Nov. 11, 2005
By Gail Hinchion Mancini, ND Works Editor
To football fans, Coach Charlie Weis may seem like Notre Dame’s hire of the year. But as 2005 draws to a close, there’s another contender for that honor: new Provost Tom Burish.
Burish steps into the chief academic administrator’s position after serving from 1993 to 2002 as the provost of Vanderbilt University, a friendly competitor that shares a Top 20 ranking among national research universities, and for the past three years as president of one of the nation’s premier private liberal arts colleges, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. At that highly competitive institution, the freshman class profile equals or surpasses Notre Dame’s.
Like Weis, and, for that matter, like new Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Burish spent his undergraduate years at Notre Dame.
“When I drive up to Notre Dame, and see the dome in the distance, I know I’m home,” says Burish, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1972. A similar feeling washes over him at the Grotto, signaling the deep faith that uprooted him from Washington and Lee and returned him to his alma mater.
Leaving the esteemed Southern institution after only three years at the helm, Burish told the Washington and Lee community that Notre Dame’s Catholic mission drew him back. “The challenge of wrapping together this faith-based heritage while further strengthening its academic excellence is a rare opportunity and, for me, a special dream,” he wrote.
But would it be challenging enough to go from being a president to a provost, a job he’s already held elsewhere?
Burish knows the question is being asked, and his forthcoming response gives insight to why he is considered one of the nation’s most accomplished higher education administrators: “Over the years, I have had a lot of different jobs in the academy. I have loved every one of them. I have never found that the title on the door determines one’s sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. I still don’t.”
What he needs, instead of a title, “is to be working at a great university that aspires to be event greater, that is moving forward, that is an exciting, energizing, intellectually challenging, distinctive place.
At Notre Dame, the provost serves as the University’s second-ranking officer with oversight of the academic side of the house: who teaches here, the facilities they teach in and what they teach to students. Thus it is Burish’s business to fulfill the challenge Father Jenkins laid out in his inaugural address in September: To see Notre Dame climb closer to the academic No. 1 spot.
So far, Burish has approached the job with graceful and gracious deliberation. There was the moment during Father Jenkins’ inauguration, for example, when he addressed a luncheon that included some of the University’s most important supporters. Many in the audience were meeting and hearing the new chief academic leader for the first time. And they heard him stop and ask the kitchen help to enter the room.
“Throughout these last few days, the catering staff of the University has worked around the clock for the many different dining venues going on around campus,” he said. “I have asked them to come out and take a bow.”
Unlike Coach Weis, who is shaking things up, Burish is executing a low-keyed approach of listening to deans, department heads and faculty. Despite his history here–one of his two sons is a double domer–he’s shunning preconceived notions about how Notre Dame has developed since he was graduated.
Yet like Weis, Burish probably already is being listened to.