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New provost introduces himself to faculty

Maddie Hanna | Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Thomas Burish didn’t have a hard time explaining why he left his job as president of Washington and Lee University to become the next provost of Notre Dame in his address to faculty members Monday.

He recalled a conversation with a female freshman student about her dorm shelves, cluttered with pictures of male celebrities.

“Then she said to me, unnecessarily I thought, ‘President Burish, I’d be happy to put your photograph up there too,'” Burish said, provoking hearty laughter. “I knew then it was time to go.”

Although he joked about choosing provostship over presidency, Burish – also a former Vanderbilt provost and Notre Dame graduate – gave more serious reasons for coming back to South Bend.

“In addition to my family, two of the most important things in my life are my profession … and my Catholic faith,” said Burish, who explained how these personal priorities each factored into his decision.

“What’s most important to me professionally is to be at a great academic institution that aspires to be greater,” Burish said. “Notre Dame now is a great institution of higher education … but this University seeks to progress even farther, as all great universities do. It is perhaps a feature of greatness, to aspire to be even more.”

Given the University’s “wonderful, strong, academic institution” and Catholic mission, Burish said Notre Dame “combines the elements most important” in his life.

“Notre Dame is a Catholic university in the best sense, in terms of broad mission and not in terms of narrow defensive posture,” he said. “It was a very important part of the decision to come back to Notre Dame.”

While Burish said it was too soon to outline specific goals – “I’ve been here all of nine days,” he said – he stressed the need to enhance the academic mission of the University.

“I know that budgets have been tight,” Burish said. “While I can’t promise that all of a sudden, Notre Dame’s going to have more money or that donors are going to give the money where we want them to give it, I can say with sincerity that in conversations I’ve had with [University President] Father [John] Jenkins and [University Executive Vice President] John Affleck-Graves, there’s clear recognition by all three of us that this has to be the priority.”

Burish emphasized the importance of communication, seeking feedback from faculty members on a preliminary series of questions for the upcoming year.

“In our quest to be a greater university, what do we need to ensure does not change?” Burish asked. “Secondly, how can we advance the research scholarship performance mission of the University while simultaneously further strengthening our teaching mission?”

He also asked for input on how to properly reward faculty for interdisciplinary contributions, deal with the advantages and disadvantages of Notre Dame’s Catholic character and make the provost’s office “maximally helpful.”

Burish listed a few immediate steps he planned to take toward answering these questions, such as holding a variety of meetings with faculty members and creating a committee to examine graduate studies and research at Notre Dame.

But he also urged patience, recalling a story told by President John F. Kennedy about a French diplomat who wanted to plant a particular tree in the middle of his garden.

“The gardener said, ‘Sir, that’s a magnificent tree … but it grows very slowly, and it will not reach the beautiful state you’re envisioning for many years. You’re not a young man,'” Burish said. “The diplomat said, ‘Then we’ll plant it today, because I have no time to waste.'”

He then tied the story to Notre Dame as a metaphor for the University’s growth.

“Our predecessors planted the tree of this University many, many years ago knowing they would never see it reach its full potential,” Burish said. “We inherit that legacy, to build the University to the point where it reaches its potential. Will we see that? I don’t know. But there’s a chance we will.

“And whether or not we do, it’s our obligation to give it everything we have and make this University the greatest Catholic research university in the world.”