to have the best people at a university be recruited by others. We have used some of our private fundraising to create a new type of professorship—the Arts and Sciences Excellence Professorship, which is something we can offer at the discretion of the dean to people we want to retain, either in reaction to an offer or proactively before an offer comes forward. And it’s been a real pleasure to sell that concept to potential donors who really understand that what we’re trying to do is keep the most talented faculty here.

HG: Funds from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that came to the state and university in 2009 have been used to plan for a “soft landing” in 2011, when the money will run out. But there will be many permanent budget cuts that will go into effect July 1, 2011. How is the college positioned for “the cliff?”

BB: We’re still trying to figure out how hard that “soft landing” is going to be. What the stimulus funding did for us is buy time. This is a big ship. It’s hard to change direction and it’s hard to adjust how things are going to change. The budget of the college has been cut by more than 10 percent since I’ve arrived, and that has had a tremendous impact on our ability to perform our number one goal for the state of Tennessee, which is to teach students. The budget of the college is 97 percent personnel, so if you cut 10 percent, people are going away. A lot of those people were on the instructional side, either faculty positions that were vacant or lecturer positions. It was a blessing that we were able to get a two-year period where we could backfill our budget cuts with stimulus money, which allows us to keep our instructional capacity where it was prior to the cuts and gives the faculty the opportunity to think creatively about ways in which they can retool the way they teach courses.

HG: You mentioned that there will be some reductions in the number of lecturer positions, but lecturers are often paid far less than tenure-line faculty members. How is retaining the more expensive positions consistent with these budget cuts?

BB: If the only motivation is to deliver the most student credit hours possible, you do it far more efficiently with lecturers than with tenure-line faculty. In most departments, a lecturer teaches twice as many students as a tenure-line faculty member and is paid about half as much. But what is the mission of our university and our college? We do need to continue to push forward in this quest for excellence, and you don’t do that by looking only at undergraduate instruction. We made a hard decision, and that was to prioritize maintaining tenure-line faculty positions, but we had to couple that with an expectation that the faculty would do even more on the instructional front. So the faculty has figured out how to deliver more in the classroom, and that provides a partial offset to the loss of lecturers. There’s still some future pain we’re looking at in terms of providing the amount of instruction that needs to be provided.

HG: What are some examples of these extra efforts expected from faculty?

BB: There are a number of different things that have been done. What we wanted to do is ask the tenure-line faculty to deliver more credit hours, but not necessarily by teaching more courses. If we change courses from graduate seminars to undergraduate classes, then more students can take the classes, and the teaching load does not change. Introductory calculus classes are going to be larger, for example. I’m not a huge proponent of online instruction because I feel that what makes a university like ours special is that interaction between faculty and students. However, in some areas, such as foreign language instruction, we are adopting methodologies that are hybrids of online and face-to-face instruction.

I’m proud that in some cases we’ve decreased the size of classes. There were some mega-lectures here that we shrunk. We are in the process of reforming the undergraduate Arts and Sciences curriculum requirements. We owe it to our students to make sure we have a challenging enough curriculum, with appropriate rigor in every major.

HG: One attraction that drew you to UT was its relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In what ways have you been engaged in strengthening the relationship between the university and ORNL? How has this benefitted the college?

BB: ORNL is a tremendous asset to UT Knoxville—one could easily argue it’s the best Department of Energy lab out there. It was part of the appeal of moving here; it’s part of what made this a special institution to me. There are only four universities that have national labs in their backyards: Stony Brook University, Iowa State University, UT Knoxville, and UC Berkeley. When I arrived, part of what I was hoping we’d be able to do is use the relationship with ORNL to leverage our standing nationally. And it has been both successful and challenging. The governor’s chairs are one success. The first governor’s chair was in the College of Arts and Sciences; we now have seven hailing from different disciplines.

The opportunities in graduate education have really been terrific with ORNL. We have, for example, the UT-ORNL graduate program in genome science and technology. This really is at the cutting edge of what has happened in modern molecular biology and is a program that attracts really good students. There certainly have been some successes, and there are a lot of relationships built with our science departments and the scientists at ORNL.

HG: How do you view the progress you have made toward becoming a member of the AAU?

BB: To a certain extent, the journey is more important than the destination. The AAU is a group of 63 universities that tout themselves as the leading research universities in the United States and Canada. What we were looking at were certain markers for distinction and certain accomplishments we knew we had to address in order to position ourselves to be ready for the AAU. We really believe that pushing the university to new heights of excellence will get us in the right position to do it.

HG: In an earlier interview, you expressed concern about space issues in the college. Have you been able to make any headway in addressing the issue of lack of space?

BB: It’s a terrible situation and is one of our biggest challenges. We don’t have the space to house many more faculty members. This is a very landlocked campus, and it’s hard to expand. Not only do we not have enough space, but some of the space we have really needs renovation. We are making some slow progress. We broke ground on a new building for the School of Music, earlier this month, which is going to be a wonderful facility. We are also reopening Ayres Hall in January 2011, the traditional home of the College of Arts and Sciences and the most iconic building on the campus. I wish that there were a greater focus on the need for high-quality space, because it does end up being a recruiting disadvantage relative to other institutions with more buildings. It is still one of the biggest challenges facing us.

HG: The College of Arts and Sciences has been very successful in the Campaign for Tennessee, having met and raised its monetary goal twice since the campaign’s inception in January 2005. In what specific ways has this fundraising success enhanced the college?

BB: The campaign is really an opportunity to see how much passion and love our alumni and our friends have for the college. This funding has had short-term benefits and will have even greater long-term benefits for the college in so many ways. The Arts and Sciences Excellence Professorships have been very successful in rewarding and retaining the best faculty. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had many donors who want to help raise graduate student stipends. This has really allowed us to recruit better students, which means better instruction for undergraduates and better research productivity.

We certainly went for more private fundraising, because we can control it to a certain extent. If we need more money for graduate students, for example, I can go to donors on a targeted campaign and know who to talk to and say, “This is where we need your help.” We have also tremendously enhanced our grant funding, largely from federal sources, and that’s due to the hard work of the faculty.

HG: You served as president of the American Chemical Society in 2008. What was it like to serve in two high-profile positions at once?

BB: The ACS presidency was the pinnacle of my career as a chemist. It was amazing. But it was a tremendous challenge and strain on my team because it required a lot of travel—I represented American chemistry all over the world. It was great for the university because every time I was introduced it was as president of the ACS and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UTK. The visibility for UTK and the college was terrific. It opened a lot of doors, including those to our congressional offices, where, for example, Bart Gordon was chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology. He became a strong supporter of what we’re doing here. When Governor Phil Bredesen was pushing for more work in STEM education, it was convenient to have the dean of Arts and Sciences also be the president of ACS when attending meetings with him in the State House. It also made me a better dean in the sense that I had no choice but to delegate better and to work at higher levels with my terrific team, given the amount of travel I was doing. Overall, I characterize the experience as one in which the college survived, the ACS survived, and I survived. It was a lot of time and a lot of energy, but an extraordinary privilege. And I do think it brought great visibility to our university at a time when that was tremendously valuable.

HG: We’ve addressed a lot of the issues you faced as dean, as well as some of the issues the college will continue to face in the future. Can you summarize your experience and the accomplishments of which you are most proud?

BB: Coming in, there were a few things I really wanted to accomplish. I am very proud of who we were able to recruit as a consequence of raising faculty salaries. We have put more effort into making sure that our outstanding faculty members are recognized, and we’ve put some initiatives in place to have more visibility for our faculty. We also have increased faculty diversity.

I’m proud that as a scientist who believes in the liberal arts, our three fine arts departments – the School of Art, the School of Music, and the Department of Theatre – have done pretty well in difficult times. But overall, I look at what my colleagues and I have accomplished during my time as dean, and I ask “Is the college better? Have I made a difference?” And I will give a perhaps immodest answer and say the answers are yes to both questions, largely because the faculty responded so enthusiastically to the challenge of increasing excellence in the college.

HG: As you leave the dean’s office, what is your outlook for the future of the college?

BB: I think the college’s future is very bright. All the elements are in place to keep the college on course in its path of excellence. We have an outstanding faculty, many of whom are internationally recognized as the best in their fields. The students UT Knoxville is attracting are getting better every year. As the college’s record in the Campaign for Tennessee clearly indicates, alumni and friends of the college have demonstrated their confidence in the college’s mission and its future through both their personal support and financial contributions. They clearly see our college as worthy of investment!

Last I would add that the college’s administrative team is highly capable and remarkably dedicated. The associate deans, college directors, and department heads are experienced and dedicated to advancing the college and its programs. Hap McSween, the newly appointed interim dean, is a respected leader who will work very well with the administrative team within the college and in higher administration to ensure the college continues to make progress during this time of transition.

HG: What’s next for you after December 31? Will you go back to teaching and research? Seek another administrative post?

BB: I will be returning to my role as a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry where I have maintained an office throughout my administrative appointment. I will be doing teaching and research and working with students again. Those three years of being on the ACS board kept part of my mind on chemistry, and I look forward to doing that more. I missed that. I love my discipline. So that is part of my future goals. I focus on mainly computational chemistry, so I do most of my chemistry on computers and using theory, which means that getting involved in research again does not mean I have to set up a large laboratory.

Two of my immediate goals are to apply for renewal of my research grant with the Department of Energy and to refresh my knowledge of the discipline by spending time reading chemistry journals and updating my knowledge of recent discoveries. While I certainly plan to be in the classroom again, that probably will not take place next term.

“Will administration be part of my career at some point in the future?” It is certainly possible. I do like making a difference, and am not done doing so, whether it is as a professor or as an academic leader.

HG: What about your personal plans? How will your departure from the deanship affect your personal life?

BB: Well, I certainly hope to achieve more balance in my professional and personal life.

During the past five years my calendar has been heavily scheduled, often throughout weekends, with duties associated with the deanship and with holding offices in the ACS. Development activities on behalf of the college have taken me all over the United States visiting our alumni and friends, and the ACS travel actually took me around the globe. Beginning next semester I hope to spend more time with my loved ones, who live mainly in the Northeast. That will be somewhat easier as a member of the faculty as compared to being dean.

Regardless of what happens in my professional and personal lives, I will cherish the time that I spent as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UTK. It has been a fabulous and life-changing experience for me, one that has allowed me to grow as a person and as an academic. I’m grateful for the very heartfelt messages I have received from colleagues and students about the difference we have made together. That is both touching and humbling, and would not have happened had I not accepted this wonderful opportunity. My thanks to all who have helped us advance the college to where it is today.

—Meredith McGroarty