Serving as Dean and President of the American Chemical Society in 2008

Dean Bursten talking with faculty memberHG: You are just completing your term as immediate past president of the American Chemical Society, with a membership of more than 154,000 of your professional peers. Were you surprised by anything you learned in leading such a huge, prestigious organization of theoretical and applied chemists with various strongly held points of view?

BB: First let me say again what a privilege it was to spend 2008 as president of the world’s largest scientific society. I was surprised and pleased by the amount of visibility it gave to our college and the tremendous opportunity holding that office gave me as dean. Every time I was introduced as the president of ACS, I was also introduced as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UT Knoxville, which increased the recognition and visibility of the college and the university. It was the sort of thing that I was hoping would happen as that year unwound.

Dean Bursten talking with faculty memberThe first surprise was recognizing that some of the same skill sets required for effectiveness as dean were the same as for effectiveness as president of ACS. There are some common characteristics in those leadership roles. My position with ACS is a volunteer position, though, so I always emphasize my role as a Volunteer among volunteers.

The ACS has passionate members who in many ways are like members of our faculty who are passionate about their own activities and their own university. So that part of the position was not much of a surprise, only bigger in scale. There were some hard decisions to be made, but they were not so much decisions I made on my own during that year of being president. The president is a member of the Board Directors of ACS, the body with legal and fiduciary responsibility for all actions taken by the ACS. I have greatly enjoyed gaining board experience and working with my fellow directors, who were, by the way, a wonderful group of new colleagues whom I’ve come to appreciate with great affection. I also appreciate the shared governance.

Dean Bursten talking with faculty memberOne major benefit of the job was that it exposed me to a number of opportunities I would not have had otherwise. Tennessee’s own Bart Gordon, chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology, is a visionary—along with Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee—in advancing the nation’s scientific agenda. Last year Congressman Gordon and Senator Alexander were two of the three recipients of the ACS Public Service Award given annually to policymakers who have a positive impact on science and chemistry. (It was pure coincidence that two of the three happened to be from the great state of Tennessee and that I was privileged to present these awards.)

Congressman Gordon called on ACS during my year as president for guidance and advice, and it has been a real privilege to work with him. He and I were both part of the last event of my presidential year, a very small 22-person round-table discussion held in December 2008 at Princeton University and convened by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the House of Representatives who shared in Speaker Pelosi’s efforts on science. The theme was “What would be necessary to advance physical science in the United States?”

Dean Bursten talking with faculty memberThough this gathering took place before Barack Obama took office, we had already seen the federal stimulus package. I think the impact of that round table will have a positive impact on what we do in the College of Arts and Sciences, since my participation—arranged by Congressman Gordon—enabled me to contribute to the discussion, not only as ACS president and scientist but also as dean of the college.

So I would say that one of the biggest surprises coming out of this experience is how interwoven my roles as ACS president and as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences came to be over the course of the year.

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