Spotlight on Student Life: Q&A with Dean of Students Burgwell Howard
Redefining the Northwestern Experience
Dean of Students Burgwell Howard discusses tradition, ‘third spaces’, and the Animal House character to whom he most relates
Over the past year, Northwestern has stepped up its commitment to the undergraduate student experience—and the work isn’t over. We sat down with Dean of Students Burgwell Howard to discuss what it all means for current and future Wildcats.
NULC: President Schapiro has often stated that his top priority is enhancing Northwestern’s undergraduate student experience. Why do you think that’s so important?
Burgwell Howard: The undergraduate experience is foundational to the educational experience. It’s why many people come to Northwestern and it’s what sets them on a path for career options and graduate school. So the quality of the undergraduate experience determines what pathways they’ll take after Northwestern and, really, the quality of the relationship they’ll have with the University for the rest of their lives.
NULC: Exactly what makes for an enriching undergraduate experience?
BH: I think it varies from person to person, but what I hope for our students is that they are challenged and excited in the classroom, that they are engaged in the community, that they make friends and have fun while they’re here, and that they really feel like they’ve taken something away both inside and outside of the classroom. And ideally, for the sake of the University and future students, I want them to remain connected in support of the University for the next 50 or 60 years.
NULC: Upon taking over as Dean of Students last year, what was your first priority?
BH: For me, the idea that students didn’t feel a kind of connection to the broader institution was one of the areas that I really wanted to work on. I think there was great affinity within the academic disciplines, and students have a great allegiance to their schools or clubs or activities, but the central theme should be that we are one University. Creating the experience where students feel connected to each other and connected to the place was central to a lot of the steps we’ve taken in the first year or so since I’ve been in this role.
NULC: It seems there has been a lot of emphasis on creating traditions lately, such as the freshman March Through the Arch during Wildcat Welcome Week. What is the value of tradition?
BH: Rites, ritual, and tradition play a huge part in the history of higher education—not just American education but in Europe as well. We have grand buildings and laureate faculty, but the experience of being connected to something greater than one’s self is part of what makes up a place like Northwestern.
NULC: Last summer, the University spent about $20 million—twice its usual amount—upgrading its residence halls. Will this continue to be an area of emphasis in the future?
BH: Very much so. I can’t predict the spending levels going forward, but given that just about all our students live in our buildings for at least their first two years on campus, we want to make it a positive experience. Ultimately, we’d like to expand our capacity for on-campus housing and allow freshman through seniors—if they would like—to have that kind of residential experience. That experience is where you interact with and learn from your peers. Ultimately we know that students need to be comfortable and have the resources available so that they can do their best work.
NULC: In the past year, Northwestern has opened new social gathering places and even installed a skating rink during the winter. Do you sense that these investments have made a palpable difference to Northwestern students?
BH: We lovingly call those “the third spaces”—The Great Room, Fran’s Café at Willard, and the skating rink. These ideas came from students, saying that this was a need that was missing on campus. We, then, as administrators really sought to fill that need. To see students out on the skating rink every day regardless of the temperature was great. International students who had never seen snow or ice before were out there skating. I always talk about bricks and mortar when I talk to students. You can have a wall of bricks, but it’s not terribly strong. It’s the mortar that makes it strong. These third spaces are the mortar that makes our community strong.
NULC: How big a part does philanthropy play in improving the Northwestern student experience?
BH: As you said, this is a priority of the president and it’s fully supported by those of us who work in Student Affairs. But we can’t do it alone. We need the support of alumni, parents, and friends who recognize the value of the experiences that they had at Northwestern, or who recognize what was missing in their own experience and want to make sure this place is better for those who follow them. We don’t want to burden individual families and individual students beyond their means, so we really count on alumni and friends to help shoulder that load and really make the experience wonderful for these students. They help keep Northwestern a place where people want to come, want to come back to graduate school, and want to send their children.
NULC: You are a Dartmouth alumnus—what was your own undergraduate student experience like? Any fun stories you can share?
BH: (laughs) I had a really wonderful engaged time as an undergraduate. Much like our Northwestern students, I was one of these hyper-involved students. I was a student-athlete, I was involved in Greek life, student government, various leadership programs, outdoor programs. I chose this career path to help others maximize their undergraduate experiences. Granted, I think my classmates are kind of shocked that I’m in the position of being the dean. I frequently felt that I was kind of the Robert Hoover character in Animal House, always kind of apologizing to the dean’s office for my friends. Now, I’m the guy they come to talk to. Frequently when things get hot on campus, I change my Facebook photo to the Dean Wormer image, knowing that I may have to put somebody on double-secret probation.