La Salle University alumnus William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, will become President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February. Burns served as Deputy Secretary of State from 2011 to October 2014, only the second serving career diplomat to hold the title. He holds the rank of career ambassador, the highest in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Among other posts during his 33-year diplomatic career, Burns served as U.S. Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005, Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2008 to 2011. He holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Oxford University. He speaks Arabic, Russian, and French.
Last year, Burns led back-channel talks with Iran, which ended 35 years without sustained diplomatic contact and helped produce an initial nuclear agreement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said about Burns earlier this year, “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”
Burns will succeed Jessica Tuchman Mathews, who was President of the foundation for 18 years.
In announcing her retirement, Mathews said, “There is no one, anywhere, better suited than Bill Burns to take on the leadership of Carnegie. He has an unparalleled grasp of international affairs and respect from across the political spectrum in the United States and around the world. His scope is global, and his instincts are nonpartisan. He is a scholar, a hugely successful policymaker, and a proven leader. I am thrilled for Carnegie.”
Commenting on his new appointment, Burns said, “I am delighted to be coming to Carnegie and honored to follow in the footsteps of Jessica Mathews. Since announcing my retirement from the State Department in April, I have thought long and hard about what I wanted to do next. And I believe that Carnegie, with its five centers around the world and superb staff and scholars, offers an extraordinary opportunity to be able to continue to play an important and constructive role in global affairs from outside government service.”
Burns was a student in La Salle’s Honors Program and developed an interest in the Middle East. He graduated in 1978 with a degree in political science, and later earned his M.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees in International Relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar, the first in La Salle’s history. Burns also received an honorary doctor of law degree from La Salle in 1997.
Several La Salle professors have said Burns was the best student they have ever had and described him as incredibly intelligent and diligent.
“He was one of the best, if not the best student, I ever taught,” said John Rossi, who has taught history at La Salle for more than 40 years. “There was nothing he couldn’t do. His exams were letter perfect and brilliantly written. His handwriting was almost script, and beautifully done. And he was very unassuming. You wouldn’t notice this (in him) until your first exposure to his work.”
Rossi added that in his first class with him, Burns sat in the back of the room. “I thought, ‘Who is this quiet guy, who’s not saying a word?’ Then for a class discussion, I posed a question to him, and he blew me away with his answer. It was so far beyond what you’d expect.”
George Stow, who taught Burns in several history courses, said, “He was simply outstanding. I’d say one of the most accomplished students I’ve ever had.”
At first, Stow noticed something unusual about Burns: “He didn’t take any notes. I thought, this is going to be a disaster, and when the first blue book exam was given, I read his and he just knocked me out. He had references to things I had said in lectures, but he’d done independent readings in the library. It was a very, very thorough, comprehensive and detailed essay.”
An educational community shaped by traditional Catholic and Lasallian values, La Salle University was established in 1863 through the legacy of St. John Baptist de La Salle and the Christian Brothers teaching order. Money magazine named La Salle University a “Value All-Star,” ranking it the eighth best college nationwide for adding the most value for a college education. Globally the Lasallian educational network includes 1,000 schools (60 higher education institutions) serving 940,000 students in 80 countries.