An Interview with David W. Burcham

President Burcham in his office

At its October meeting, the LMU Board of Trustees unanimously elected David W. Burcham as president of Loyola Marymount University. He will be inaugurated on March 8, 2011. Burcham sat down with LMU Magazine to talk about his background, the job of president and his hopes for LMU. He was interviewed by Peter M. Warren, assistant director of communications and media relations.

You have been part of LMU for two decades as law school student, faculty member, law school dean and university provost. You could go anywhere. Why president of LMU?
I love this institution, and the love affair began as a student at Loyola Law School. Later, I left the practice of law after more than three years to come to Loyola Law School as a professor. That was a difficult decision, but I made it because I am very committed to education. I knew that somehow I would combine my interest in education with my legal training. I didn’t know it would result in being dean of the law school and eventually president of the university. But I knew it was important to be involved in the formal education process and that legal training prepared me to do that.

What are the most significant challenges for private higher education today and for LMU?
The challenge for all private universities and colleges, particularly for us, is the budget and how to finance it. Tuition accounts for 82 percent of our operating budget. For a number of years, we have used tuition increases to pay for new initiatives, faculty growth, new academic programs and increased financial aid to students. We have been able to do that because there was seemingly no price point at which we became unaffordable. Private universities across the country have reached the point where they must be concerned about affordability. Not many families or students can afford a continuing upward spiral of tuition increases like those they have experienced for the past 20 years.

So it is incumbent upon the university, and that means me, to develop strategies to find significant sources of revenue other than tuition if we wish to continue increasing the size of the faculty, adding new academic programs and increasing financial aid to students.

Is there a key opportunity facing LMU?
We have become immensely popular among students and parents. Our applicant pool has risen dramatically in the past five years. That gives us an opportunity to craft our entering classes in a more precise way consistent with our mission. I don’t think that the increased interest in private colleges is going to last forever. So I want to be sure that we leverage the increased number of applicants now. We need to recruit applicants and make sure we have attractive financial aid packages that allow them to choose us over other institutions.

What appeals to you about running a Catholic university and championing Catholic education?
We have a wonderful mission statement that is inspired by and derived from our Jesuit and Marymount traditions. It provides a powerful pedagogy for undergraduate students in particular. The mission statement — which focuses on the encouragement of learning, the education of the whole person, the service of faith and the promotion of justice — has at its core the premise that it is a mistake to segregate students’ intellectual life from their social life and spiritual life. A powerful pedagogy for young adults is to integrate those important dimensions of human life. That’s what the Ignatian tradition emphasizes.

What do you say to people who are troubled that LMU’s president is not a Jesuit?
First, I understand completely their concern. Change is hard, especially after 100 years of very fine Jesuit presidents. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., the superior general of the Jesuits, said that a strength of Jesuits throughout their history has been their adaptability and their engagement with different peoples and cultures. The Jesuits have expressed willingness to partner and work with me to preserve and enhance our Catholic and Ignatian identity, as well as to advance our mission. I am committed to that. I believe that we have many reasons to be hopeful and excited about the future as laypersons working in partnership with Jesuits and the women religious to enhance our Catholic identity. That [partnering] makes the university even stronger in the long run.

Do you think your legal background will help you as president?
More than anything else, legal training focuses on problem solving. At its core, legal analysis involves identifying an issue or problem, breaking it into its component parts to see how they relate to each other, then finding out what is necessary for the problem to be resolved or abated, and then making that happen.

What I do now is very similar. Issues arise and problems surface, and they need to be addressed. You do that by understanding the component parts and the interrelationship among those parts — often it involves people — and then working with all those parts to a solution. I see a great deal of similarity, actually.

What are LMU’s greatest strengths?
I will start out with location. Los Angeles is a world-class city. As the major Catholic university in the city, we have both a great advantage and obligation to be the best we can be. Another strength is the beauty of the LMU campus. It is just stunning. But universities don’t become great because of their architecture, landscaping or location. They become great because of commitment on the part of everyone — especially faculty, students and administrators — to their mission.

Another great advantage is our mission to educate the whole person, to help students grow intellectually, socially and spiritually with a commitment to the service of faith and the promotion of justice. That is why students and families decide to come here, and we have to make certain that we work hard every day to fulfill that mission.

Although you have been part of the LMU community for years, most people connected to LMU probably don’t know much about you. What makes Dave Burcham tick?
First, my family: my wonderful wife, Chris, and our two great kids, Stacy and David, who are now grown. Second, I really have a passion for learning, for myself and for helping others find their passion with respect to learning. That is why a university is a perfect place for me. That makes me tick.

You were born in Los Angeles, went to school here, worked here and returned after working in Washington, D.C. Is there a strong attachment in you to Los Angeles?
There is. After my clerkship in Washington, we had the opportunity to go anywhere with respect to either teaching or work in a law firm. Chris and I moved back to California and Long Beach principally to be close to my parents, who were getting old. We wanted to mind the store and take care of them. They are both gone now, but we haven’t left. We are still in Long Beach.

What do you do to get away?
I have a “home away from home” in the middle of the Sierra Nevada, off a dirt road, so it is just us, the deer, the occasional black bear and the occasional rattlesnake. There are golden eagles, hawks, tanagers and all kinds of colorful things. We have our own well, and we pump our own water. It is off the grid, and we generate our own electricity through photovoltaics. Cell phones don’t work. We do have a satellite television that, for whatever reason, works perfectly. It is very rustic, but we have all the conveniences of home. We have a small stream on part of the property, and there is a large lake four miles away. If we want to go to civilization, a [nearby] town has a store. But our nearest neighbor is several miles away, so we are pretty isolated.

What do you hope your legacy at LMU will be?
It seems a little soon to be thinking about that. But it would make me very pleased if I were viewed as a president who allowed us to recommit our institutional energies to the fundamental activities that make a university a great university: that we renew our commitment and make palpable progress in dedicating ourselves to excellence in teaching, that we renew our commitment to and make clear progress in increasing faculty productivity in terms of scholarly works and creative works, that we fully understand what it takes and actually do what it takes to realize our mission.