David Burcham has always looked forward to new challenges and opportunities in life. Last month, he received both when he was named the first lay president in the 99-year history of Loyola Marymount University.
In an interview in his fourth floor office overlooking the Westchester bluffs, Burcham offered his thoughts and his vision for the student body of more than 5,700 and its faculty into the next decade, as well as for the surrounding Westchester and Playa del Rey neighborhoods.
Burcham realizes the significance of his historic role as the first non-Jesuit leader in the school’s long and storied history.
“I’m very excited and humbled by this opportunity,” he told The Argonaut.
Burcham replaces Father Robert Lawton, who served as president for 11 years before stepping down last spring due to health reasons.
“Father Lawton was a terrific president,” the new president said. “He has left me a university in terrific shape and I look forward to carrying on his good work.”
An alumnus and former dean of Loyola Law School, Burcham is the school’s 15th president and will lead the university past the first decade of the new century as institutions of higher learning face increased numbers of students seeking access to college and the challenges of fundraising in an uncertain economic climate.
The new president, who served as the school’s interim leader after Lawton stepped down, made an obvious impression on the panel that made the final decision to hire him on a permanent basis.
“We set a very high bar for what we wanted and expected in our next president, including academic excellence, executive leadership, fundraising experience and furtherance of our Jesuit, Marymount and Catholic traditions,” said Kathleen Aikenhead, vice chair of the LMU Board of Trustees and presidential search committee chair. “Dave Burcham already has proved himself.”
Coming from inside the LMU “family” made the transition to his new position somewhat seamless due to his previous positions as provost and senior vice president at the university, Burcham said.
“I know the university in all of its facets and the people involved, and there’s not a period of ramping up and learning the issues that many presidents who come from the outside would have to do,” he said.
Making sure that young would-be scholars have an opportunity to get an education at LMU will be one of Burcham’s top priorities.
“Over the long haul, it is absolutely essential that we increase our endowment support for student scholarships,” he stressed. “That’s going to be my number one goal.
“Private universities across the country have this challenge, and it’s one of affordability. We want to make sure that the kind of students that we want are able to attend here and not have to choose somewhere else because it’s too expensive.”
Burcham was heavily involved in the creation of the university’s master plan, a 20-year campus renovation that will upgrade its sports, academic and residential facilities. As the plan winds its way through the various planning steps required before it arrives before the Los Angeles City Council, university officials believe they are on the way toward gaining widespread approval for the ambitious refurbishing project.
“I think we’re on our way,” Burcham said. “I think we’re almost there.”
The president’s fingerprints are firmly on the blueprints of the master plan. Burcham was charged with overseeing the $380 million capital campaign and according to university representatives, he reconfigured LMU’s budget during the recent economic downturn to help ensure that academics remained fully funded.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has met with Burcham and is also impressed by him.
“He’s a very sharp, decent and honest man,” Rosendahl, who represents Westchester and Playa del Rey, said. “He has a long history there and I’m delighted that the board of trustees chose him.
“He’s going to make a great partner to work with me on the many important issues in the Westchester community, including the master plan and the need to make the homeowners feel comfortable with it.”
LMU has made a number of concessions to homeowners who live on McConnell Avenue, several feet from the university’s recycling center, a longtime source of controversy. As a gesture of goodwill, the relocation of the recycling facility will be one of the first projects under the master plan.
“It’s been a plan that has been characterized by a series of compromises on both sides,” said LMU’s president. “We know that we live in an important part of this community. We provide a lot of jobs, a lot of events, as well as a first-rate education.
“We also know that it’s challenging and at times difficult to live near or adjacent to a university,” Burcham continued. “We understand that, and we’re trying to do everything that we can to abate problems with respect to late night noise in particular, and we think that we are well on our way to getting our plan approved.”
Richard Hofmeister, the spokesman of a neighborhood organization called the McConnell Quality of Life Group, said relocating the recycling facility was an important gesture by the university.
“By moving it early in the process, that was like a gift to us,” said Hofmeister.
He and some of his neighbors are also pleased that LMU representatives have added a community relations panel that includes property owners to discuss potential alterations or questions about the master plan. “I think that memorializes our relationship going forward,” Hofmeister said.
Burcham said it is crucial to renovate the university’s laboratories and research facilities, not only to attract high quality students but also well regarded professors, as universities continue to compete with each other in a more intense fashion.
“Our current life sciences facility has 40-year-old laboratories in it and it’s difficult to attract both faculty and students when you’re not at least close to the cutting edge, if not on the cutting edge,” Burcham noted. “Our desire is to be on the blade, if not on the cutting edge,” he added with a laugh.
Burcham also pointed out, as other LMU officials have on previous occasions, that the university has no plans to expand its boundaries or increase student levels.
“Not at all,” he reiterated. “Our footprint remains the same and the number of students remains the same. This is about updating facilities.”
Burcham and other LMU officials hope that additional and refurbished student dormitories will help alleviate some of the much publicized troubles with student drinking binges, parties and parking that have been reported in the adjacent residential neighborhoods, another point of contention between neighbors and LMU.
“We hope eventually to have approximately 75 percent of our student body on campus,” he said. “Currently, it’s about 60 percent.
“It does a number of good things when you have more students on campus. It’s a better collegiate experience and it also helps with the neighbors because they’re not in the neighborhoods.”
The new president said programs that emphasize social justice and outreach to underserved communities will continue under his tenure. One initiative, the Science and Engineering Outreach Program (SECOP), a two-week, on-campus pre-college venture that gives female and minority high school students interested in science and math an opportunity to learn from members of LMU’s engineering faculty, is among the university’s most popular programs.
“(Those programs) are a priority,” Burcham asserted. “They have to continue because that’s who we are and that’s the essence of what this university is.”
Burcham realizes that being president of LMU is a high visibility position but says that he is looking forward to leading the university into the next decade.
“It’s a tremendous challenge and a tremendous responsibility, and I’ve always liked accepting responsibilities and challenges,” he concluded. “Being able to say to people who I meet that I’m the president of LMU is very special, because most people know what a wonderful place this is.
“So that is a terrific feeling.”