A Professor in the President's Chair: Pushing for a 'Friendly Revolution'

Southwestern U.

Edward B. Burger helps students move in.
September 01, 2014

When Edward B. Burger was named president of Southwestern University, a small, private nonprofit liberal-arts institution outside Austin, last year, it struck many as an unconventional choice. The path from professor to president almost always involves a few more steps along the way. But Mr. Burger, who is 50, had never aspired to be a provost, let alone a president, at least until Southwestern came calling.

What Mr. Burger was known for was his teaching. He had racked up numerous awards in more than two decades of teaching mathematics, at Williams College and developed thousands of instructional videos. Here, in a conversation with Katherine Mangan, he reflects on his first year as chief.

Q. How did you make the transition from professor to president?

A. Maybe some of our problems in education today stem from the fact that someone like me is considered an unconventional choice. Maybe academic institutions should be run by academics, the way they used to be.

No one can argue with the fact that I was a risky candidate. What experience did I have at managing, providing vision for, or budgeting for a $48-million-a-year operation? I went into the airport interview knowing it was a long shot. When I left after what felt like was a thoughtful conversation with friends about the future of liberal arts and higher education, I thought, Well, that was fun and energizing, but it didn’t go well because I wasn’t acting very presidential. To my surprise, I was invited for a campus visit, and when I got the call that I’d been selected, it was a life-changing moment.

Q. At some point did you ask yourself if you were up to the challenge?

A. I didn’t have those thoughts until I dug deeper into the financial side and I realized that we had some corrections we needed to make. When I took out a yellow legal pad and wrote everything down, including things like deferred maintenance and infrastructure for technology that hadn’t been included, the structural debt ballooned to a little over $6-million. That’s when I realized, Wow, I’m in this thing. We’ve chiseled away at that debt, but I hadn’t expected to spend that much time and effort on such issues. I really thought I’d come and play to my strength, which is to engage people to come together, to build renewed energy and trust and to challenge and inspire people to rethink education.

I’m in this job because education in this country is broken and I want to be a part of an institution that has potential to lead the way to fix this national problem.

Q. What were your priorities during the first year?

A. There are only two branches to this job: No. 1, make sure students are getting the most profound, life-changing, life-enhancing educational experience they can, and, No. 2, make sure that 100 years from now, whoever’s sitting in this chair will have the resources so he or she can do the exact same thing. That’s all. Everything else is noise.

The biggest change we made was in our committee structure, which had consisted of councils and committees and task forces. I have amazing colleagues, but the system was so gridlocked that it basically prevented itself from doing business. Shared governance to me means I get to share the wisdom and counsel of my colleagues, but the system in place didn’t allow that. People now serve on fewer committees, but they meet more frequently and have more impact.

It speaks volumes to Southwestern that in nine months we were able to have a friendly revolution. Southwestern can do anything, but it can’t do everything, so we have to be very strategic and use great wisdom in deciding where we are and aren’t going to invest resources. Financial challenges can be real opportunities. It’s easier to be creative when you have to be.