Remembering Dr. Robert P. Burchard

Published: Sep 28, 2021

It is with sorrow that we note the passing of Dr. Robert P. Burchard, professor emeritus of biological sciences. Bob believed in the potential of the young university that he joined during its first year. A campus leader for decades, he served as president of the faculty senate, interim chair of his department, and as interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Bob arrived on campus in January 1967, fresh from the Peace Corps, where he had taught microbiology in Nigeria and had conducted research on tsetse flies. He was at that time a young scholar, having earned a B.A. from Brown University in 1960, an M.Sc. from Brown in 1962, and his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1965. He recalled that creating UMBC’s new biology curriculum from scratch was invigorating: “It was a great experiment. And we were excited about what we were doing. There was a sense that we were all a part of a pioneering educational experience.”

He soon became a popular figure not only in his own department, but also across the campus, building relationships with faculty staff, and students. During the Vietnam War, he participated in teach-ins. In 1981, the UMBC student body voted him “Most Outstanding Teacher.”

An energetic advocate for campus beautification and the natural environment, Bob wrote frequent letters to The Retriever Weeklyencouraging students to take more pride in the campus’s appearance, and tirelessly urged the administration to improve the university’s landscape. In the 1990s, he partnered with Sandy Parker, chair of geography and environmental systems, to preserve Pig Pen Pond, now a centerpiece of the 50-acre Conservation and Environmental Research Area (CERA).

“Bob was the epitome of the academic and scholar—a great department citizen,” recollects Bob’s colleague of more than thirty years, Philip Farabaugh, professor of biological sciences. “He had a deep commitment to the department and to UMBC, and served both the department as interim chair and the university as acting dean of the old College of Arts and Sciences. I know that he worked very hard in those posts and made a great difference in the development of the department and university. Bob was also a scholar in the true sense of the word. He was devoted to the study of his research organisms, the gliding bacteria, and was well regarded by his scientific peers. He was also a gentleman in the truest sense of that word. He was invariably kind and was someone you could rely and depend on. He made the department a better place.”

Although Bob’s research focused on microbiology—he continued to publish into the 2000s—he believed in a broad education for all members of the university, including its faculty and staff. “I’m part of a university community,” he said. “We’re here not only to further our own academic interests, but to broaden our horizons. There’s pleasure in learning something new. I would like to think that all our faculty are renaissance scholars.”

Wendy Salkind, emeritus professor of theatre who served as chair of her department during Bob’s tenure as interim dean, recalls, “Bob consistently appeared at the performances of theatre, dance, and music, he attended gallery openings, and he always spoke about the importance of integrating the arts into the life of the campus. He worked tirelessly with each of the arts departments to educate himself about the challenges that were created in a university that, early on, did not have sophisticated arts facilities. He wanted to know how the students learned, why the topics were selected for the public, and he applauded with delight the successes of the students who excited their audiences with performances and showings.”

When Diane Lee, director of the Wisdom Institute and former vice-provost and dean of undergraduate education, considered going into administration, she turned to Bob Burchard for advice. “As I was making the decision whether or not to go into administration, I asked him to reflect on his decision to go into administration. Long story short, he said he realized that he could continue to make a difference, and maybe one with wider impact than at the department or classroom level.”

She adds, reflecting on Bob’s character, “Bob Burchard was one of those people who gave sage advice, but importantly when I think of Bob it was his desire to make a difference and contribute to the lives of others. So that is how I recall Bob Burchard. Trustworthy, smart, thoughtful, kind, honest, a person of integrity, all those good qualities wrapped up into one very, very fine person and terrific educator.”

A philanthropist at heart, Bob became a consistent donor to the university. “I grew up in an environment where you give when you can,” he said. “I wanted to give back to an institution that has supported me.” He and his wife, Ann Burchard ’82, became members of the 1966 Society, which recognizes donors who have included the University in their estate plans, and were regular contributors to the annual fund.

Bob’s family suggests that contributions in his memory be made to CARE, to the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, or to the arts or sciences at UMBC. A celebration of life service may be planned for the near future.

President Freeman Hrabowski

Provost Philip Rous

Dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences William LaCourse

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