Remembering W&J’s 10th President Howard J. Burnett

Since the Howard J. Burnett Center was dedicated in 2001, hundreds of W&J students have passed through its doors, if not for a class then to attend a special lecture, record a show in the College’s radio station, or study in a computer lab. But few of those students had the chance to meet its namesake: “The Tenth Man,” as coined by the 1971 W&J Alumni Magazine.

Howard J. Burnett, 10th president of Washington & Jefferson College from 1970 to 1998, died June 16, 2019, at age 89, leaving a legacy of progress that still defines the W&J community.

“I will do all in my power to ensure that this College is not only continued but, hopefully, enhanced.”

— Dr. Howard J. Burnett, 1971 W&J Alumni Magazine

“Dr. Burnett’s service as president spanned nearly three decades and left an indelible legacy from which we continue to benefit,” said President John C. Knapp, Ph.D. “It was a personal privilege to know him in his last years.”

True to his word, Dr. Burnett’s tenure at W&J was defined by change. Women were admitted as full-time students in 1970, the first year of his presidency, ending W&J’s history as a male-only institution. Not long after, the first women faculty members were hired, a female Associate Dean of Student Personnel was appointed, and a woman, Anica D. Rawnsley, was named to the Board of Trustees for the first time in W&J’s history.

The school also adopted a new academic calendar that included Intersession, now known as JayTerm. Dieter-Porter Life Sciences Building was dedicated in 1981, and Olin Fine Arts Center was completed in 1982, giving new homes to both the arts and science cornerstones of W&J’s liberal arts curriculum.

Several new programs were launched as well, including the Entrepreneurial Studies Program, Freshman Forum (now First Year Seminar), and cooperative international education programs with institutions in other countries.

Dr. Burnett had an eye toward student life and alumni relations as well. Rossin Campus Center opened in 1995 and houses the Campus Store, Student Life, and Career Services, as well as George & Tom’s café – a popular gathering place for students that was once known simply as the snack bar, and later as “Meal Exchange” or “Meal X.” The College acquired its current Admission House; renovated Thompson Memorial and McMillan Halls; added several residence halls; and opened the Student Resource Center (HUB) during his tenure. Student enrollment grew from 830 in 1970 to 1,100 in 1998.

Dr. Burnett was 41 years old when he accepted the W&J presidency, and had amassed an impressive list of credentials. He was an experienced business leader and had served in the military. A graduate of Amherst College with a degree in political science, he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. He was a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford University in England, and later earned a Ph.D. in government and international relations from New York University. He was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by Ithaca College.

Before coming to W&J, he was president of the College Center of the Finger Lakes and assistant to the president at Corning Community College, as well as an assistant professor of government.

Throughout his time at W&J, and in the years to follow, he was known not only for his steadfast dedication to the College and its students, but for his kindness, sharp wit, and subtle sense of humor.

“It was a pleasure to work with him as Chair of the Board during the last four years of his tenure. He was decisive and intuitive, smart and tough minded, but caring, compassionate and fun loving,” said Ronald P. Sandmeyer Sr. ’57, who has served on the W&J Board of Trustees since 1980.

Sandmeyer noted that Dr. Burnett understood the business end of higher education as well as the academic mission, and that his leadership took W&J to new levels in enrollment, academics, athletics, and financial stability.

“His long tenure enabled him to bond with graduates as they matured and became successful in their chosen profession and careers,” he said. “He will be missed by all who knew him and loved him.”

In his speech at his final Commencement ceremony in 1998, Dr. Burnett noted that although no one can see forever, it’s essential to have some view of the future.

W&J’s presidents, faculty and staff, and alumni have continued that practice with students in mind. The College has added new academic programs on campus and abroad, expanded student support and scholarship opportunities, and made capital improvements with generous donations from alumni, all to ensure W&J’s future success, and carrying out Dr. Burnett’s vision in the process.

“We are thankful that Dr. Burnett continued his loyal and supportive relationship with the College for the remainder of his life,” Dr. Knapp said.

Read what alumni had to say about Dr. Burnett.