University of Rochester

A Leader for Student Life

Matthew Burns, the new dean of students in the College, advises students to ‘dive in.’
Kathleen McGarvey
photo of matt burns

GUIDING DEAN: Matthew Burns, the College’s new dean of students, says guiding students as they work together in established organizations—and as they form new interest groups—is one of his office’s goals.

“It’s a wonderful position, a fulfilling position, and, at times, a challenging role,” says Matthew Burns of his new position as dean of students for Arts, Sciences & Engineering.

Burns was named to the post in May, replacing Jody Asbury, the former dean who retired last winter after a 30-year career with the University. A native of Greece, N.Y., Burns earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University at Albany, State University of New York, where he also worked in residential life. Before coming to Rochester, Burns served at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, becoming the school’s director of residential life.

Appointed acting dean of students after Asbury stepped down, Burns came to the position from his former job as associate dean of students and chief judicial officer—in other words, the College disciplinarian.

“I had a role to play for the last six years, and to the extent that students perceived me in the role, I’ve been successful,” Burns says. “The challenge for me—and for them—is to figure out how to break out of that role. It’s time for them to get to know a different—perhaps kinder—Dean Burns.”

Burns worked “hand-in-hand” with Asbury during his six years as associate dean, he says, and anticipates that he will spend the coming year assessing the growth of the dean of students’ office in those years. Among the pieces of that growth were the hiring of Director of Parent Relations Dawn Bruner (see story, page 8), the creation of the Rochester Center for Community Leadership, the restructuring of the Student Activities staff, and the initiation of the new Expectations for Excellence program in Greek Life.

“Now is the time to take a step back and assess that growth, and to figure out whether or not those changes have served their intended purpose,” Burns says. “We’ll want to take a look at the structure of those programs and the programs themselves, to determine if we can fine-tune them for greater success.”

Richard Feldman, dean of the College, says Burns stood out among an excellent group of candidates as a successor to Asbury.

“His performance as acting dean was exemplary,” Feldman says. “He demonstrated that he’s a strong and effective leader, that he’s calm and clear-headed during difficult situations, and that he has great compassion for students.”

Students’ Association President Eric Sansky ’09, a political psychology and English major from Binghamton, N.Y., says he’s looking forward to working with Burns

“The dean of students should be someone who will be intimately involved in student life, as well as someone who will tirelessly advocate for student interests in the greater context of the University community,” Sansky says. “Dean Burns is uniquely suited to accomplish this, while further opening the lines of communication among students, the University, and the communities of Rochester, as his predecessor, Jody Asbury, did with such deftness.”

Burns says his major goals for the coming year include hiring an assistant dean to take over the judicial role and hiring a new director for the Rochester Center for Community Leadership, a program Asbury established in 2005 to develop, coordinate, and promote programs that connect students to the local community.

Responding to students’ lively interests is an important part of the dean of students’ office, Burns says.

“The Rochester curriculum is all about exploring your passions, and students here have taken that to heart both inside and outside the classroom,” he says. “If there’s a group of students with a desire to engage in a certain activity, all of a sudden we’ll see a new group pop up. That’s great, and we have a role to play in providing some structure that will allow those passions and interests to develop.”

And looking back on his experiences as judicial officer, Burns sees even the rough spots that students sometimes hit as moments of growth as well.

“I’ve always felt that those moments of crisis for students are amazing learning opportunities,” Burns says. “It’s during times like those that people are at their most human. It’s one thing to never be in trouble and always do everything right, but you are really forced to join the human race when you screw up. The question is—the really important question is—not how you act when you’re doing everything right, but how do you act when you’re wrong, and you know you’re wrong?”

His own undergraduate years were formative for him, Burns says, and he advises students to relish their years at Rochester.

“My advice to students is dive in, do as many things as you can, challenge yourself, find out what you love, and do more of that. Along the way, if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. You’ll never be in such a supportive environment again.

“You’re expected to need help. That’s why we’re here, to point the way if we can.”