Paula Burger discusses how she worked towards making Hopkins “a fun place for serious students”

 
Paula Burger. Courtesy of kreiger.jhu.edu

Earlier this summer Paula Burger announced that after seven years as Dean of Undergraduate Education and seventeen in administration at Hopkins she will be stepping down. On July 13 I sat down with her to talk about her declension to retire, time at Hopkins, and what still needs to be done to improve the undergraduate experience.

News-Letter: Why did you decide to retire now?

Paul Burger: Well, one downside of this is now everyone know how old I am but. I am actually turning 65. In fact I just did yesterday.

N-L: Happy birthday.

PB: Thanks. There just comes a time in your career where you say “you know, I’ve had a good run at this and now is the time to step aside for new leadership.” We’ve got new people in a variety of positions. We have a fairly new President, a new Provost, a new Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. It just felt like the time was right. I have loved every single moment of what I’ve been doing. There is not a single day in seven years that I haven’t gotten up and looked forward to coming to the office no matter what the challenges were.

I had this epiphany at commencement actually, when I was congratulating graduating seniors, that I just think now is the time to step aside for new leadership.

I think there will probably be some organizational tweaks that will be made and it just seemed that it was perhaps better for me to cede that to somebody new.

 

N-L: But you feel you are leaving Hopkins in good hands with President Daniels and his team?

PB: Oh yeah! Very much so. He is very committed to undergraduate education. He wants very much to make it a priority of his and of the institution. Of course that is what we have been trying to do for the past period of time. Since the CUE [Council on Undergraduate Education] Report. We wanted to be much more intentional about undergraduate education. The philosophy was to have a single point of accountability, someone’s who sole focus was to get up every morning and try and enhance the experience of our undergraduate students.

 

N-L: How long have you been at Hopkins and how long have you served in your current position?

PB: We moved here from Duke University in the summer of 1993. I came to help with the planning effort for the Committee for the 21st century. Bill Brody was a faculty member and the chair of that committee at the time.

I was Eexecutive Vice Provost at Duke University and we made a two career move here. My husband is a neural pathologist and is on the faculty of the School of Medicine. I was actually a trailing spouse. When I was talking with folks here about whether there were any opportunities for me they were in the planning process and as executive vice provost at Duke I had had some responsibility for a strategic planning process there. So they thought I could be helpful to them as they rolled that out.

After they did that I chaired a Committee on Global Dimensions. Out of that came a proposal for a more strategic focus on international programs. For a period I was Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and International Programs. I had an international portfolio as well as some general responsibilities in the provost’s office. That was great fun. I really loved doing that. One of the things I did was work very closely with the Hopkins’ Nanking Center, to try and bring it more into the mainstream of the University’s concerns. I was happily doing that and then we were about to have our decennial reaccreditation review and it had been determined that we would do a focused review on undergraduate education.

Ralph Kuncl had started that project but then went off to be Provost at Bryn Mawr College so the President and Provost asked me to pick this up.

N-L: Was this President Brody at this point?

PB: Yes, that was President Brody by this point, and Provost Knapp.

I said “yeah, that is where my heart has always been.” So I chaired the Commission on Undergraduate Education. The first part of that process had been set in motion by Ralph Kuncl. Then he left and we constituted the committee and get on with it. We made 34 recommendations about things that should be done to improve the undergraduate experience.

One of the recommendations was that we establish a single point of accountability for the undergraduate experience and the President and Orovost said “well, you have all these ideas. Put your effort where your mouth is and see what you can do about implementing them.”

In 2003 I began transitioning into the position of Dean of Undergraduate Education, which was that new position. The idea was to have someone who had a holistic view of the undergraduate experience.

There was a little bit of asymmetry because I had the academic portfolio for the Krieger School plus Student Life, Student Affairs, and Academic Enrollment Services for both schools. But the idea was to have that holistic focus. I felt strongly that Housing and Dining should be part of that. I think how students live has such a strong impact on how they perceive their experience. So we pulled that into this organization.

It’s been great. I’ve had a wonderful team of people who are all pulling in the same direction with a view towards enhancing the undergraduate experience.

 

N-L: You studied at Hopkins, correct?

PB: I did. My PhD is from Hopkins in political science. I did my coursework here and then I went back to Duke and married a guy I had met on blind date before I came to Hopkins. I did the dissertation in absentia while I was in Durham. They asked me to come back to Duke into administration there. Eventually I became Executive Vice Provost.  

N-L: When did you start your studied at Hopkins?

PB: I did my course work from 1974 to 1976.

 

N-L: Since then what do you think have been the biggest changes at Hopkins?

PB: When I was here in the 70s there was no infrastructure for undergraduate education. In fact there was one student affairs professional. His name was Chester Wickwire. He was the director of the YMCA and the university chaplain. His office was in Levering. There was no Dean of Students, no nothing. Those things began being added after that time.

We didn’t really get seriously into the game here of even having an infrastructure for student life until the mid 1980s. When I came in 1993 I was still struck by the fact that it was not a very robust infrastructure for undergraduate life. 

I remind people that we have much more work to do, but I feel good about the progress we’ve made. I also see this in the context of an institution, notwithstanding our distinguished history and notwithstanding the fact that we’ve always had undergraduate education, was not the most developed part of our institutional portfolio.

We are playing a little bit of catch up with our peer institutions, some of whom started with undergraduate education as a primary focus and then added and grew professional schools around that.

We started as an institution committed to advanced study and committed to a very distinct brand of undergraduate education, some of which still informs our current culture. But I at the time I came there was a trickle down notion of undergraduate education, that good undergraduate education would just trickle down from good graduate education. While that can give a certain character to our culture, how you can educate 700 young men is very different from how you can education 5000 young men and women, especially with all the expectations we now have about amenities and all that.

I do think one of our hallmarks continues to be that students who are highly motivated, who want to take education seriously, can be treated by the faculty as mature learners and given opportunities that I think are unparalleled.

 

N-L: What achievements are you most proud of in your time as Dean of Undergraduate Education?

PB: I think some people would point to Charles Commons. I am certainly proud of that. I think that the building work the way we hoped it would work. We had a theory that strong communities are built around strong neighborhood sand strong neighborhoods are built around strong families. We had 4 person suites as the modal unit, where students have private space of their own but also a place where they can interact with their suite mates. We then have common facilities on the floors so these little family units can come together as a neighborhood and then we have common facilities that support a wider community life.

Charles Commons. Courtesy of jhsph.edu

My impression from the Residential Life staff and from students I’ve talked to is that it feels like that. I think that this signals to students that we care about them and how they live. My goal was to have that quality of space in our other residence halls. We have a plan for doing that in Wolman but we need some financial help to do it. I think Wolman is under resourced in terms of community space. The plan we developed with student input was really a good one and I hope we can figure out a way to do it.

The AMRs are also under resourced. AMR 1 of course has the multipurpose room and the reading room. AMR 2 is very short on common space. When the health center leaves to go over to Homewood we are talking about trying to move some of the office functions into the health center space so we could free up more space for common areas.

I think every bit of time we spent getting the details right in Charles Commons has in many respects has paid off. Having the kitchens was important. Having artwork was important. I am very proud of that.

But the accomplishment I am most proud of is that I think we have made headway on strengthening the sense of community. We are not there yet. Students still tell me it is not as strong as at peer institutions but I think it is palpably better than it was.

Creating more events and programs and traditions around which memories are made is something we are making progress on.

For me a metaphor is that picture that was in the Gazette of First Night, when we received the freshman class on the lower quadrangle and symbolically they were welcomed into the student body by the upper classman. If you wanted a metaphor for everything I’ve wanted to see, that first night photograph would be it.

First Night. Courtesy of gazette.jhu.edu.

There is a long list of things, anyone of which would almost seem silly to mention, but it is the sum total that begins to give place a culture and a sense of tradition. Little things like the flags we put with Hopkins seal around Levering Plaza. Resurrecting “old gold and sable” which are our formal institutional colors, and having those visible symbols of school pride visible. Subtle things like that enrich the environment. Or things like First Night, the High Table Dinner, the Lighting of the Quad, a number of little things at the margins that reflect a larger sense of community.

On a related note I am really proud of how our entire team of people in undergraduate education has seen themselves as educators and has shared a common view of wanting to create an environment that felt more supportive of students and more caring. Whether it is how Academic Advising or the Registrar’s Office or Student Accounts have tried to have a shared philosophy of how we serve students. Of course you can find someone who has a complaint about anything but I sense that we have done a better job of being responsive.

It is hard to measure but we started this program of senior exit interviews. It was my goal to interview ten percent of graduating seniors. We ask them what has been the best part of their experience, both academically and socially, and what has disappointed them and what suggestions they have and what things should we never change because they represent the best of Hopkins. It is not hard science but those of us who done these interviews all feel that the responses are different now than they were six or seven years ago.

You could tell students were uncomfortable. You would say “go ahead, I can take it. What are your concerns?” You would get a kind of diatribe.

A year or two later we got: “this is still a problem here but I know you are working on it.” Now there are some students how don’t even know some of those things were problems. Not to say that the job is done. If I thought it was I would be sitting on a beach somewhere eating bonbons but I feel like we have turned a corner.

I think we are on the verge of realizing the promise of being a really fun place for serious students. I think that is our niche. If your good time is your only interest there are other places that you can go but if you want to be taken seriously and stretch in ways beyond what you thought you could, sometimes in ways that make you a bit uncomfortable, but still want to form lasting friendships and have experiences outside the class that are fun, I think this is a place where you can do that.

 

N-L: What do you think is the biggest problem still facing Hopkins in terms undergraduate life and education?

PB: One of the two big issues is financial aid, and President Daniels has been very helpful in helping us start to address this. Our financial aid packages are not as competitive as they need to be to attract the students that we want to attract or to take as good care of our current students as we should.

I think we take pretty good care of the people who need full aid but we expect a lot from the families of students at the margins. I don’t feel good about that. But you are trying to take a finite amount of money and spread it around to help as many students as possible. Because of that we don’t take as good care of some as we need to. This is a key priority. It affects not only our ability to recruit but the morale of current students.

A close second in terms of what would further enhance the experience is to deal with our residential life. I know there are students who come here who like the idea of independent living but I think we push students out of the residence halls too early. That was one of the big CUE goals we didn’t get to.

If we could provide housing to all the students who wanted it I think it would make a big difference. There is the safety and security issue as well. It would certainly make parents feel more comfortable. There is also the hassle of having to rent a place and move furniture. It is right for some people but not for everyone.

In two years you haven’t realized the full value of the incredible diversity of our student body. I feel that it is an educational loss. Think of the people you became friends with because of where you lived freshman year, people from diverse backgrounds you never would have know so deeply otherwise. At each stage you begin to narrow your friendship circle a little bit. When you move off campus in your junior year you live with a small group of people and stop expanding your personal horizons through enjoying the benefits of the talents and diversity of our students. My hope would be to offer students a chance to do that.

Given the geography and space constrains on our campus, the best option would be to pursue a freshman quadrangle that would allow all first year students to live on this side of Charles Street. After the first year we could have a crossing the Charles ceremony. Students would move across the street and take up life in facilities over there.

The Blackstone and Charles are now managed by Johns Hopkins Real Estate as market rate rentals. If we could incorporate those and if we were able to house all the freshman on this side of the street so we had Wolman we could have an upper-class housing precinct.

And point of fact, student might consider it off campus because it is across the street, but it would still be closer to the library and academic buildings than almost any one of our peers. It is almost laughable that is considered off campus because I could through a baseball from McCoy to the Eisenhower Library.

And again, you wouldn’t force seniors who wanted to live off campus on campus because having off campus options is one of the appeals of going to school in an urban environment.

What has happened now is that such a small percentage of upper classman can get into the dorms that is no longer the thing to do. The first year we opened Charles commons, before we increase enrollment a bit, there were 600 upper class spaces. We had more students wanting those spaces than we could accommodate. Now you have to decide if you should take your chance with the lottery or do you go ahead and get the best arrangement you can get off campus. I understand that psychology but I think we can shift it back. It would take a little bit of time but it would have a tremendous impact on further developing our sense of community.

 

N-L: In the last 2 years Dean Bell has left, Dean Fessler has retired, Vice President of Finance and Administration McGill has retired, Dean Falk has left to become President of Williams College, and now you are leaving. Is this just a coincidence?

PB: I think it just serendipity. Adam Falk was an incredibly talented administrator. Williams heard about him and it is a feather in our cap that someone like that goes on to president of an institution, especially because it is an institutions totally dedicated to undergraduate education.

With Dean Bell that was also just coincidence. He did his graduate studies at Princeton. The chair that became available had been held by his mentor. If you are a historian and you were invited to assume the chair held by your mentor it is a huge honor. In addition, it was a spousal issue. His wife was offered an opportunity to direct an institute in New York which means they can both have significant professional opportunity and not have to have a commuter marriage. Those things are very hard to find in higher education.

 

N-L: What are your future plans?

PB: I am going to stay in Baltimore. I am going to stay involved in higher education because that is where my heart is.

Part of the logic of my leaving is that I am not ready to “retire” yet, but I think I want to try to do some things that are project based…My husband is four years older than I am. He is not ready to retire yet. I want something that can offer me a bit of flexibility so I can do some traveling with him. I don’t have any specific plans yet. I knew if I stayed here for 12 or 14 hours a day I never would get to the point of reinventing myself for another three or four years.

I can’t imagine I could have a job I would love better than the one I have and it occurred to me at commencement that it has been a great run and I’d like to leave feeling that this is where my heart was and let the other things be things of interest and project based where some of the experiences I’ve had could inform some of those activities.

N-L: Will you stay involved with Hopkins?

PB: The president very graciously asked if they could continue to solicit my counsel on things and I of course said yes. I have invested so much in this place and I have every reason to want to see the next chapter be one of continued progress and forward momentum. 

N-L: In February Daniels told the News-Letter of plans for a CUE 2. Would you be involved with that at all? (Interview with Daniels)

PB: I would certainly be very happy to share my thoughts about what needs to be done. I’ll probably just send some advice out by way of my valedictory. But I don’t have the slightest delusion that anyone would necessarily take it seriously. When you move on you move on. I am invested in these things but I don’t think it is good once you’re gone to second guess what is happening. That is bad form. But until the end of August I won’t be shy about doing what I’ve always done, which is to give my unvarnished candid opinion. I don’t think we ever make an institution better by telling people only what they want to here. We should tell people what they need to there.

 

PB: By the way, you asked about what I feel good about and I forgot to mention that I also really feel good about the support I’ve had from faculty. Sometimes we create this juxtaposition of teaching versus research. Here we’ve tried to create an environment where you can teach through research.

I’ve felt good about the partnership we’ve created. One of the sleeper recommendations in the CUE report was to have a person in each department focused on undergraduate education. So we created Directors of Undergraduate Studies. Those didn’t exist before. Now every department has someone who owns responsibility for the undergraduate major. I think gradually we have seen departments become more intentional about these matters. I meet several times each semester with all of the DUSs and I really feel that many members of the faculty here are deeply invested in the undergraduate mission.

I just wanted to say how grateful I am for their support. I know it sounds bureaucratic to say creating a Director of Undergraduate Studies made a difference but I think it creates a sense of being intentional about things. We hadn’t been intentional about undergraduate education before. I don’t see that as being mutually exclusive with continuing to do the other things we do well.

—Peter Sicher, Magazine Editor

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One response to “Paula Burger discusses how she worked towards making Hopkins “a fun place for serious students”

  1. Nice little interview, but the editing (particularly proofreading, spelling, and grammar) could have been a good bit tighter. Way to keep up the reporting over the summer though!

    Like

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