Robert Burns bows out

Julie Frank

Julie Frank

“He is a passionate man,” said the Students’ Association vice president and junior political science major Eric Hanson. “He cares about his students, and it comes across.”

That passionate man is Dr. Robert Burns, head of the Political Science and History Department and the dean of the Honors College, who will retire at the end of the academic year.

“I have been very fortunate; I came upon this position at SDSU … It has unfolded as a wonderful professional career here, as well as a great setting for a healthy personal life,” Burns said.

Burns was born Aug. 20, 1942, and grew up in Flandreau. After graduation in 1960, he attended SDSU and was awarded the Briggs Scholarship. He chose to study political science after completing an American government course. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1964 and earned a master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in political science. During his fourth year at graduate school, Burns was awarded a teacher assistantship.

“Really, as a result of that experience of a teaching assistant at the University of Missouri, I discovered I very much enjoyed being an instructor,” Burns said.

Burns also served two years as a commissioned officer in the military and was commissioned through ROTC at SDSU. In 1968, he went oversees to serve in Vietnam until August 1970.

While in Vietnam, Burns received a letter asking if he would be interested in a one-year appointment teaching at SDSU for the Political Science Department.

Burns took the job without hesitation, knowing he would leave Vietnam in August and did not have time to look for a teaching job for the fall.

However, one year with SDSU turned into two, and two into three years before he was offered a tenure contract and has been teaching here since.

During this time, he received a doctorate in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Abbey Howell, a senior political science and Spanish major, said Burns motivates his students.

“He wants students to care about it (the subject matter) and enjoy learning,” she said.

Hanson said Burns helped SDSU’s Political Science Department be recognized and is an inspiration to future leaders.

Burns became the head of Political Science Department in 1989 and has also been the head for the Philosophy and Religion Department.

“I like variety in my professional life. I have been very fortunate that I have been able to maintain the presence in the classroom, my first love,” he said, adding he also enjoys the challenges of the administrative side.

In 1999, former President Peggy Miller asked him to be the dean of the Honors College. He said to be part of the college’s creation and watch it grow has been satisfying.

In his 38-year career at SDSU, Burns was named a Distinguished Professor in 1994, an award that acknowledges service and dedication to the school. He was also named South Dakota Professor of the Year in 1995 and has been the College of Arts and Science teacher of the year several times.

Burns said the awards are professionally gratifying.

“The primary award of teaching is the response of your students and the response of your peers to your teaching,” he said.

Students’ Association President Chris Daugaard said with Burns as an instructor, students are learning from one of the top political persons in the state. Daugaard, who had Burns for both political science and honors classes, called him a “great mentor” and said he helps students with everything, such as applying for scholarships or law school applications.

Burns has also played a role in the community on the school board and library board. He served on several state, regional and national commissions and boards.

Burns said he will miss the classroom and students the most.

“The daily contact with students helped me maintain a younger outlook on life, if not a younger body,” he said.

He plans on spending more time with his nine grandchildren and other family and traveling with his wife of 44 years, Donna. He also hopes to find something part-time to occupy his “professional time.”

“He is an institution,” Howell said. “He is the base of the Political Science Department and the Honors College and is probably the smartest person in the world.”