Dr. Arthur A. Burr

10-29-1996

By Gary Judd

 

Arthur Albert Burr, born on August 23, 1913, Professor, Dean, Educator and Innovator, passed away on May 20, 1996.Educated at the University of Saskatchewan for the bachelorís and masterís degree in 1938 and 1940, and earning the PhD from Penn State University in Physics in 1943, Dr. Burr, Ab, as his friends called him, arrived at Rensselaer in 1946 after spending three years as a research physicist for Armstrong Cork Co.This began a 51 year association with the Institute.He rose from associate professor to become the chair of the Metallurgical Engineering Department in 1955 and continued as chair of the transformed Department of Materials Engineering in 1961.He also served as acting dean in 1961 and became dean of engineering in 1962.He remained dean for 13 years, the longest tenure for any Rensselaer dean of engineering.

 

As a faculty member, he was a respected teacher and researcher.He would often comment on his Canadian boyhood and what could be done with bailing wire and ingenuity.His approach to laboratories was to place large expectations on the studentsí capabilities and students performed for him beyond their own expectations but always confirming his.I recall his instructions to an x-ray lab which were not much more than where the facilities were located, what the assignment was and to be careful with high voltages and x-ray tubes.The result, however, was a powerful learning experience.

 

Abís insight into the needs of engineering and his leadership abilities became apparent during his tenure as dean.He understood the need to revitalize engineering education and in 1963, together with a committee that he set in place, issued a major report entitled Long-Range Planning for Engineering Education.He undertook the complete restructuring of the undergraduate engineering curriculum, eliminating specialties in the early years and introducing what became knows as the pre-engineering program.The curriculum modification opened up the degree programs, caused a rethinking of the upper level disciplinary courses and allowed the students to choose their majors later rather than immediately upon arrival.He also introduced the concept of the professional school, proposing that qualified students be given the opportunity to complete a bachelorís degree in four years and a master of engineering in the fifth year, the latter being a professional and a terminal degree.These innovative ideas are every bit as meaningful today as they were when he introduced them some thirty years ago.

 

He saw the need to create a different balance in the departmental structure.Ab felt that the departmental structure prevented interdisciplinary efforts; a direction he believed represented the future for his school.His response was an innovative, administrative restructuring consisting of a matrix of 12 curricula and 7 divisions.The new organization received a great deal of attention and I believe is the primary reason why today Rensselaer has lower interdepartmental barriers and is more comfortable with interdisciplinary work than many of its peers.The broader engineering community did not support this radical change and eventually engineering here did return to the traditional structure.However, the heritage of performing interdisciplinary work initiated by Dean Burr remains a strong and vital force today.

 

As fine a dean and educator as Ab was, so was he a wonderful husband, father, and member of the community.He and his beloved wife, Leslie, shared their interests in family, in the First United Presbyterian Church and in Rensselaer.In his Church, Ab served in numerous leadership roles and he also volunteered for many many years in the Neighborhood Nursery School which was so much a part of Leslieís life.Rensselaer and the Troy community were truly fortunate to have had Ab Burr as one of their citizens for more than half a century.We mourn his passing and ask that our thoughts and remembrances be shared with is family.