David Burcham is the first layperson to lead Loyola Marymount University, which was founded 100 years ago by Jesuits. He will now lead the Catholic university through a modernization of its campus and try to bring it out from the shadow of regional powerhouses UCLA and USC. To do so, Burcham, who began the president’s job in March, will have to tap the region’s business community for hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. He became a professor of constitutional law at Loyola Law School 20 years ago, where he later was named dean. Before he joined the law school, he was a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, where he represented controversial American Airlines chief Robert Crandall, among others. Before that, he clerked for a federal appeals court judge and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White. He hails from an old-line Long Beach family with deep roots in local education and religious institutions. He recently met with the Business Journal in his campus office and talked about his experiences growing up in Southern California, clerking for White and how he built his own cabin retreat in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Question: Did you ever think you would be the president of a Catholic university?
Answer: Religion and education run in the DNA of my family. My father was a Presbyterian minister who founded Covenant Presbyterian Church in Long Beach and also served as president of the Long Beach school board. My grandfather was the principal of Long Beach Polytechnic High School for 41 years. And my mother taught early childhood education in the Long Beach public schools.
What was it like growing up in Long Beach?
We always had an inferiority complex growing up in the shadow of Los Angeles. People called us “Iowa by the sea.” But it was a terrific place to grow up. I remember as a kid going all the time to the Pike and paying 35 cents to have the roller-coaster ride of your life.
Why did you decide to go to law school?
I was a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in education policy in the late 1970s. But I came to the realization that the significant policy decisions weren’t being made by educators; they were being made by lawyers and judges. So I decided to attend law school and use that as a tool to continue to influence educational policy. That was my plan going in. But after my first year at law school, I found I really loved it. I loved all the subjects, so I decided I better have an open mind about my career.
Any interesting cases while you were clerking on the federal appeals court?
Yes. We dealt with several cases concerning attempts by various United States officials and citizens to bring former Nazi war criminals to justice. A couple of trials came up to us on appeal, including the case of John Demjanjuk (a prison guard at the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps who was later deported to Israel and sentenced to death).
But when your year as a clerk ended, you didn’t go right away to Gibson Dunn.
No. Something came along that’s the dream of all clerks: the chance to work at the U.S. Supreme Court. I had interviews with both the late Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Byron White. And it was Justice White who chose me. I clerked for him during the 1986-’87 court session.
What was that like?
During the first month or two, I became a little cynical. As I got to see it from the inside, the Supreme Court didn’t seem like the highly deliberative body I thought it would be. But it grew on me and, after a while, I found it is a wonderful system.
Did you see White every day?
Yes. I’d see him as the clerks met with him to go over the cases before each day of arguments. He would aggressively take issue with us clerks and a good donnybrook would sometimes ensue. I’d say there were some quite vigorous exchanges. I think he took the same aggressive approach that he had as a football player. I found he had a fine mind and it was a real pleasure to work for him.
Any cases or stories that stood out?
There was a Fourth Amendment case involving search and seizure that he and I were arguing about. As we were going over the case, he blurted out, “Who taught you about search and seizure? I think I’ll give that professor a call and give him a piece of my mind!” He didn’t, of course. That was just his way.
Did you ever see White outside the courthouse?
Oh, yes. He played basketball with all his clerks three times a week. He was notorious for his hook shot: His elbows would flop out and he broke several pairs of glasses that the clerks wore.
Any memorable cases at Gibson Dunn?
I successfully defended American Airlines in a lawsuit that Continental Airlines and U.S. Air brought over American’s computerized reservation system. That was a fascinating case. I got to prepare (American President) Bob Crandall for cross-examination. For many hours, it was just me and Bob in a room with thousands of documents.
What was Bob Crandall like?
He’s absolutely brilliant and he has a very strong will. Sometimes people with strong wills can be stubborn to a fault, but the thing about Bob, he was usually proved to be right.
Sounds like you were headed for a successful big-time career. Why did you then decide to go teach law?
It was a hard decision. Remember, I gave up a career in education to go to law school and that decision had always nagged at me a bit. As I grew older, I found I wanted to get back into education. So I quit Gibson Dunn and joined the faculty at Loyola Law School.
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make coming from the world of corporate law to teaching at a law school?
The biggest adjustment was in the scholarship. I was free to take a position or a stance and not have to consider what it would mean to the clients I represented.
You mentioned that former Loyola Law School professor Daniel Leonard was one of the most influential people in your life. Why was that?
Daniel was diagnosed with late-stage cancer near the end of my time as dean there and he passed away two years ago. The way that he approached what was really a death sentence, the way that he continued to teach and lead the faculty despite this was inspiring.
What was your biggest challenge as dean of the law school?
The biggest challenge was raising the status of the law school. One of the ways we did that was to raise the academic profile of entering classes by being more selective. I also increased the fundraising.
LMU is a Catholic school, but you’re not Catholic. How does that work?
People have shown faith in me, so I’m going to show that I’m devoted to making sure that the Catholic Jesuit identity of the school remains strong, even if I’m a Presbyterian. That means making sure this identity resides in everybody, not just the president or the Jesuit priests. But it’s not just a Catholic Jesuit identity; this university also has a spiritual mission. People come here to get more than a secular education, get their degrees and move on. They come to grow spiritually, too. Catering to both the intellectual and the spiritual components will be my main goal as president.
What are your other goals as president?
I need to raise a lot of money. This is now a major issue confronting all private higher education: how to make it affordable. The ability to just automatically raise tuition every year to cover rising costs is now at an end. The difference has to come through donations. We’re going to have to raise several hundred million dollars over the next 10 years. And to do that, we’re going to have to forge closer ties to the business community. We can’t afford to be an ivory tower anymore.
With businesses cost-cutting so much these days, that sounds tough.
I don’t harbor the illusion that for-profit businesses will open up their wallets with huge donations. We have to engage more with the business community, to show businesses why we are a worthwhile investment. I’m making the rounds of business leaders outside the legal profession and of all the major players here in Los Angeles.
You say you have a getaway cabin in the Sierras. How did that come about?
About 10 years ago, my wife and I were driving around in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, looking for a piece of land to buy. We both love the outdoors and we wanted some place that we could call a retreat. In the middle of nowhere, we saw a Coldwell Banker sign. We at first thought it was a joke. But we called the number on the sign and sure enough, there was some land for sale. It’s near Shaver Lake northeast of Fresno and it’s at about 5,500 feet.
It must have been quite an effort to get the cabin built. What stood out for you about that?
The biggest thing was trying to find water. Without a water source, you can’t even get a permit to build. So we hired someone from a professional firm to drill a well and see if it hit water. He took his hydraulic drill bit and dug a hole 900 feet deep through some solid granite and it was completely dry. That was at $12.75 per foot. By this time, I was feeling pretty stupid and I asked the guy what I should do. He said, “Have you ever considered a douser?” I said, “You don’t mean one of those guys with a stick, do you?” And he said, “Yes.”
So then what happened?
After he left, I called around and reached this guy who was a retired forest ranger. He said he would be willing to do this for $100 in cash up front. I met him up there early on Saturday morning; he was 6’5” and looked like he was about 300 pounds. He had two welding rods with him: They looked like metallic sticks. He just started walking around and he came back 20 minutes later and said, “I found your spot.” He had put an X in red spray paint on the ground. He came back the next week, drilled down and at 230 feet, he hit water flowing at about 15 gallons a minute. I can’t say that divining-rod technology works, but it didn’t not work.
Any other challenges?
Well, the place is completely off the grid. We have to generate our own electricity, which we do through solar photovoltaic cells backed up with propane fuel generators. It’s on 80 acres of pristine forest. The last five miles into it are on U.S. Forest Service dirt road. In the wintertime, the only way to get in there is via snowmobile or snowshoes. Cell phones don’t work; we have a satellite phone that works about 20 percent of the time. But it is paradise.
How often do you go up there?
During the spring, summer and fall, as often as we can. We try to get up there at least once a month on the weekends – it’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive, so we can get there pretty quickly considering where it is. Obviously now, with my duties as president, I’m not going to get up there as much as I would like. In the summer, we spend maybe a week or 10 days up there.
What do you do when you’re up there?
Besides maintaining the cabin and the grounds, we hike. I also cut firewood and do some woodworking, which is another hobby of mine. I’ve built a lot of the wood furnishings in the cabin. We also use the cabin for family gatherings.
You said woodworking is a hobby?
Yes. My father did some woodworking while I was growing up and when I was old enough, I found I loved doing it myself. Some day, I’d like to build cabinets and things.
Do you sell any of your woodwork items?
No. I have given away many items, though. As I said, it’s a hobby, not something I really want to pursue as a business.
How did you meet your wife?
I met Chris when we were both at Occidental College; I was a sophomore and she was a freshman. I had a cheesy pickup line that I tried on her in the quad and it didn’t work. I saw her subsequently and asked her out and that worked. A year after I graduated, we got married.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I had a football coach who said, “Stay within yourself.” That applies to all of us. It means understanding who you are, understanding your strengths and weaknesses.
Organization: Loyola Marymount University
Born: Hollywood; 1951
Education: B.A., political science, Occidental College; M.A., education administration, California State University Long Beach; J.D., Loyola Law School
Career Turning Points: Taking break from teaching to attend law school; accepting offer to clerk at federal appeals court; leaving Gibson Dunn & Crutcher to teach at Loyola Law School.
Most Influential People: U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ruggero Aldisert and late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, both of whom he clerked for; Loyola Law School professor David Leonard, who recently died of cancer; his wife, Chris; father, a Presbyterian pastor and president of the Long Beach school board.
Personal: Lives in Long Beach with wife of 37 years; has two grown children: a daughter who teaches high school and plays trumpet, and a son who works at a private equity fund.
Activities: Spending time at self-built cabin in Sierra Nevada Mountains; fly-fishing, hiking, woodworking.
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