When 200 students took over a University of Rochester administration building in a 1999 protest, the first thing Paul Burgett did was order pizza for them.
The students had staged a sit-in to demand progress on issues around diversity, such as academic and cultural programming for minorities and student and faculty recruiting.
“They took over the president’s office; we were all there,” recalls Mary Beth Cooper, now vice president for student affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology and former dean of students at the UR River Campus. “He said, ‘OK, Pontillo’s!’ It made the atmosphere that much easier.”
Burgett, vice president, general secretary and senior adviser to President Joel Seligman, has an unparalleled rapport with students, say Cooper and others who have worked with Burgett since he joined UR-as he puts it-when “the Earth’s crust began to cool.” Burgett also brings warmth, wisdom, community and alumni connections-and UR historical knowledge-to the top level of the university as the institution forms its strategy for growth and gains its footing as the new leader of the Rochester economy, UR leaders say.
Burgett, who served as a dean of students for 20 years, became chief adviser to the president and manager of the business of its board of trustees in 2001. Former president Thomas Jackson, who persuaded Burgett to move up from his position as vice president and university dean of students, says he saw value in Burgett far beyond that of a typical dean of students.
Jackson remembers meeting Burgett during Jackson’s interviews to become president in 1994.
“First impressions? Bigger than life, including his magnificent voice,” recalls Jackson of the 6-foot-4 Burgett. “A true force.”
Jackson persuaded Burgett to take on a larger role in the university, one in which Burgett would retain a tie with students as a liaison for the president while also assuming responsibility for important aspects of community relations, trustee relations and alumni affairs.
“He had wonderful connections in the Rochester community-from civic organizations, to business groups, to political leaders, and to leaders in the many minority communities,” says Jackson, now a distinguished professor at UR. “Paul also had a very good instinct on Rochester, and on the university’s place in Rochester.
“Finally, Paul’s incredible personality, exuberance, and love of the university-plus knowledge of almost all the students who have been through here in the past 20-some years-made him effective, as well, on the alumni circuit, and with the ‘care and feeding’ of trustees.”
Burgett, 61, manages the business of the board during one of its busiest periods in university history, as UR prepares for a capital campaign in excess of $1 billion and all divisions of the school refine their strategic plans that will set the university’s path for the next decade.
He handles special projects for Seligman, including the search for one of the president’s most important recruiting efforts: the recent hire of Dean Douglas Lowry at the Eastman School of Music.
Seligman says when former Dean James Undercofler resigned unexpectedly last year to join the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, the president abruptly ended an out-of-town trip to hold a meeting with the full faculty. When Seligman announced Burgett would be involved in the search for a permanent replacement, “There was almost electric applause there,” Seligman says.
Burgett not only brilliantly led the search for the dean at Eastman-considered the “jewel in the crown” at UR because of its singular, international renown-but he also soothed a lot of anxiety among Eastman faculty, Seligman says.
“There was just such a trust,” Seligman says. “Here is someone who people are comfortable talking with, who takes seriously people’s opinions, who is wise and a grownup.”
Burgett, a violinist with a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in music education from Eastman, describes his approach to managing his own career and in cultivating relationships. Burgett pays attention to what he refers to as two dimensions of life: the front stage and the back stage.
“The front-stage dimension of life is theater, with scripts and costumes and rehearsed lines,” Burgett says. “The back stage is far more interesting because it’s real. It’s where the makeup comes off. And having been a dean of students for 21 years really helped shape my life-getting invited into the back stage of people’s lives, and I do that even here, with my colleagues here. “The front stage: We’re smart people here. So we sit down and we work on problems and we get things done. But the back-stage dimension is so interesting, and if we fail to navigate successfully the backstage life, we miss real opportunities to be even better than we otherwise might be, and we only exacerbate feelings of isolation and alienation.
“And that became so clear to me in the work that I’ve done, that I make it my business to have a kind of bimodal distribution of my attention to the front stage and the back stage.”
College, Burgett recalls, presented Burgett with his first opportunity to cultivate both dimensions of his life. Growing up in St. Louis during segregation, he had struggled with a sense of being excluded. Entering the Eastman School as a freshman in 1964, he felt for the first time that his race did not matter.
Burgett remembers his first awareness, at age 8 or 9, of alienation because he is African-American. He, his brother and a white friend went to the movie theater. The friend paid admission and entered the theater.
“My brother and I went up to the wicket to pay ours,” Burgett recalls. “I have this image in my mind of looking up at the woman in the ticket booth. She looked down at us, and she said, ‘We don’t let your kind in here.'”
Burgett stops to find a worn paperback from a shelf in his office. He reads aloud a passage from “The Souls of Black Folk” written by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, a book Burgett first read as a graduate student:
And yet being a problem is a strange experience, peculiar even for someone who’s never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation burst upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England where the dark Housatonic winds between the Housac and Taconic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse something put into the little boys and girls heads to buy gorgeous visiting cards, 10 cents a package and exchange. The exchange was merry until one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others. Alike mayhap in heart and life and longing, but shut out from the world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil and creep through.
“Notice she says, ‘peremptorily,'” Burgett adds. “She didn’t have to say anything. Standing at that theater, she did say what she did. With that moment, I understood. I understood everything. It was an astonishing moment.”
A photograph of his father, a concert baritone by night, with famed concert baritone and Eastman graduate William Warfield, is displayed in Burgett’s office. The two wear tuxedos and smile at each other. Burgett found the photo, taken in St. Louis, a few years ago. He knows only that it was taken in St. Louis because of a stamp on the back.
His father had dreamed of being a concert artist and sang with the St. Louis Symphony. But by day, he was a building services worker for the local telephone company. Burgett, who teaches classes at UR, including the Music of Black Americans, notes opportunities for black male singers remain limited today.
“He lived a kind of dual existence in which his great ambition would have been to have sung on the concert stages of the world,” Burgett says.
Speaking to a group of minority students at the Simon Graduate School of Business in September, Burgett described the Du Bois passage and his own experience. He told the group he would not be surprised if each person had felt something comparable.
“At that age,” Burgett says, “the veil descended for me, and then it became the challenge of ‘How do I survive.’ How do I survive in an environment where it has been made clear to me, that at a level as fundamental as going into a movie theater, I am not just unwelcome-I am not permitted. An element of my life was defensive, very defensive. I was always looking at, is it safe? Am I welcome?”
At Eastman, he was, Burgett says.
He had applied to Washington University and the Eastman School, intent on studying music. Burgett says when the Eastman acceptance letter arrived, he had no doubt that he would head there-among the best music schools in the world.
“When I came here to the Eastman School, I found myself permitted to function more fully in my public life than I ever had before. And that was just a signature experience in my development as a novice adult-and in my recognition that I could play in this field, that they were going to let me play, they were going to let me participate.”
While working on his graduate degrees, Burgett served two years as executive director of the Hochstein Memorial Music School. He held a stint teaching music in the Greece Central School District and as project director for Young Audiences of Rochester Inc., then joined Nazareth College of Rochester, where he was an assistant professor of music from 1977 to 1981.
Burgett returned to UR in 1981 as dean of students for Eastman, where he served seven years. He became UR vice president and university dean of students in 1988.
Most UR students who have attended freshmen orientation activities in the past two decades have heard Burgett tell of his experience at Eastman. His talk is known as the “fiery furnace” speech.
“It could be an icon for the university,” Cooper says. “If students remember anything, they will remember Paul Burgett getting up and talking about the fiery furnace.
“He has an ethos and essence that is just irreplaceable.”
In the speech, Burgett describes his transformation as a novice adult-his term for college students.
He starts by describing his sense of himself, a “regional treasure” from St. Louis, arriving at Eastman, setting up in a practice room and playing his best so that others would hear.
“That was until the sophomores, juniors, seniors and graduate students and faculty arrived,” Burgett says. “At which point my whole notion of talent got radically redefined. Upon that realization I pulled that practice room door shut, locked the door, pulled a piece of paper over the window and a bag over my head so no one would see who was making all that noise.
“That’s how the speech opens up,” Burgett adds. “It never fails to bring the house down.”
The speech has grown over the years to include Biblical-like images of a fiery furnace in which university leaders invite anxious freshmen to step in. The college experience, Burgett explains, is a transformative, revolutionary experience that takes a student, turns him or her inside out and requires the individual to return himself or herself rightside in. The student emerges from the metaphorical furnace tempered like steel.
“The fiery furnace speech really takes the students into the backstage of life here,” Burgett says. “I want to reassure them, remind them-this is normal. One of my favorite lines is, ‘You’re not going crazy. You’re really going sane.'”
Burgett straddles a distinct line, working on one hand with students while also with university leaders and trustees.
Students do not know what they cannot do, so they believe they can do anything, Burgett says. Older adults run the risk of being repetitive and cynical.
“Students have a resilience that is exquisite to behold, and from which I and I think my colleagues draw strength,” Burgett says. “When you get older, I think the real challenge is to balance more perfectly the cynicism that a lot of experience can yield, to balance that with the childlike wonder that is healthy and can move an enterprise forward. You need both of them, especially when you have responsibility for managing a ship of state as big and complex as this.”
He and his wife, Catherine Valentine, a sociology professor at Nazareth College, are known for their extensive annual, summertime travel. This year the couple visited Japan and Korea. He sees parallels between young and ancient cultures, and young and more experienced professionals.
“Sometimes when we come back to the states, it feels to me like the United States is 5 years old,” Burgett says. “We travel in parts of the world that have ancient histories. They are beautiful to look at, contemplate, learn about. I can also see where it limits forward motion. There is something quite beautiful about America and Americans because of our youth. It is very important and it enables forward progress.”
Student government president Alvin Lomibao says Burgett is a captivating speaker and familiar to students, who know him as Dean Burgett.
Outside UR, Burgett serves on numerous community boards, including the city of Rochester’s preservation board; Hillside Family of Agencies; Genesee Country Village and Museum; and the Arts and Cultural Council for Greater Rochester Inc. Community roles are taking on more significance for Burgett and others, he says, as the university takes on a larger role as a leader in the local economy.
“We’re still getting our sea legs for what that means,” Burgett says. “We’re a very different kind of institution from earlier leaders. We’re not corporate America. We recognize that we have a civic responsibility, we increasingly have a role in the economic health of the community, and we’re working like crazy in doing that.” Seligman says he values Burgett’s contributions in managing board activities as the university forms its plans; he values Burgett’s institutional memory and his wisdom and talents.
There is an irreplaceable part of the pair’s relationship, however, Seligman adds.
“We both work on Sundays,” Seligman says. “I kid him sometimes that we work on a different schedule. I’m in early and leave at 3 or 4; Paul tends to arrive then.
“The conversation when we meet is unstructured. Sometimes the issue is important; sometimes it’s about a movie we both saw. There are very few instances I have the chance to share those kinds of thoughts with anybody.
“There’s a warmth and trust there that is quite unique.”
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09/28/07 (C) Rochester Business Journal