In his decades of service as vice president for academic programs and dean of the college, Allen Burris made an impact on Meredith College that is still felt years after his retirement in 1998.
The Meredith community mourned his loss when Burris passed away on September 24, 2016, at age 87. He is survived by Jane Russell Burris, his wife of 61 years, two children, two grandchildren, other family, and many friends.
In Burris’s obituary, the family described Meredith College as “the place where his life’s goals as an educator and his lifelong concern with issues of equality and social justice would be fulfilled. He brought hard work, innovation, intelligence, and good spirits to the mission of furthering women’s higher education in the South in the last decades of the 20th century. He believed vigorously in the concept of a liberal arts education and actively supported Meredith’s humanities, science, art, drama, music, mathematics, business, and athletic programs.”
Burris “embraced Meredith’s ideals while helping to guide it into the 21st century,” said his daughter, CeCe Middleton, an alumna of the Class of 1978. “He retired just before the turn of the century, but his leadership helped pave the way to the modern institution it is today, without sacrificing its traditional values.”
David Burris said his father “was passionate about three things – education, the Baptist church, and women’s rights.”
These passions were what drew him to spend his career at Meredith, along with the family atmosphere found on the campus. “Dad totally bought into Meredith –academics, sports, music, friendships, and fun,” said Middleton. ”We were a Meredith family.”
Professor Emerita Betty Webb, ’67, who served on the faculty during Burris’s tenure, noted that he preferred to use the title of dean, rather than vice president.
“As a result, it is a term many faculty and staff came to hold dear. To us it was a term of affection for the person who stood both in front of and behind the faculty – always in service of our students,” Webb said. “It was always, at the end of the day, about students and about ensuring faculty had the support and resources needed to serve them.”
Webb said Burris helped usher Meredith through some of its most important transitions.
“He led us in our endeavors to diversify our student body and faculty, and he gave leadership to the modernization of the College’s academic programs while ensuring that the arts and liberal arts – both of which he loved – remained at the core of a Meredith student’s education.”
Burris was also the dean when Meredith launched its first study abroad program, which reflected his support of global education. In 1973, Burris completed a Fulbright in Pakistan, and his scholarly career later took him on research trips to England, the Soviet Union, Peru, China, Japan, and Italy.
Another way that Burris continues to have an impact on Meredith is through his influence on faculty.
Professor of Human Environmental Sciences Deborah Tippett called Burris an important mentor.
“He was always ethical, kind, and knowledgeable. He was accessible, had high expectations, and was focused on the strengths of others,” Tippett said. “He was comfortable in allowing others to disagree with him. After he retired, I continued to use the lessons that he taught me.”
Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities Garry Walton said Burris “always thought of his role first as faculty, not administration. He invariably asked about our classes, and our families, and our involvement in church and community – taking a personal interest in all aspects of our lives.”
Walton shared a favorite story that shows the interest Burris took in him when he was a newly hired member of the English faculty.
“I asked him for directions to the National Humanities Center so that I could attend a lecture by noted phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur. He seemed both knowledgeable of and interested in Ricoeur and volunteered to drive me to the lecture,” Walton said.
“On the way back to campus, I realized that the point of the trip had not been for him to learn from a world-class scholar, but to support a young faculty member. He didn’t care about Ricoeur: he cared about me. In that moment I learned what it meant to be a dean.”