Thomas Burns had built himself quite the seniority and reputation at Belmont University in Tennessee. As the provost of the private liberal arts school for nine years until 2022, Belmont’s enrollment grew by more than 2,000 students and he helped oversee the merger of two other postsecondary institutions.
But as a first-time president approaching his fourth month of office at York College of Pennsylvania, President Burns finds himself outside his comfort zone, acclimating to a new state and the novel demands required of an institution’s top executive position.
“My work product used to be things like spreadsheets and reports. Now, sometimes my work is having lunch with people and getting them to love the college,” he says. “It’s an interesting transition from an intellectual space, but it’s a lot of fun.”
As invigorating Burns finds the position to be, he’s wise enough to stray from hubris. University and community stakeholders still have a greater understanding of the institution, he conceded. After all, York College is a 236-year-old university whose last president, Pamela Gunter-Smith, is credited for fostering greater collaboration between the college and the city of York.
A pure academic and chemist by training, Burns is molding his nascent leadership style into one that prioritizes humility and open ears.
“The first three and a half months have been a lot of listening,” he says. “It’s not as much about telling people why the college is a great place, which I believe in and love, but hearing from them what they’d like to see and what they already have seen from the college, good and bad, and then adapting that into the conversations that we have.”
Distinguishing York College
While one of Burns’ top challenges right now is adapting to a new institution and adjusting to all its distinguishing challenges, York College does share some facets with Belmont University that are helping flatten the learning curve.
For one, he describes both universities as a happy marriage of liberal arts and a professional education. That means that both institutions meld holistic education, multidisciplinary learning with an education rooted in servicing its community in practical ways.
“As the college goes, so does the city, and as the city goes, so does the college,” Burns says. “We’re intimately related and tied together to ensure that we both prosper and perform well.”
These similar mission statements also prove to be a distinguishing factor of York College that Burns wants to further leverage to distinguish itself from other institutions in Pennsylvania and nearby states. York, a blue-collar, working-class town, has helped shape a York education to be goal- and skill-oriented and have a lower cost entry point.
“[President Gunter-Smith] created the sense of connectivity between the campus and the community, and it’s something I find really palatable and exciting,” Burns says. “I want to breathe additional energy and life into that.”
To better gauge how to serve a community he’s green in, Burns practices participatory leadership during his meetings with campus stakeholders. Specifically, he encourages input and long forms of dialogue between cabinet members and the Board of Trustees rather than mulling over data points on reports.
“Let’s not do death by PowerPoint. We don’t need to do an hour-long PowerPoint and then give two minutes for questions,” Burns says. “Let’s give the PowerPoint in advance and then invite [stakeholders] into the conversation with two or three questions based on what’s been shared. The board’s found that really invigorating and engaging.”
President Burns’ advice for first-time leaders
As dizzying as it can be to drink from the firehose, Burns has abided by principles that have helped ground his mission objectives and approach each day with full attention.
- Before taking command, prioritize dialogue. What are we trying to accomplish? What would we all like to see change?
- Earn your constituents’ trust before demanding change. The best way to show them you know what you’re doing is by embracing the community.
- Practice patience: You don’t need to fix it all right now. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.