A Q&A with Provost Bruce Bursten
Provost Bruce E. Bursten came to WPI earlier this year from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he was a professor of chemistry and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. As provost, he is responsible for WPI’s academic and research programs. His primary charge is to ensure continued excellence in the undergraduate curriculum, to strengthen graduate studies and to research, recruit, retain, and support outstanding faculty, and elevate the university’s stature and impact.
The Daily Herd spoke with the Provost about his background and first months at WPI.
What was your inspiration to study chemistry and later, to become an educator?
The inspiration to study chemistry in part was due to my failure as a mathematician. I started college absolutely certain I would major in math. What I experienced in my first year of college was a common thread to my entire academic career, namely the positive ways in which a faculty member can have an impact on students’ lives.
The idea of doing project-based learning is something that so many universities are trying to get into and haven’t figured out how, and this place has had the secret sauce for 40 years.” – Provost Bruce Bursten
I was placed into a second-year honors math class at the University of Chicago. I was so far underwater, it was not to be believed. What I liked about math was problem solving, which you do more of in science and engineering. And the chemistry class I was taking was a very mathematical chemistry class. I decided in my first year, I think I like this stuff. I was like most students who have to change their majors, a little spooked about my own abilities. So I forced the issue my second year in college. I took the courses one would typically take in one’s sophomore and junior years as a chemistry major, namely organic chemistry and physical chemistry, with the pledge to myself that if I survived this and still enjoyed it, then I’m a chemist.
I survived it, I enjoyed it, and still enjoy it. I don’t know how I survived, as it was a crazy schedule. But I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to make that decision early in my time in college. I believe very strongly there’s always a person involved in making these decisions. In part this was the math professor, who was a superb professor, but who showed me part of what I did not do well. But most of the credit goes to the late Professor Hinze, who taught that first-year chemistry class and encouraged me to consider chemistry.
There was also another professor in the chemistry department who was my undergrad advisor, and who also changed my life. I went to talk with him toward the end of my first year when I was getting concerned about finances. He was not only encouraging, he also helped get my scholarship increased and made it possible for me to graduate in three years. That was a financially important decision for me. Part of the privilege as a faculty member is we can change lives, and I was fortunate to have people change my life in a very positive way.
As for the second part, becoming an educator, I’ll go back to a high school experience, a math program at Berkeley, that NSF sponsored. It was my first time on a college campus. I loved being on a college campus. I say with no tongue in cheek that is when I decided I wanted to be a professor. I had no idea what a professor did other than they got to hang out in places like this.
I loved doing the research. I always wanted to have a sense of independence in what I did. And the people I admired were always faculty. For me, it was never a choice of what I was going to do. It was definitely the right decision for me.
What drew you to WPI?
It’s such a special place. In many ways, it was a dream job I never thought I could have. My faculty and leadership experience was at very different types of institutions, namely two different large public universities. One of my perceptions is that the gulf between publics and privates has gotten wider through the years. When I was contacted about the search, my reaction was,Wow, I know WPI is an elite place, but I don’t know much about it. My interest was immediate. When I started doing my due diligence on WPI, I was absolutely blown away by the forward-thinking nature of the WPI Plan. The idea of doing project-based learning is something that so many universities are trying to get into and haven’t figured out how, and this place has had the secret sauce for 40 years. That’s really impressive.
Another very positive factor: I knew Laurie Leshin before she moved to WPI, and I was impressed with Laurie. The fact that she came here as president was certainly an attractive feature in coming on as provost and being part of her leadership team.
Q. Has your time on campus matched your initial perceptions of the university?
I started in June. It’s really good to get a summer under the belt. But the real fun here didn’t begin until the students came back. So, it’s still new. I saw some projects over the summer that were really impressive. I’ve had an opportunity to interact with a wide variety of our faculty.
My focus has been on people, and the time I’ve spent meeting people has been well spent. This place is extraordinary. It’s a privilege every day to be associated with it, and I work hard every day to deserve the title you have given to me.
In student surveys at the University of Tennessee, you received high marks for your teaching style, willingness to help, and sense of humor. Is the transition from the classroom to administration a difficult one for you?
I moved to the University of Tennessee as dean of arts and sciences, and served in that role for six years before going to Columbia for a year as a visiting professor, then returning to Tennessee and got back in the classroom, which I loved tremendously. For me it was a great opportunity to walk the walk after talking the talk.
Each of the three years that I taught at Tennessee I taught introductory general chemistry. I would stress the importance of senior faculty being involved in teaching classes that touch first and second year undergraduate students. To have the good fortune of enjoying both being in the classroom and doing research, and enjoying the leadership roles that I’ve had. The academic life has been very good to me.
The hardest transition for me is not the initial lack of teaching. I look forward to teaching at WPI once things are more under control—I’m hopeful that our distinctive academic calendar will allow that even while serving as provost. The hardest transition for me is the contrast between administration and research. Doing research is like running a marathon: You have to pace yourself, and there’s going to be pain. A lot of what one does in academic leadership is more like being a sprinter. You’re running from issue to issue, and you have to be more nimble in changing gears. You have to retrain yourself for the way you’re doing things. That’s the hardest part. For those of us who have been in academia for a while, the teaching is very natural and never becomes boring. It’s a marvelous privilege to have that impact on students, and it’s a good way to pay back those early professors in college who had such a pivotal part in my life.
What will your role be in implementing WPI’s Strategic Plan?
A lot of the actual implementation process will come down through Academic Affairs. We will look at hiring that aligns along with our research interests. We will be looking to make sure that we are serving our students in the best way possible, in alignment with the Strategic Plan. I’ve been working personally with Bill McAvoy on the initiative on global partnerships. We want to make sure that those move forward. This will be a matter of garnering a lot of people who are ready to do this work. What’s very impressive in seeing the strategic planning effort here – which was started long before I got here – is how on board people are and how eager they are to see the university move forward in these strategic directions. I think my role will be more oversight than taskmaster. The success of our strategic initiatives will be driven by the community and the faculty.
What do you envision as the major challenges in your new role?
To a certain extent, aligning the administrative structure with its future ambitions, which is a very broad statement. Some of the specifics are how do we utilize the existing structure at WPI, including deans, vice provosts, and so forth, in the best way possible to achieve what we want?
The fact that WPI has been changing its focus to a certain extent to become more research-active, to become more prominent in so many different ways, leads to some tensions and some growing pains. We will continue to be known for our project-based learning, but we will also be expanding the scope of our excellence. One of the things I’ll continually be looking for are areas where what we are trying to do causes tensions between our goals as educators versus our goals as researchers, and what can we do as an institution to optimize the way that we use our faculty time, which is the most precious commodity.
I’m still learning. I have kidded that I want to be able to say I’m new here and get away with it for as long as possible! At the same time, the people in academia are extraordinary. If you ask what it is that sets WPI apart, so much of it has to do with the faculty and that they come here knowing that project-based learning is going to be such a huge part of it. A big part of the challenge is to keep that kernel of project-based learning at the fore of a lot of our activities.
Your travels recently took you to Indonesia and the Philippines. What did you do there?
This was an interesting project that started when I was at the University Tennessee, funded by the State Department and its Chemical Threat Reduction program. I was part of the team including members of the Law Enforcement Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee that had responded to an RFP to train law enforcement agents in sensitive countries about recognizing and responding to chemical threats, especially potential weapons of mass destruction.
The most basic challenge of this project is pretty straightforward: if a law enforcement agent walks into a crime scene and sees a chemistry lab, is it a drug lab, or is it a weapons lab? Are they trying to make meth, or are they trying to make Sarin? I had assets I was able to bring to that … having taught chemistry and been a successful researcher for a long time, some of the leadership positions I’d held, plus I had been president of the American Chemical Society. To a certain extent, it was a natural that I should come in on a project like this. My role in this was to teach people who probably had not had much chemistry since high school, and in the case of Indonesia, some who did not speak English. Even though we worked with interpreters, I was still able to convey the excitement in chemistry and get my newest students fully engaged. It was a terrific experience and I think we achieved our overall goals. And I, of course, appreciated the opportunity to stay engaged in teaching my discipline.
With this newest chapter in your career, what gives you inspiration?
It might sound trite, but it’s true: it’s the students. We have such extraordinary students at WPI, and it is a thrill to realize that they have their whole world in front of them. Many of them don’t have any idea what they will ultimately end up doing. In many instances, they think they know. They want to be doctors. They want to be engineers. But they don’t even know yet what will be that WPI professor who truly lets them know where their passion is, what it is that they really want to do. That is still the greatest magic of being a faculty member: The opportunity to see that life-changing moment and be a part of it. We’re in a line of work where we have the capacity to make this hugely positive impact on the life of a student, and it’s an amazing privilege.