Wooden shelves, their contents mostly packed into the cardboard boxes in front of them, line one of the walls in Barbara Burch’s office, located at the former FaCET house on Chestnut Street.
Burch herself, wrapped in a dark colored shawl, is shuffling papers around and trying to navigate through the growing sea of boxes surrounding her desk and round wooden table adjacent to the ceiling-high shelves.
“I’m moving to Gary Ransdell Hall, room 110,” Burch said.
This is not the first office relocation for Burch, who called the provost’s office at the top of the Hill home for 14 years.
Burch added another notch to her administration belt on Halloween when she was sworn in to be the faculty regent on the Board of Regents. She ran unopposed and was elected to the position with a total of 165 votes on Oct. 15.
“I know at first blush that may not seem like a large number, but… it only takes one vote so actually I’m quite impressed that 165 faculty chose to vote in the election, affirming their support for Dr. Burch,” President Gary Ransdell said.
Burch is the elected successor of former regent Patricia Minter, who served as regent for seven years. Minter decided to step down to focus more on her research and scholarship projects.
“After seven years, (Minter) has done a yeoman’s task at this, so my goal is to be a really successful and effective faculty regent,” Burch said. “(Regent) is not something I thought I would ever do.”
Despite Burch running unopposed, the election was clouded in controversy. A state statute and a WKU Human Resource policy rendered some potential candidates ineligible to run on the grounds that they have family, spouses or partners employed at WKU.
The election was held to election code standards and regulations, but confusion arose amongst staff as to whether those potential nominees were disqualified due to those policies or whether they had declined nomination.
“The election process for me was not one I interjected myself in to,” Burch said. “This was something that faculty leadership and senate had to work through.”
The two potential nominees in question, Molly Kerby, a professor in the department of diversity and communication, and Claus Ernst, a mathematics professor, both ultimately declined their nominations, leaving Burch as the only candidate.
The flurry of email correspondence and confusions caused by the election made faculty call for a more clear interpretation of the state statute that rendered Kerby and Ernst ineligible for candidacy.
With the support and agreeing voices of other state universities, General Counsel Deborah Wilkins said the Council on Post Secondary Education requested a formal opinion from the Attorney General to clarify the state statute.
There is no official deadline for when the formal opinion will be released.
Up the Hill and Back Again
Burch started her career with WKU as an undergraduate student, climbing the Hill in the late 1950s to earn her degree to teach on the collegiate level. Her degree took her to positions at California State University, Fresno, where she served as a dean, and the University of Memphis, where she served as an instructor.
“I moved around a little,” she said.
She returned to the Hill in 1996, beginning her 14-year run as provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, a position now held by Gordon Emslie.
“This (provost) position brought me back, but it brought me back because while I was particular about where I went and what I did, it was equally important for me to have an opportunity to get back to this part of the country,” she said. “I had two grandchildren in Nashville by that time.”
Burch, a Louisville native, said coming back to Kentucky was like coming closer to home.
During her tenure as provost, Burch spent a brief period as president while the university searched for a replacement for former president Thomas Meredith.
“Dr. Burch is a provost emeritus, a decision made by this board,” Ransdell said. “She’s a Hilltopper through and through.”
Burch said Ransdell asked her to stay in the position after he was hired as the new university president. She stayed in the position until 2010.
Burch then moved to teach others who, as Ransdell put it, wanted to “follow in her footsteps.” She teaches in the leadership doctoral program and serves as the major advisor.
“I am a teacher at heart, and I started my career teaching so I really feel blessed to be able to have the opportunity to teach again now,” Burch said. “I am really fortunate.”
The regent nomination came as a complete surprise to Burch, due in part to one of the people who nominated her, history department head and former regent Robert Dietle.
“I had a lot of differences with Dr. Burch when she was provost…. we disagreed on a number of things,” Dietle said.
Dietle said over the last two years serving on the board for the clinical education complex together, the two learned that they shared core values about education.
“I decided to nominate her, I had no idea she would become the regent,” he said. “I thought she would be an interesting nominee.”
Dietle said he believes Burch will bring interesting ideas and views to the table.
Burch said she thought Dietle was joking when he nominated her.
“When I heard from him, I was surprised, at first I thought he was kidding,” she said. “I don’t think we differed in the things we valued and thought were important and our feelings on the university.”
Her decision to accept nomination was one that she thought on heavily, consulting other faculty members and her husband.
“It really did cause me to stop and say ‘is this a right thing for me to do?’ Not just right for me, I mean is this a right thing for me to do in relation to what I think could benefit the faculty,” she said.
As regent, Burch said her goal is to be an effective and positive representative of the faculty and remain tuned in and informed on issues at hand. She said the work she’ll do will be to benefit all, not just faculty. She sees her representative role as one that encompasses faculty and the university as a whole.
“I’ll be spending more time with Faculty Senate, Executive Council and faculty,” she said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to be chosen to represent the faculty.”
She will sit on her first regent’s meeting at the first meeting of 2015, held on Jan. 23.
“I am determined that I will represent in ways that are positive for the faculty,” Burch said. “I’m excited about what’s to come.”