President-elect Joe Biden nominates La Salle alumnus to head the CIA

January 14, 2021

William J. Burns, ’78

William J. Burns, ’78, a career diplomat, retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2014.

William J. Burns, ’78, a career ambassador and retired foreign service officer, has been nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Burns, a native of the Philadelphia area, was a student in La Salle’s Honors Program who graduated in 1978 with an undergraduate degree in history. As Biden’s nominee to lead the CIA, Burns must pass through a U.S. Senate confirmation process before he can begin serving in this role.  Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States in a Jan. 20 inauguration.

“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure,” Biden said in a statement. “He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect. … The American people will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA Director.”

“My whole life has been shaped by public service. I had a very fortunate career in the State department, rising from entry level to lead U.S. embassies in Russia and the Middle East,” Burns said in a video message posted by Biden’s Twitter account. … I will always do my best, if confirmed, to strengthen trust and intelligence cooperation with our allies and partners around the world.”

William J. Burns, ’78Since 2014 and following his 33-year career in diplomacy, Burns has served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—the oldest international affairs think tank in the U.S.

Burns studied history at La Salle, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1978. He was the University’s first Marshall Scholar, awarded in 1978 and providing two years of graduate scholarship in England. Burns earned his Ph.D. from Oxford University.

He was born in 1956 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina to parents who Philadelphia area natives. His father, Major General William Burns, ’54, served on the University’s Board of Trustees and is the namesake of a scholarship for La Salle ROTC students.

“I got a terrific education at La Salle,” William J. Burns told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2011. “I was lucky to have some really fine teachers there. … Studying history gives you a perspective. History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but you can learn from the challenges that leaders have faced. There are a lot of lessons to be learned.”

“La Salle’s History department congratulates Bill on his CIA director nomination under President-elect Biden,” said Stuart Leibiger, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of History. “We would also like to thank him for the assistance he has provided to our faculty and students over the years. Our department has a rich tradition of nurturing intellectual growth and molding successful leaders in countless professions. We take pride in the accomplishments of our alumni and are confident that Bill will continue to represent La Salle and the Department of History well in his new position.”

Burns previously served in President Barack Obama’s administration as deputy secretary of state from July 2011 – November 2014. Twice, he was asked to delay his retirement from the Department of State—first, by then-Secretary of State John Kerry and, later, by Obama.

Upon Burns’ retirement, Kerry referred to Burns as “the gold standard for quiet, head-down, get-it-done diplomacy.”

“Whenever I am thinking about future generations of Foreign Service officers,” Kerry wrote in a statement, “I tell people we need to build a system that builds the next Bill Burns. He embodies exactly the combination of capable and agile thinker and doer that the career Foreign Service was envisioned to produce.”

“(H)e has been a skilled advisor, consummate diplomat, and inspiration to generations of public servants,” Obama said in a statement. “…The country is stronger for Bill’s service.”

Burns previously served the federal government under the secretary of state for political affairs (2008–2011). He has held ambassadorships to Russia and Jordan, served as executive secretary of the Department of State, and held special assistantships to former State secretaries Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher.

He is the recipient of three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and, in 1994, TIME Magazine named him one of the “50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40.”

—Christopher A. Vito