Associate Dean Burriss Young to retire after four decades
By Alvin Powell
Burriss Young decided early on he wanted to be a dean at Harvard.
He got his wish, but itÕs the thousands of Harvard College students he guided, consoled, and laughed with for 37 years who really lucked out.
Young, who plans to retire at the end of the academic year, has worn several hats over his career. But each job, from proctor to senior adviser to assistant and then associate dean of freshmen, has focused on the young men and women at Harvard. He watched as they tasted their new independence, smiled as they reveled in new discoveries, and, sometimes, reeled them in when theyÕd gone too far astray.
"It's an extraordinary jump from Spokane to Cambridge," Young said during a recent interview at his Prescott Street office. "It's their first independence. They need a champion to see them through the transition."
For many years, Young didnÕt just work with students, he lived with them. Young lived in Harvard Yard for 35 years, until two years ago, when he moved to an apartment in Cambridge.
Young has always lent a hand wherever needed, from counseling troubled students to starring in freshman musicals. When he realized freshmen werenÕt getting very far from Harvard Square, he organized excursions so new students would see what the Boston area had to offer. And after observing the difficulty both students and their parents have had adapting to the changes Harvard brings, he wrote booklets for each, letting them know what theyÕre in for.
ÒThis is a forbidding place. There isnÕt a student who comes here who doesnÕt wonder if theyÕve bitten off more than they can chew,Ó said Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley Nathans. ÒIt can make a tremendous difference to have someone who recognizes you when you walk in the door.Ó
Freshman Joseph Sanberg, a long way from his California home, said Young has been a welcoming presence to him. Young joked with him when they met on campus and advised him how to get though his first New England winter Ñ earmuffs.
Sanberg met Young while working on a program to bring freshmen together with faculty and prominent members of the community.
ÒI feel sad for future students because theyÕre not going to work with him,Ó said Sanberg.
YoungÕs departure wonÕt be without fanfare. A farewell celebration with more than 2,400 invited guests is being planned for May 29, Nathans said.
Decades of Friendship
Young, 64, knows firsthand what it is like to be a Harvard freshman. He attended Harvard in the early 1950s, graduating in 1955 with a degree in archaeology.
But even then, he knew he wanted to be a dean, not an archaeologist.
"I chose archaeology because I was interested in it. But I had no intention of doing it as anything but a hobby," Young said.
Nonetheless, Young spent several seasons working at an archaeological dig at Sardis, Turkey, before being offered a job as a senior adviser at Harvard. Young accepted, took up residence in Harvard Yard and began a career that he says has more surprises than investigating an ancient tomb.
"A tomb may turn up a few surprises, but a freshman who comes in announcing a new achievement in self-discovery can be even more remarkable," Young said.
Over the years, Young's Prescott Street office gained a kind of legendary status of its own. Piled with papers, pamphlets, and files, jammed with books, photos, and artifacts, itÕs become a site packed with Harvard history Ñ and the occasional dead plant.
Though Young enjoyed the work, the times weren't always easy. The most difficult period was during the Vietnam War, when students wrestled with expectations from home, pressure from their peers, and the voice of their own consciences.
"I had five advisees who were killed out there," Young said. "There were all kinds of pressures on kids. It was a terrible, terrible time."
It is YoungÕs empathy and understanding of students Ñ during Vietnam and today Ñ that makes him stand out, say those who know him.
Robin Worth, assistant academic dean at the Kennedy School of Government, said Young used to quiz her about what students were thinking when she was an undergraduate, working as a waitress at the Faculty Club.
She said he got her thinking about becoming an administrator, a career which she began after her graduation in 1981 and has pursued ever since. She worked closely with him while he was a proctor and assistant dean of freshmen during the 1980s.
ÒHe likes kids and he appreciates what students have done to get to Harvard,Ó Worth said. ÒBut he knows even good and accomplished kids stumble. He has always been a benevolent cop.Ó
Another friend, Senior Lecturer on English Richard Marius, once modeled a character in a book after Young, whom he describes as being a ÒSouthern gentlemanÓ in the best connotation.
ÒI think heÕs absolutely the kindest person IÕve ever known in my life,Ó Marius said. ÒHe has that kind of civil sense of order that makes a man a gentleman.Ó
Young said he's not yet certain what he'll do on leaving Harvard. He is considering moving to his house on Cape Cod and doing some traveling.
After 37 years, though, Young said he expects his ties to Harvard will remain strong and he plans to keep his Cambridge apartment.
Nathans said YoungÕs departure will mark the end of an era. Service as long and remarkable as his is increasingly rare these days, she said.
ÒIt's not remarkable that Rhodes Scholars keep in touch with people they once knew, but when those who had a tough time keep in touch with him, it speaks to a quality of relationship that's very rare these days," Nathans said. ÒPeople donÕt go someplace and stay for a lifetime anymore.Ó
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College