At the Helm
By Stacie Jones
Originally published in the 2013 Idaho Law Magazine
Don Burnett caps illustrious career by serving as University of Idaho interim president
"Every generation is destined to do great things, but great things aren't always famous things."
As I wait at a small table tucked behind the exhibitor booths at the Idaho State Bar 2013 Annual Meeting in July, I begin to hear signs that the person I am here to interview has arrived.
"Hello, Mr. President, it's nice to see you!"
"Don! How are you?"
I peer through the groups of Idaho lawyers to see Donald "Don" Burnett making his way through the room, enthusiastically greeting those around him with handshakes and smiles. It is clear that his is a familiar face among this group.
Eventually he rounds the corner to where I sit, also greeting me with a warm smile. Sneaking a quick sip from his orange juice, he releases a slight sigh as he settles into the seat adjacent to mine, relishing his brief break before he begins to field my questions.
"So, how's it going?" I ask.
"Well, the metaphor drinking from the fire hose is pretty accurate," he grins.
Burnett is just weeks into his new role as interim president of the University of Idaho. Selected for the position by the University of Idaho Board of Regents, Burnett began work in his new post in June, following the departure of M. Duane Nellis.
"One of the striking things about work as the president is the sheer volume and velocity of the issues that come through that office," he said. "Fortunately, I have a good provost and team of deans and vice presidents to support me."
While his presidential duties may bring new challenges, the position seems the perfect capstone to Burnett's long and distinguished career as practicing attorney, appellate judge, Army JAG officer, state bar president, law professor and dean of two law schools — most recently at the University of Idaho College of Law.
For Burnett, the appointment to the Office of the President holds an even deeper significance.
"It is a great and humbling honor to be called to service for the whole university," he said. "It is also an opportunity to repay what I consider to be a family debt to the University of Idaho."
Early in his career, Burnett attended a football game during a visit to the University of Idaho campus to give a guest lecture to law students. When the fight song played, something unexpected happened.
"I was taken aback by the fact that I felt this great sense of calm and well-being when I heard the band play the Vandal fight song," he recalled. When he later mentioned the experience to his mother, she said: 'There's an answer for that: When you were a baby and had trouble sleeping, your father and I would walk the halls singing: Came a tribe from the north brave and bold…,'" Burnett explained. "I guess a biologist would say I was imprinted as a Vandal."
Burnett's parents both came to the University of Idaho from the mining town of Wallace, Idaho, during the years of the Great Depression. In fact, a photo of Burnett's mother, Doris '37, hangs on the wall of the Administration Building. It's there not because she was a VIP, Burnett said, but because she was a student employee at the University of Idaho Library — where she felt lucky to earn 35 cents an hour. Burnett's father, Donald Sr. '38, hunted game to help feed his fraternity, and he interrupted his studies for a year to work in the mines at Wallace in order to pay tuition.
Times were tough, but Doris and Don Sr. were determined to become first in their respective families to get a college education.
"I remember my parents telling me that during those years, nobody among the students at UI had much money, but no one felt poor," he said. "They were all in it together. There was a great sense of purpose. For them, the University of Idaho was the gateway to the world."
Burnett says that, his parents' memories of their beloved university planted in him a profound sense of gratitude and appreciation for the university.
"Everything they later became, they said they owed to the University of Idaho," Burnett said. "Whatever my brother, Howard, and I later became, we owe to our parents, and therefore we also owe to the University of Idaho. I now have a chance to repay that debt."
A Calling to Law
Burnett was born in 1946 and raised in Pocatello, Idaho. His fondness for his hometown is evident as he reflects on his early years.
"Growing up in Pocatello was very important to both my brother and me," he said. "We had a strong set of community leaders who made a profound impact on me during my formative years."
Burnett points to one Pocatello leader in particular for inspiring his career path. Ben Davis was a successful business lawyer whose pro bono work for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes gave him special privileges to hunt on reservation land. One day, Davis invited then 14-year-old Burnett to join him for a duck hunt.
"As we walked toward a duck blind, we came across an elderly native woman who was washing clothes in the stream. She looked up startled, saw us with our shotguns over our shoulders, and shouted, 'No shoot!' and hurried off," Burnett recalled. "Mr. Davis evidently had seen this before. He turned to me and asked: 'Donnie, what do you think just happened? What do you think this part of the country was like when she first saw a white person with a gun?"
"That turned into a longer discussion about what Mr. Davis called the rule of force and the rule of law," Burnett continued, "and why he had chosen the rule of law. I can still remember standing at the duck blind, with an Idaho sunset glowing in the distance and evening flights of ducks and geese crossing overhead, and I decided I was going to choose the rule of law, too."
With a future in law in his sights, Burnett went on to earn his undergraduate degree magna cum laude at Harvard University and his J.D. from the University of Chicago. He returned to Idaho in 1971 to begin his career as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and as an assistant attorney general for the State of Idaho.
"I have a strong sense of personal gratitude for Pocatello and to the state of Idaho," he said. "There was never any hesitation when I finished law school where I was going next."
He entered private practice in Pocatello in 1972; became president of the Idaho State Bar in 1981; chaired the bar's professional conduct standards committee; served as a judge of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Court; and was executive director of the Idaho Judicial Council.
In 1981, after nearly a decade in private practice at Pocatello, Burnett felt the pull for a change.
"The part of practice that I found very rewarding was the problem solving, research and writing," he said. "So work in the judiciary beckoned to me."
As fate would have it, Burnett was appointed by Governor John V. Evans as one of the initial appellate judges, along with Roger Swanstrom and Jesse Walters, to serve in the newly established Idaho Court of Appeals, which began operations in 1982.
"Roger and Jesse were tremendous colleagues. The three of us had a wonderful working relationship," said Burnett, who retained his position in the court in 1986 after a statewide vote.
Burnett's professional service also included time as a reserve officer in the Army Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps. A graduate on the "Commandant's List" from the Command and General Staff College of the U.S. Army, Burnett held the position of reserve deputy commandant and academic director of The Judge Advocate General's School. He received the U.S. Armed Forces Legion of Merit award for career achievements when he retired as a colonel in 2001.
Lured to Higher Education
While serving on the bench, Burnett earned a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. The experience gave him a taste of the thrills of working in higher education, and he wanted more.
Such an opportunity arose at the University of Louisville in 1990. Burnett was enticed by the fact that the chief benefactor of Louisville's law school was Louisville-native and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, whose work and innovative ideas intrigued Burnett.
"He had great ideas for legal education," Burnett explained. "He was an exponent of pro bono service and interdisciplinary study. He also said the U.S. was distinctive as a laboratory for great ideas because the individual states could try out ideas of public policy without binding the entire nation, and that the universities and law schools would be the engines of these new ideas."
"That was all very attractive to me," he added.
Burnett spent a total of 12 years — 10 years as dean and two years as a professor — at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law which was named for Justice Brandeis during Burnett's deanship. Under Burnett's leadership, the school became one of the first law schools in the nation to adopt a mandatory pro bono program.
"Service of some kind, to the community or to individuals who need help, is part of our professional obligation," he said. "The pro bono program has as its fundamental assumption that helping people in need without compensation to improve administration of justice is a responsibility of all lawyers, and it comes with the license to practice law."
In 2002, Burnett had the opportunity to return to his home state as dean of the University of Idaho College of Law.
During his tenure, Burnett worked to make the college one of the leading small state public law schools in the nation. In his 11 years as dean, he collaborated with the faculty to add subject areas of curricular emphasis and interdisciplinary cooperation, to raise the level of institutional support for faculty scholarship, and to establish a pro bono requirement.
He was also instrumental in the expansion of legal education to the state's capital in Boise.
"I've always thought in Idaho that we should shape legal education so we are delivering our instruction and doing our research and outreach at the places where we can provide the greatest comparative advantage," he said. "Moscow and Boise have unique strengths that complement each other. We should not be confined under one roof, but should deliver legal education where distinctive benefits can be achieved."
A recipient of the Idaho State Bar's Distinguished Lawyer Award, Outstanding Service Award, and Professionalism Award, Burnett has dedicated his life to improving legal education and the practice of law in Idaho. During his Idaho deanship, he chaired an Idaho Supreme Court's task force on structure and resources for the state appellate courts in the next quarter-century; chaired the University of Idaho's Ethical Guidance and Oversight Committee; served as a coordinating dean of university-wide interdisciplinary programs; and served on the Advisory Council for Operation Education, a scholarship program for disabled veterans.
Early in his University of Idaho career, Burnett chaired the University's Steering Committee on Diversity and Human Rights. He drew on this experience throughout his deanship to infuse diversity in the faculty and student body at the law school.
"The College of Law has become known as a leader within the university community in terms of commitment to diversity," he said. "There is no such thing as excellence in higher education without diversity. Diversity, in all of its forms, ought to be a signature of higher education in general, but it certainly is a signature for the Idaho law school."
Secret to Success
When reviewing Burnett's lengthy and impressive vitae, one can't help but wonder, how can one person achieve so much in just one lifetime?
"I often hear new graduates given the well-intended advice: 'Don't work too hard!', but the world belongs to people who work too hard," Burnett said. "The key is not to have a formula for work-life balance, but to instead find a balance of the imbalances. When your clients are calling, you must answer the call. But it's important to repay that accumulated debt and invest that time back into the family as time becomes available."
Burnett credits his father for this innate drive to work hard and recalls a specific childhood moment when he tagged along with his father, a certified public accountant, on a professional visit to a small-business family.
"I didn't understand the technical aspects of what was being discussed, but I understood these people really depended on my dad, and he owed them every iota of his attention and his capabilities," he said. "That made a profound impact on me. After that, if he was busy helping a family and couldn't play catch, I understood."
This lesson stuck with Burnett as he, too, balanced a demanding career with fatherhood. He and his wife of nearly 44 years, Karen, raised two sons. He also has one grandchild and another on the way. Burnett credits the support of his family for helping to fuel his success, along with an unwavering faith that he has dedicated his life to doing exactly what he was intended to do.
"True happiness is to be dissolved into something that is complete and great . . . something that's bigger than oneself," said Burnett, paraphrasing novelist Willa Cather. "I think the law and the pursuit of justice represent something complete and great. True happiness is to be subsumed in them."
Burnett will serve as interim president until a permanent replacement is hired. He hasn't yet decided his next steps following his presidential service, but returning to the College of Law as a professor may be one option. Could retirement be another?
"I don't know . . . I think I would flunk retirement," he laughs.
In the meantime, Burnett will continue to give of his full self to repay the university that provided the foundation on which his parents' built their family's success. What would Burnett's parents think if they could see him now?
"I think they would confirm that the University of Idaho was a place of opportunity for them, a gateway to the world, and that we should continue to work hard to build on its greatness," Burnett said.
One thing is certain: They would be brimming with Vandal pride.