The next five years
Interview by Tom Buterbaugh
According to the American Council on Education, the nation's college and university presidents are holding their jobs longer than any time since the mid-1980s. Today's average sitting president has now served 8.5 years. Long past the mark with 21 years already at the helm, Dr. David B. Burks has continued the trend of long-term presidencies at the University. Recently asked to serve five additional years, he spoke with us about his goals, today's students, diversity on campus and even his hobbies.
How do student concerns today compare to 1987 when you became president?
I think the concerns of today's students are very similar to those of students when I became president. Students are concerned about learning more about the Bible, and that is a primary reason why many students choose to come to Harding. Students are concerned today, just as they were in 1987, about preparation for their careers, and they are concerned about building meaningful relationships with other students and faculty members. I think expectations today are different than 20 years ago in that students have an expectation of global awareness and international travel that was not nearly as evident in 1987. They are much more into text messages, e-mail and communication. Also, students tend to be from more affluent backgrounds for the most part.
Do you receive much e-mail from students and parents?
Surprisingly, I receive very little e-mail from parents and only a small amount from students. I do receive a lot from faculty and staff members and a great deal from partners with whom we work on different projects.
You recently had your contract extended by the board until 2013? What are your top goals for the University in the next five years?
Realizing that I had just turned 65, the board asked that I consider extending my verbal agreement with the University through 2013 when I will turn 70. It is my intention to remain in this position as long as we can continue to implement our goals in a meaningful way — assuming my health allows me to do so. My major objective during the next several years is simply to maintain our spiritual focus. This has always been my major objective since becoming president. We will attempt to implement the newly approved strategic plan, the first part being a reaffirmation of our spiritual mission at the University. Key elements over the next five years include increasing students majoring in Bible to 10 percent of full-time equivalent undergraduates and establishing a Center for Preaching within the College of Bible and Religion. I am excited about the continuing challenge to enhance and develop new undergraduate and graduate programs and degrees consistent with our mission. I am also challenged by the need to maintain or increase our enrollment, and I expect total enrollment during the next five years to increase from 6,300 to 7,500 students. I am hopeful that we will be able to increase our endowment funds in a significant way. It is also very important to me that we [the administration] continue to find ways to build strong relationships among our faculty, staff and students as they represent what our work is all about.
How will Harding stay affordable? Will there be an increase in need-based scholarships?
It is important that we continue to implement a tuition pricing policy of affordability. The University's tuition is currently the lowest of all four-year senior colleges supported by churches of Christ. We also offer significant scholarship assistance. We have recently increased need-based scholarships, and our plan is to increase them by 20 percent during the next five years.
Endowment has grown tremendously during your tenure. Why does this growth need to continue, and where would you like it to be by 2013?
I believe we must continually emphasize a strong endowment for the future. We use this income at a rate of five percent to assist us in our operating budget so that we may provide scholarships for students. As we grow, it is increasingly important that we have a strong base that we can count on year after year. I am hopeful that we can grow our endowment to $175 million by 2013.
What is the revised liberal arts program the University is implementing?
Dr. Larry Long [vice president for Academic Affairs], with the help of all academic deans, is involved in a major effort to simply re-examine our liberal arts program and make any needed changes to reflect the evolving academic structure that we find in our University today. We hope to have this recommendation finalized within the next year.
How does the University plan to increase ethnic diversity among students and faculty?
Our goal is to increase ethnic diversity by 10 percent by 2013 for both students and faculty. This will require additional scholarships for students and a very intentional strategy to hire more minority faculty and staff members.
Much physical growth has occurred on campus during your presidency. Are there plans for any new or renovated facilities in the next five years?
The strategic plan calls for us to continue upgrading our residence halls, which includes a complete renovation of Sears, Stephens and Allen halls. We anticipate additions to the Mabee Business Center, Ganus Athletic Center, and McInteer Bible and World Missions Center. We also anticipate building a new facility for the College of Nursing.
Protecting our environment is on many people's minds these days. Is the University making efforts to become a "green" campus?
This past spring I appointed an ad hoc committee to look at what we can do in terms of the environment, considering the responsibility of being good stewards of the resources that we have been given. Members have already made a number of recommendations, and I anticipate ongoing efforts to help us in this important area.
A few years ago you stepped back into the classroom and taught a course on business ethics. Do you plan to teach a class again?
Yes, I plan to teach next year after we initiate the strategic plan this year. I anticipate teaching ethics for the College of Business Administration.
Many alumni and friends may not know you took up piano playing recently. Has this been a lifelong goal?
It has been a goal of mine for perhaps 20 years to learn to play the piano. I started taking lessons two years ago, and I am enjoying this activity very much. Sometimes I have trouble finding enough practice time.
The car in the president's parking space is much sportier lately. What prompted you to choose a Toyota convertible?
I have always wanted a convertible, and I am not getting any younger, so I decided to buy one last year. I love the view when the top is down, but it is a bit difficult to get my long legs into the convertible.
Students are the reason that I love Harding. I have lunch with students every month in my office to get ideas from them. I attend as many student activities as I can work into my schedule. I am involved each semester in a student prayer group, and my wife and I regularly host a home Bible study on Wednesday nights with students.
Have you been to all of our international campuses? Which are your favorites and why?
I have been to all of our international campuses except our newest program in Zambia, and I hope to visit it next year. I have been to our programs in Greece and Italy more than any of the others because we have our own campus facilities for these two. I love Greece because of the opportunity for students to travel to Israel, Turkey and Egypt as well as learn about Bible lands. In Italy, I love the people, I love the food, and I love being able to see so much of Europe as part of the travel. I wish that all of our students could attend one of our International Programs because I am a great believer in the experience that they will receive by being a participant.
Harding is a Christ-centered institution. How will the University strengthen that identity in the future?
I believe that Harding has done a good job of maintaining a commitment to spiritual truth over its long history. I believe we must always be true to the word of God, and my prayer is that we will continue with this emphasis in the future.
How do you strengthen your own personal faith?
I like to read books written by people of faith, and I also like to read the Bible through every year because it helps me increase my own faith.
What advantages do you feel your long tenure gives you in guiding the University?
I have now enjoyed 21 years as president, and that experience has given me some perspective in terms of what is possible through Christian education. I believe the best years of influence for Harding University lie in the future. I believe the need for Harding is greater now than ever. I think we can always learn from what we have done in the past, but I think it is very important that we continue to dream about the future and how Harding can be the kind of community that emphasizes the Christian worldview so that students can develop and deepen their own faith.