Professor Paul Burtness came to NIU in 1953, and during his years here had an immense positive influence on the development of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and of the University.
In 1957, he argued for Northern Illinois State College to become Northern Illinois University when President Leslie Holmes faced opposition to the name change by those fearing teacher education would be endangered by competition from liberal arts programs. The name did change in 1957; colleges were formed in 1959; the Department of English initiated a Ph.D. program in 1961; and Paul was publishing scholarly books as a professor of English.
His leadership among faculty made him chair of the search committee for the University’s next president. His influence, eloquence, and conviction were clearly evident in remarks he made at President Rhoten Smith’s inauguration in 1968. In commenting on the future with confidence and high hope, he said, “There is emerging a sense of the essential coherence which is proper for a university, a sense of unifying commitment to learning and rational inquiry . . . . The faculty are viewing their responsibilities as teachers and scholars with kindled imagination and a renewed appreciation for the essential interaction that must occur between teaching and searching if the process of instruction is to be truly vital.”
In the fall of 1969, Paul became Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He chose capable associates to help manage the College, secured experienced faculty, and build strong programs.
When economic difficulties arose in the State budget for higher education in 1971, cutbacks in proposed program timelines were unavoidable. Yet, Paul kept the vision for the College alive by moving ahead with some program proposals and by retaining and building quality faculty in other areas. He also supported a revised quality general education program.
In 1979, the Ph.D. program in geology was approved by the State – the first NIU doctoral program to be granted since 1967. Several other Ph.D. programs were established in the College after Paul retired in June 1979, and doctoral programming continues to serve as an ongoing reminder of his visionary leadership.