Edward Burger on a bike by Lance Holt

Reflections from Southwestern University’s new president, Edward Burger

Engaging, erudite, and energetic, Dr. Edward B. Burger took Southwestern University’s leadership reins last summer as its fifteenth president. Since his first official campus visit nearly a year ago, Dr. Burger has diligently connected with all facets of Southwestern—faculty, staff, students, and alumni—as well as the extended Georgetown community. As Dr. Burger anticipates his SU journey, he peppers commentary with words like innovation, integrity, and intentionality. He offers a compelling portrait of thinking and learning.

On Southwestern/Georgetown connections: “They’re important to each other, and you saw that beautifully at the first pep rally and our first [football] game. It really showed the true promise of ‘town-gown,’ how if we all embrace it, this could be an amazing college town. It’s good for all of us, that kind of energy . . . just extremely important. . . . I’m also sensitive to the other side, which is that we have events at Southwestern open to the public, all free. I want more people to be inspired by our beautiful grounds [and] I want people to know they’re welcome. . . . The [campus] commitment to civic engagement is, I think, robust and profound . . . [and] not a lot of schools have the participation that we have. We have students working with local elementary schools; there’s Operation Achievement, outreach with Paideia programs, and partnerships with Texas Life Sciences Collaboration Center.”

Edward Burger with students, photo by Lance Holt

On what’s different about Southwestern: “Alumni don’t talk about a program or generic major but about an individual. The people on this campus—faculty, staff, and students who engage with their peers—are committed to being educators. People take that seriously, and the individuals who’ve studied at SU acknowledge that as an important component. That’s exciting and distinctive.”

On preparing for the college experience: “Parents, be thoughtful about what’s to be accomplished [by your child]. I suggest [that students] should look at one’s undergraduate career, no matter at which university [and] realize it’s a place and a time for individuals to really shape how they think, how they innovate, how they analyze, discovering . . . tastes and intellectual passions, at the same time practicing habits of communication, so they can articulate their ideas. . . . Your undergraduate education should be daunting because every experience you face should challenge you to rethink something. It’s a time to practice. It’s not a time to cross off a checklist of things. . . . Don’t define education as ‘credentialism.’ Also, cultivate the habit of creating questions, just one of the ways you can think more effectively. Constantly ask yourself, ‘What should I be asking here?'”

On the practicality of liberal arts in a technological age: “The reason we have so many institutions of higher learning is because there’s diversity of tastes and interests. For some individuals, it might be to learn a particular skill or trade, which is noble. . . . But you see, some technical skills will very quickly become obsolete . . . any fixed skill set you learn today . . . will not be the cutting-edge tomorrow. Many vocations of twenty years from now don’t even exist today. I think that the ‘impractical liberal arts’ are some of the most practical to train intellectual agility and provoke [for] change. That’s what education is about, right?”

Photo by Carlos Barron

Photo by Carlos Barron

On his choice of career/vocation: “I never had any aspirations of being a teacher or mathematician; I had wanted to be a lawyer since my earliest memories. It’s respected, important, you can make a lot of money. . . . Quality of life issues were lost on me when I was young. Early on, I wasn’t strong in arithmetic—no prodigy. Around algebra, I realized there are many creative paths to an answer. That epiphany was very potent. I had some amazing math teachers, especially my calculus teacher, Liza Metzler. I kept feeding the flame . . . [through college and graduate school], thinking, ‘I’ll figure out what math is, then I’ll go to law school.’ I was just having fun, immersing myself in this beautiful, abstract discipline, making new discoveries through research. . . . Then I realized I could actually earn a living having fun.”

On “encouraging and rewarding effective failure,” an innovative teaching concept of Dr. Burger’s noted in The Huffington Post‘s 100 Game Changers of 2010 award: “True innovation will not happen seamlessly. The element of change is one that requires some risk, so not getting ‘it’ right, or failing effectively, is necessary. Like Thomas Edison, we learn from failed attempts. The other element is to ‘push the envelope,’ to intentionally fail, to take the issue or program and push it to its limits [in order to] to see what happens. The idea of taking something to the breakpoint or one step beyond provides deep insight.”

Well aware that some students are “math-phobic” or may not share his passion for mathematics, Dr. Burger began developing instructional videos in 1997, utilizing CD-ROM and Internet technology. His more than 3,000 lessons target subjects and settings from kindergarten through college, from home-schooling to traditional venues around the world. Students can check out his rope demonstration at the Boston Public Library or “The Top Ten List of Algebra Mistakes” on YouTube. Additionally, Dr. Burger has served as guest lecturer in locales as diverse as Hungary, France, Greece, Australia, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Canada, and Mexico.

Edward Burger, photo by Lance Holt

Much of Dr. Burger’s adult life has been spent in New England, first at Connecticut College for undergraduate work, then at Williams College in Massachusetts since 1990, and most recently as its Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics. Yet he’s no stranger to Texas. He did his doctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2010 he received a prestigious national award from Baylor, the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. During his two years in Waco, Dr. Burger served as professor and, later, as vice-provost for strategic educational initiatives. Recognized nationally with numerous other mathematics awards, he’s also made media appearances on programs such as NBC’s “Science of the Winter Olympics” segments and has been an educational program advisor for the CBS series NUMB3RS.

Dr. Burger has authored or co-authored thirty-five research papers and twelve books. He describes his most recent publication, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, as a “little teeny short read which invites people to think better.” Thinking ahead, he envisions Southwestern’s future—engaging minds, transforming lives.

Food for Thought

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.

-Albert Einstein

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