New president spends an evening talking to students. Here’s what he had to say.

By Karisma Boyd

DR. THOMAS Burns has been named the fifth president of York College of Pennsylvania.

He will take over on July 1, succeeding Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith, who announced her retirement last summer after 10 years of leadership at York College.

Burns was hired after a nine-month search by a 19-person committee, according to the school.

He earned his B.S in Chemistry at Dickinson College in 1991 and achieved his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University in 1998. He taught for four years in the Chemistry and Physics Department at Florida Southern College and then for six years served as the assistant dean for academic affairs for the Yale University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,

His most recent job was as a provost for Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, overseeing the deans at the institution’s 13 colleges. He is credited with helping to increase enrollment in addition to developing other pathways to attract more students. 

Burns visited York College on Wednesday evening for a meet-and-greet forum held at the Waldman Performing Art Center, where he took questions from students. Earlier in the day, he had similar meetings with administrators, staff and faculty.

Dr. Thomas Burns meets students in the WPAC on March 22, 2023. (Brendan Bilo/The Spartan)

 “I am excited to be in a place that cares about you all that deeply,” Burns told the students, “and also recognizes that education is not just about learning, it’s about getting ready for life.” 

After he gave an introduction with a bit of his personal history, career background and a dad joke to break the ice, he answered a number of questions on topics that included student involvement, academic improvement and relationship building.

One undergraduate student asked about Burns’ ideas on sustainability and what plans he can implement at York College, which he accomplished at Belmont University in Nashville. 

“At Belmont, we were very focused on this as well, so I had a chance to build 4 academic buildings and 7 residence halls while I was there,” he said. “And we built the first science laboratory in the state of Tennessee. So we took it seriously in every building that we built.” 

The meeting concluded with Burns hearing about some needed improvements at the college and within the campus community, and was invited to several campus events.

After it was over, he sat down with The Spartan to give some final thoughts.

“It’s great, I am so excited to be here,” Burns said, beaming. “it’s thrilling to be able to be connected with an institution that I am only getting to know but am excited about what it offers.”

As word spread of his hiring on Monday, prompting those connected with the university to search his name and background, one incident raised some eyebrows.

Back in January 2020, when Burns was provost at Belmont, Watkins College of Art in Nashville merged with Belmont University. Watkins was a financially struggling school with 171 students and 14 full-time faculty member but one that its students described, according to the New York Times, as an “oasis in the Bible Belt, a small supportive campus welcoming to all and committed to free expression.”

Dr. Thomas Burns meets students in the WPAC on March 22, 2023. (Brendan Bilo/The Spartan)

There were fears that combining it with Belmont, a much larger Christian institution, would put the status of faculty in limbo depending on their faith practices and might prompt the censorship of some of its artwork. Burns likely fanned those concerns, telling Watkins students at a meeting that all of Belmont’s faculty and staff members were Christian and that only Watkins professors who were Christian could join the university, according to the Times story.

“We do not hire people who are not Christian, so the ones who are not Christian would not be eligible to work at Belmont,” Burns said, according to a YouTube video of the meeting. “But that’s just part of who we are.”

Three years removed from that controversy, Burns was asked about it.

“What I can tell you I learned from that is there’s no substitute for good planning and there is no substitute for good and honest communication,” he told The Spartan. “My obligation to you and the faculty and staff here is to do what I can to support the success of our students and the institution.”

At first, he enforced these policies but after some critical feedback and some consideration, Belmont officials determined those already employed at the art college wouldn’t be affected by the change.

Along with the faculty accommodations, Belmont University implemented plans for Watkins students to have an easy transition within the merger for them to accomplish their goals and graduate on time. The decisions made then, he said, “helped find a way to support the faculty and students who are coming from Watkins and Belmont so they can continue their programs and continue to have the relationships with the faculty that were so important to them.”

Burns will begin his presidential duties during the summer session after Gunter-Smith retires in May. He will take on the responsibility of managing an institution with 3,500 students and expanding on York College’s core values, along with implementing new ideas from his previous accomplishments.

Dr. Thomas Burns meets students in the WPAC on March 22, 2023. (Brendan Bilo/The Spartan)

It’s unknown what the first 90 days will consist of, but Burns said he is hopeful that with his experience and eagerness to serve as president that York College will be seeing improvements once his term begins. 

“What I’ve always done in my career is try to find ways to take what I’ve learned, the benefits of learning I have, and apply it to an institution to help them,” Burns said when discussing how he came about being a candidate for York College. 

“After 11 years as a provost, I have an idea of the kinds of things that could be helpful or worthwhile to help support York.”

Karisma Boyd is a junior majoring in Mass Communications.

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