BY GARY WALKER
Running a well-known university can be an enormous challenge. Compound that with becoming the first lay president of an established Jesuit university in the nation’s second largest city, overseeing a multi-billion-dollar campus renovation and improving upon the university’s long history on academic success and social justice, and the challenges can become daunting.
Loyola Marymount University President David Burcham made history in 2011 when he became the Jesuit institution’s first non-Jesuit to lead the Westchester school, succeeding Father Robert Lawton. He also shepherded the university through the yearlong events of its centennial last year and is now in the process of shaping LMU as a school that can meet the academic challenges of the 21st century.
In a recent interview with The Argonaut, Burcham, a former dean of LMU’s law school and senior vice president, talked about the difference of going from a law school dean to president of the university, how he is handling the concerns of LMU’s residential neighbors regarding student behaviors, and gave an update on the university’s signature initiative of recent years, its ambitious master plan.
Burcham said the university’s 20-year campus renovation, which he calls the school’s “blueprint for the future,” is moving steadily along.
“The new life science building, with 372 underground parking spaces, is slated to be built next. This structure will feature laboratories for biochemistry, chemistry, biology as well as faculty offices and research facilities,” Burcham said. “We really think that this will allow us to raise the bar in terms of our faculty research as well as undergraduate research, and we think we have a real niche here in Southern California.”
LMU officials have long thought that having the infrastructure in place for students and professors will allow the university to be able to compete on a global scale for faculty and undergraduates.
“We pride ourselves in our undergrad program with having very small class sizes, with very low faculty to student ratios, and that carries over into some areas that are traditionally reserved for graduate students,” the university president explained. “By that I mean the sciences, in biology and chemistry, where the research assistants for students at many places is reserved for students in the graduate program. Here, undergraduate degree students are able to participate and that tends to be atypical.”
The university reached a significant milestone last year under Burcham’s watch. Its capital fundraising campaign for the master plan reached $382 million in October, exceeding its goal seven months early, university officials announced.
Prior to being named president, Burcham oversaw the capital campaign.
That same month, he launched a three-year, $100 million scholarship initiative
for student financial aid through the LMU endowment to directly fund scholarships, LMU officials said.
“There is no lower-cost substitute for the type of teaching and learning that LMU is committed to delivering,” Burcham said. “In order to strengthen our dedication to academic rigor, maintain a diverse student body, and uphold our core commitment to transformative education, we must make sure every student admitted to LMU can afford to attend.”
Presidential Search Committee Chair Kathleen Aikenhead saw in Burcham what she considered the necessary qualities for LMU’s next president after Lawton announced his retirement.
“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,” she said in 2011.
“Dave Burcham has already proven himself.”
Recently, the university’s School of Education jumped 57 places in the U.S. News & World Report’s latest edition of “Best Graduate Schools” rankings.
LMU is situated near a residential neighborhood where many of its students and faculty live. At times, the relationship between the university and certain nearby homeowners has been contentious, due to the number of parties thrown by students at homes that they rent and the long-standing complaint of some homeowners that students use their streets to park and walk to campus, taking away spaces for friends, relatives and service workers.
Those concerns were exacerbated since the university announced that it would be charging for parking on campus. LMU officials have announced that they will be offering residents the option of creating preferential parking districts and the university would pay for the residents who agreed to the plan’s parking permits.
At a community meeting earlier this year, the vast majority of the affected homeowners soundly rejected the proposal.
“I really empathize with the neighbors and we want to be good neighbors,” Burcham said. “We’re trying our best to mitigate any kind of effect that charging for parking will have on the neighborhoods.
“I pledge to continue working with our neighbors to figure out ways that make sure that any kind of disruption is minimized.”
Burcham noted that he lives near the California State University-Long Beach campus, not far from a residential neighborhood. “So I understand the issue,” he said.
The negotiations with the homeowners is illustrative of how outside forces can influence the approach that Burcham takes when attempting to navigate potential trouble spots between the community and his students, a task that other university presidents typically are not forced to consider on a daily basis.
“I didn’t realize that I would be spending time on parking issues when I became president,” Burcham acknowledged with a smile. “But I understand why I am and we will move forward and do our best to be a really good neighbor.”
Burcham said he enjoys what he calls “participating in the formal transmission of knowledge and values to the next generation.”
“I get to be involved in that as president in a very fundamental way and I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather be doing.”
Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Westchester, met Burcham months before he officially became president. The councilman was impressed that day and remains a fan of Burcham’s.
“It was a historic moment when he was named president,” Rosendahl recalled. “From an ecumenical standpoint, it was a bold one and a good one.
“He is well-liked and appreciated by the faculty and the community.”
Despite having held high-profile positions at the university, Burcham says being president is unlike any of his former posts.
“It’s very different. In a way, it’s like being a parent of a minor child,” the president said. “I don’t mean that the university is acting like a juvenile; what I mean is that you’re on the job 24/7, 12 months a year. And it’s always on your mind. It never leaves you.
“That being said, I have a dream job,” Burcham concluded. “I’m into my third year now and I think it’s a dream job.”