Howard J. Burnett, who led the Washington & Jefferson College as its president for almost three decades and oversaw sweeping changes to the campus, died Sunday. He was 89.
Burnett died in Mt. Lebanon, according to his son, Mark Burnett.
Burnett’s 28-year tenure as W&J’s president, spanning from 1970 to 1998, was the second-longest in the college’s history, bested only by the 32-year term of James D. Moffat, the college’s third president, who served from 1881 to 1914. Burnett’s time at the helm of W&J was marked by the admission of women to the college, the hiring of its first female faculty members and the election of the first woman to the Board of Trustees.
Many of the structures that are an integral part of campus life were built during Burnett’s presidency. Dieter-Porter Hall was dedicated in 1981, and Olin Fine Arts Center was completed the following year. Rossin Campus Center followed in 1995. Three years after Burnett retired, the Howard J. Burnett Center opened on the northeast corner of campus. It houses the modern languages, education, business and economics departments, along with the campus radio station, WNJR-FM.
Student enrollment grew from 830 in 1970 to 1,100 in 1998. Also, several new programs were launched in that period, such as the entrepreneurial studies program, and a new academic calendar was introduced that included intersession.
In an email message to the campus community Tuesday, W&J’s current president, John C. Knapp, said Burnett “left an indelible legacy from which we continue to benefit. It was a personal privilege to know him in his last years.”
Only 41 years old when he ascended to W&J’s presidency, Burnett came to Washington with impressive credentials. A native of Holyoke, Mass., he was a magna cum laude graduate of Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., with a degree in political science. He earned additional degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, and received a doctorate in government and international relations from New York University in 1965.
Prior to becoming W&J’s president, Burnett served as assistant to the president at Corning Community College and president of the College Center of the Finger Lakes, both located in New York.
Burnett would sometimes joke that he was running “the largest hotel and the largest restaurant in town,” according to his stepdaughter, Diane DePalma Lange, but “he loved working with students and parents.”
“He was a fabulous leader and an intriguing leader,” she added. “He was a sterling example of what a leader should be.”
A prodigious fundraiser, Burnett was “a good shepherd for W&J,” according to Bill Cameron, an emeritus professor in the college’s communication arts department. The college was struggling financially when Burnett came on board, Cameron noted, and it’s now “in a solid financial situation.”
Roy Ickes, an emeritus biology professor, remembered how Burnett came to his rescue when his car was stolen during a sabbatical in California. Burnett intervened by contacting a wealthy alumnus on the West Coast who bankrolled the rest of the sabbatical.
“I have to thank him for that,” Ickes said.
Burnett’s first wife, Barbara, died in 1991. He married Maryann DePalma Burnett in 1994, and she survives, as do his three children, three stepchildren and 12 grandchildren.
A Mass will take place at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon on June 28 at 11 a.m. A lunch will follow at St. Clair Country Club. In lieu of flowers, Burnett’s family is requesting contributions to the Maryann and Howard Burnett Scholarship Fund.