President Burger’s Paideia Moment
December 12, 2019
December 12, 2019
Since his first day as its 15th president in 2013, Edward B. Burger has transformed Southwestern University. Now, as he prepares to step aside in January 2020 to take the helm as president and chief executive officer at St. David’s Foundation in Austin, one of the nation’s largest healthcare foundations, the Southwestern community is reflecting on the president’s impact on the University. From his engagement with the students, alumni, faculty, and staff to his hands-on and bold leadership of the University during a time of record-breaking growth, there is no part of the University that is not stronger because of him.
“We are deeply grateful to Dr. Burger—our colleague, teacher, and friend who has given us so much of himself to make Southwestern stand out as a place that values and delivers distinctive, high-impact learning through intellectual and personal growth that lasts a lifetime,” says Stephen G. Tipps, chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. “He personifies Think. Create. Connect.—to make meaning and make a difference.”
Part of the difference Burger has made to Southwestern can be seen in the dramatic physical changes to the campus, including the Fondren–Jones Science Center (see “The Gift of a Lifetime” in this issue). But it’s also manifested in, as Garey Chair and Professor of Mathematics Alison Marr points out, “the hammocks, the Adirondack chairs, the revitalized Bishops Lounge, the new plaza and porch in front of Fondren–Jones,… not to mention all the beautiful gathering spaces inside the new science building, including the awesome new outdoor classroom. There are more places for students, faculty, and staff to gather and build community.”
Burger also helped articulate and champion Paideia, Southwestern’s interdisciplinary approach to education, which encourages students to intentionally make connections as they think about and think through their chosen fields of study. Aiden Steinle ’20, a math major and chief editor of The Megaphone, has found SU’s rigorous but flexible curriculum liberating because it has allowed him to explore a wide range of interests. “Personally, I’ve been able to pursue mathematics, finance, journalism, and ceramics and have been encouraged at every step along the way,” he says gratefully. “Dr. Burger’s mantra of Think. Create. Connect. reflects in our Paideia program, which I believe will carry Southwestern into the future, helping to craft well-rounded liberal arts students.”
“In many ways, Ed has transformed Southwestern in his own image,” says Tipps. “He has made us all focus on learning to think as the essence of education. And he has taught us all about the benefits of creative failure.”
To complement Paideia, SU launched Mosaic last year and the Residential Experience in fall 2019, programs dedicated to enhancing students’ personal and intellectual growth through their cocurricular activities. For Burger, these initiatives have represented the exciting outcomes of Southwestern’s continuous “process of regrowth and rebirth”: “The reimagination of Paideia and the phenomenal start of Mosaic just thrill me because they make the Southwestern Experience a lifelong experience that transforms individuals and advances the life of the mind in meaningful and challenging ways that promote intellectual and personal growth,” says Burger. “I was extraordinarily proud of the institution for that. Those are the high points of the half dozen years.” These initiatives have also contributed to the University’s growing reputation, which has elicited record-setting enrollments during the president’s term, with the five largest classes in the University’s history.
Burger has made no secret that one of the greatest challenges he confronted when assuming the role of president was grappling with the institution’s finances while implementing long-deferred but much-needed maintenance projects and updates to the University’s technological infrastructure. More broadly, that puzzle has included “acknowledg[ing] the economics of higher education” and “balanc[ing] two very strong opposing forces: making this type of educational experience attainable and practical for bright, engaged students whose families or who, themselves, do not have the means to afford it…[and] trying to keep the cost of a Southwestern education as low as possible while facing the high costs and inflationary pressures of running a large, complex institution.”
But according to many members of SU’s advisory boards, senior staff, and faculty, perhaps Burger’s greatest contribution has been a comprehensive strategic vision and direction for the University. “I think his major gift to Southwestern has been to create an exciting vision of the promise of Southwestern’s future and to invite all of us to see how we might be a part of making it happen,” says Board of Trustees member Henry Joyner. Elizabeth Yeager P’17, a fellow trustee whose family has been connected with SU for five generations, adds that Think. Create. Connect. “encapsulates that vision succinctly. SU students have always been change makers, but Dr. Burger helped focus the mission and raise awareness of the true value of a liberal arts education.” Yeager adds that Burger instilled that vision in students, faculty, alumni, friends, and board members. “Not many leaders are able to do that,” she says.
“Working with Ed was like spending time with a human light bulb,” shares Sylvia J. Sydow Kerrigan ’86, a member of the Southwestern Board of Trustees. “He illuminated, energized, cheered, and suddenly made the impossible seem possible.”
John Shearn Chair and Associate Professor of Business Debika Sihi remembers the president speaking at an event for visiting students. According to Sihi, Burger told the audience about a former student who had once remarked loudly, “You’re wrong!” in response to a math problem the class was trying to solve. Burger explained that if the student had only thought about the puzzle in a different way, they would have seen that the proposed solution was, indeed, possible. “Dr. Burger encouraged the visiting students to use the university experience to not only share their existing knowledge but also develop new ways of thinking and appreciate others’ ideas and viewpoints,” Sihi recounts. “With this simple story, Dr. Burger eloquently captured the mission of a Southwestern education…. He truly helped to reinforce and reinvigorate the lifelong learning that happens at Southwestern.”
A professor and a president
When Burger was selected as president of Southwestern University, the choice was, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, an “unconventional” one. After all, in 2013–2014, only 1% of new university presidents were selected from faculty ranks; most had previously served as leaders of other institutions or else as provosts, vice presidents, or deans. Burger, meanwhile, interviewed for the position while serving as the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, having joined the Williams faculty in 1990. He was also a nationally recognized innovator in education, having coauthored The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (Princeton University Press, 2012) with Michael Starbird, starred in thousands of online mathematics videos, and won numerous awards for teaching.
“We on the [hiring] committee thought that bringing in an academic of Ed’s stature would be a great thing for the school, and it has been,” Tipps recalls. Joyner agrees. “Dr. Burger’s experience as an in-classroom educator and his innovative teaching career have brought great perspective to his role as president,” he says. “At the same time, it was a new experience for him to become the chief executive of a large organization with a diversity of activities. His ability to master the new necessary skills has been impressive. He is a gifted leader and learner.”
For SU faculty, Burger’s longtime experience as a professor meant that he would possess both credibility and empathy as an administrator. “I knew him to be a fantastic and charismatic educator…. I was excited to have a president who was one of us, a professor and a mathematician, who had a strong vision for Southwestern,” reflects Fumiko Futamura, a fellow professor of mathematics, as well as Lord Chair in Mathematics and Computer Science. “He understood our job and our many roles as researchers, educators, mentors, and advisors. He understood that we needed time and compensation for the work that we do—and the importance of making sure the faculty had the resources to do their jobs well.”
Futamura echoes Marr and Alisa Gaunder, professor of political science and dean of the faculty, in expressing further appreciation for Burger’s support of the faculty through fundraising. “As an academic, Dr. Burger was able to raise money for things that directly impact the work faculty do at Southwestern,” Marr comments. Those efforts have supported new midcycle sabbaticals; multiple new endowed chairs and professorships; the new laboratories, offices, and classrooms of the Fondren–Jones Science Center; and the creation of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship and the Center for Integrative Learning.
Burger’s commitment to supporting faculty simultaneously resulted in expanded opportunities and new facilities for SU students. “Having an academic president was significant. President Burger has been laser focused on the academic program, and it is stronger from his leadership,” Gaunder reflects. In addition to assuring that Southwestern students benefitted from a rigorous curriculum, David Gaines, professor of English and director of national fellowships and scholarships, says that Burger “was keenly aware of who our students are, what they wanted and needed, and what happened in our classrooms.” From raising more than $100 million for students demonstrating financial need to creating the tradition of President’s Table dinners and simply being present at academic, social, athletic, and theater events, Burger “brought new impetus for the student-centered approach to teaching and learning,” Gaines adds. Futumura agrees: “He used his position to uplift students, publicly recognize their achievements, and make them feel proud.”
“President Burger is a dynamic leader with a charismatic personality,” says Vice President for Student Life Jaime Woody. “He believes in the SU product and was able to articulate any and all pieces of the Southwestern Experience. He immersed himself in many, many areas of the campus, so his knowledge base was deep and vast; he could speak to any aspect of the University with facts and breadth of knowledge. He inherited many challenges and worked diligently to right the ship and point us in a direction that yielded terrific growth, awareness, and national visibility.”
Steinle can testify to the importance of Burger’s role as both a professor and a president. He says that Burger “has been a major force in [his] formative education,” even prior to his matriculation at Southwestern. Long before he met the president in person, Steinle learned algebra, geometry, and other math subjects through several video series Burger had created for Thinkwell, a company that produces online courses for supplemental instruction and homeschooling. During his college search process, Steinle was inspired to apply to Southwestern after attending one of Burger’s talks at an SU alumni event in San Antonio.
Steinle fondly remembers how Burger made an effort to get to know him and his peers when Steinle was a first-year student. He enrolled in the president’s Effective Thinking through Creative Puzzle-Solving course, which he says is “unique; I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since. In and out of the classroom, Dr. Burger emphasized that the answer to a question was not nearly as interesting as the steps it took to get there.” Steinle says that he learned mindfulness techniques that he still practices four years later, and he attributes his reignited interest in puzzles and problem-solving to the class. “[It] put me back into the mindset I had growing up: a curiosity about the world and a desire to find patterns,” he remarks.
Steinle went on to intern for Burger the following two fall semesters, serving as a teaching assistant (TA) and grader. Through his experiences as both student and TA, Steinle remarks, “I noticed his passion for education and his drive to make a difference in the lives of his students…. From day one, he has been a part of the Southwestern Experience for many students. When I talk to friends at other universities, they’ve always been surprised at how involved our president is with campus life. I wouldn’t have it any other way. While I’m sad to see him go, I’m grateful for all the positive growth and change he started.”
Connecting with alumni
Engaging Southwestern alumni as collaborators in shaping the University’s future has also been a hallmark of Burger’s presidency. Cile Spelce Elley ’91, now chief marketing officer at iCoreConnect and a principal at Electro-Fish Media, LLC, admits that she “was not an actively involved alumna,” but Burger’s leadership, which she says “rejects complacency and inspires imagination,” was “like a bat signal calling alumni to step up and be part of SU’s future.” Impressed by Burger’s progress during his first year on the job, Spelce Elley accepted an invitation to join her alma mater’s Board of Visitors. “It was obvious Ed understood the imperative of interdisciplinary learning, creative problem-solving, and respectful dialogue,” she shares. “He just brings an energy into every room, every conversation. And that energy is 100% Southwestern! He is the rare kind of leader who is brilliant, engaging, authentic, and part Energizer Bunny….He inspires me to look at Southwestern and ask ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ as we think about tomorrow.”
Credited widely as a relationship builder, Burger exhibits curiosity and a genuine interest in the lives of alumni at University events both on and off campus. Spelce Elley observes that he is always excited to partake in deep, fascinating Conversations about education, life, or the arts with graduates and other friends of Southwestern. “Ed is the reason I chose to get involved at SU as an alumna. The future of SU is the reason I will stay involved. There is no place like this University—anywhere.”
As many will attest, Burger’s commitment to alumni also extends to their families. Susan Slagle Rogers ’83 recalls meeting Burger when her family returned to Texas for spring break in 2016. Her son was a high-school sophomore at the time and asked if they could visit Southwestern during their trip. They scheduled a tour, and afterward, they were invited to meet Burger in the president’s office. “My husband and I were already quite impressed with all of the improvements made to the campus since I’d been a student in the ’80s and by the caliber of the students we met,” Rogers recalls. “Dr. Burger’s passion and enthusiasm for Southwestern were contagious!” He asked Rogers and her husband to consider speaking at the President’s Thinking Symposium the following fall before “kicking them out” (Burger’s words) so that he could talk to their son. “I will be forever grateful for the conversation that Dr. Burger had with him,” Rogers says. “Whereas my son had been apprehensive about going to college before, after that conversation, he was excited by the potential of what lie ahead.”
Rogers, a producer at DreamWorks Animation, and her husband, Doug Rogers, an imagineer (or senior creative design lead) with Walt Disney Parks, did, in fact, return to SU in fall 2017 as the first speakers in the series that semester. The following spring, the Rogerses hosted a President’s Dinner in their home—the first time, to Rogers’s knowledge, that an SU president had attended an event in the Los Angeles area. “Once again, President Burger was quite passionate and eloquent in presenting his vision of the future of Southwestern to the alumni, parents, and school counselors who were present,” she recounts. “I know of at least one alumnus who has reengaged with the school as a result of that dinner.”
Since then, Rogers has mentored three SU students who expressed interest in the entertainment industry, and she and her husband hosted a reception for accepted students at their home in spring 2019, with all of them ultimately deciding to attend Southwestern this fall.
“On a personal note, I’m very grateful to President Burger for reminding me how much I enjoy learning and taking on challenges—and for encouraging me to try new things,” Rogers adds. “He reminds you that you are smarter than you give yourself credit for and that, really, it’s all a big adventure and the sky is the limit.”
Of legacies and looking forward
Colleagues at SU have expressed their appreciation for the president’s high energy, his dynamic personality, and the engaged way he interacted with students, board members, faculty, and staff. Community members have admired his unwavering commitment to and passion for mentoring students but also his genuine desire to listen to and learn from feedback. Many share that they have learned from him and experienced tremendous professional growth because of his support, mentorship, and collaboration.
After 38 years of being committed to the life of the mind and higher education, Burger admits that transitioning into the role of teacher and mentor in a different context will certainly require some adjustment. So those who know him will not be surprised to hear that what he’ll miss most about Southwestern is, he says, “without a doubt, the students. And I consider every single student on this campus my student. They can always reach out to me, and I will always be there for them.” He says he’ll also miss his “amazing colleagues here—the faculty and staff who just give so much of themselves to the institution. And the alumni who have showered their alma mater with so much love, kindness, support, and generosity of spirit.” It’s obvious that, above all, the people are what matter most to Burger.
Trustee Lynn Parr Mock ’83 shares, “President Burger’s vision and passion for higher education combined with his dynamic and thoughtful leadership have resulted in transformative achievement and set Southwestern on a course toward an even more exciting and optimistic future. While I am sad President Burger is leaving, I know he will continue to be an advocate for Southwestern wherever he is.”
When asked what he believes will be his legacy, Burger gives the response he offered nearly seven years ago to a trustee who asked the same question: “I don’t care if anyone says a word about me or my legacy. But here’s what I want them to say about Southwestern: it has become an institution that is known and is respected for offering a truly transformational intellectual and personal experience that uplifts individuals and makes them better versions of themselves. That’s all that matters.”
Indeed, as Southwestern looks to the future, the University will continue to implement its mission of providing “an effective and meaningful intellectual experience,” says Secord. Gaunder agrees, assuring that Think. Create. Connect.—to make meaning and make a difference will still define how Southwestern delivers a high-impact education as the institution moves forward. Burger is excited to see how the University “continues to lead through its focus on inspiring individuals to become better versions of themselves, both personally and intellectually, and to make humanity better.”
As he departs for St. David’s Foundation, community members can rest assured that Burger will remain an ardent advocate of the University. He will, he says, “be just down the road”: the nonprofit is headquartered in Austin, approximately 30 miles south of SU via I-35. There, he’ll be experiencing another “Paideia moment” as he connects what he learned and taught at Southwestern to a foundation that supports the education of those preparing for careers in the medical arts through scholarships while also helping the community through wellness programs and health initiatives. “They’re trying to make people better, and I’ve devoted my whole life to that,” he says. “Southwestern and St. David’s are committed to parallel goals, which is very exciting.” He invites everyone to stay in touch by writing him at his Southwestern email address, which he is happily keeping.
And in the meantime, he leaves these words of presidential advice: “Always look forward. Always be open to change and evolution, even when it might initially appear to be unsettling. And always continue to grow.”
For updates about the search for Southwestern University’s 16th president, visit www.southwestern.edu/presidential-search.