Dean Norma Burgess: ‘Life is a Journey for Me’

We teach others
how to accomplish their goals, but we don’t always
teach them how to manage and care for themselves, their
hearts and their souls.

Dr. Norma BurgessDr. Norma Burgess

 Passion for education. Dedication to families. High expectations for all.

That’s what Dr. Norma Burgess brings to her new position as founding dean of the college of arts and sciences at Lipscomb University in Nashville TN.

A non-traditional teacher

“I’m a continuous learner, but I didn’t want to be a teacher,” Burgess said. “My undergraduate degree is in political science, with the expectation that I would go to law school. After three years and three summers, I was exhausted with school so I worked for four years, went back to school, finished the master’s and PhD, and I went back to work!”

When she was in graduate school, there were no nearby doctoral programs in public administration. On a mentor’s advice, she checked North Carolina State and found that sociology had some thinkers and theorists taking academic approaches with which she was familiar. Her doctoral work became a great opportunity to learn more about families.

It is while in the classroom and mentoring others that she excels. She develops options for reframing the conversations around families, social class and culture, including theoretical approaches to studying families, gender role expectations, social problems, cross-cultural issues and leading student study abroad courses.

“Education opens unimaginable doors. It is also one of the best ways to influence our youth and others. I teach in many ways besides just being in a classroom. I speak often with early career mentees and mid-career colleagues,” Burgess said. “Life is a journey for me; I expect a lot from it and give my best to it.”

A nontraditional journey

Burgess’ journey has taken her from classrooms in West Tennessee and North Mississippi to the dean’s office in Tennessee again via New York and Pennsylvania. She began her academic career at Mississippi State University, teaching sociology of the family, sex roles and gender and cross-cultural families.

From there, she won a National Science Foundation post-doctoral research fellowship that took her to the University of Memphis to work in the Center for Research on Women. She went to Syracuse in 1993, taking the opportunity to teach just about families.

“The Department of Child and Family Studies focused on the family; I wanted to conduct research and teach about this topic most,” Burgess said. While at Syracuse, she attended a conference on families and women in Costa Rica.

“My post-doctoral research had led me to an analysis of sociohistorical remnants of Africanisms through the work of Dr. Ruth Simms Hamilton. She pioneered the study of the African presence in families of African descent regardless of where people settled.

“I wanted to learn more about the African presence in Costa Rica, and how it manifested itself. Encouraged by what I found, my interest in international cultures and cross cultural studies continued and subsequently developed into a summer study abroad to Costa Rica in 1995.”

After serving as department chair at Syracuse University NY, she moved to Pennsylvania to be founding dean of the college of graduate studies at Chatham University PA.

“This opportunity was a transition between university types,” she explained. “Chatham was a smaller institution with a broad array of high quality professional graduate programs and had recently achieved university status. I accepted the challenge.

“Serving as a faculty member in a land grant institution— and leading in both a large private research university and a small graduate-only professional school within an institution that is traditionally undergraduate women only—all prepared me very well for embracing my current role here at Lipscomb University.”

A non-traditional conference on women and faith

As founding dean of the college of arts and sciences at Lipscomb University, Burgess plans to launch an annual women’s conference centered on faith and leadership.

“Lipscomb is a faith-based institution, started in 1891 by the Churches of Christ, which allows us to enrich the lives of others in ways they might not have considered: how to use faith, the Scriptures, to empower oneself to accomplish the things we were created to do. Faith and its role in leadership and self-management are rarely ever discussed in professional development seminars and retreats. We are positioned very well to have this conversation through our conference, ‘Women. Faith. Leadership,’” said Burgess.

What advice does Dr. Burgess offer?

“Never give your power away—share it,” she advised. “It does not matter what occupations we have, or roles we choose or are given to play; the internal consistency within us is the most critical piece of us that we have—it is ours.

“Protect the core (the heart) to direct the path that has been selected. It keeps our feet grounded, but not planted so that we can move forward—its gives us the energy to go forth and accomplish life! We teach others how to accomplish their goals, but we don’t always teach them how to manage and care for themselves, their hearts and their souls.”

Dr. Burgess believes her role is to understand, share her learning and empower women to live their lives to the fullest and accomplish their goals. She is a living example of what can happen when faith meets opportunity.

Christ Pepple, staff writer at Lipscomb University. 

Pepple, Chris. (2010, September). Dean Norma Burgess: 'Life is a Journey for Me'. Women in Higher Education, 19(8), p. 23.

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