Spotlight: The Burke of all trades

Posted: March 10, 2015 | Written by Josiah Patterson
Riverside Community College District Chancellor Michael Burke reflects on his life
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THE VISION: Riverside Community College District Chancellor, Dr. Michael L. Burke explains his plans for the future Riverside City College’s campus and its students.

In his college days, Dr. Michael L. Burke worked in the shrimping industry on the Texas coast where he made $1.25 an hour.

Today he is the chancellor of the Riverside Community College District.

Burke describes his teenage years by using an example of the character Bubba Blue from the movie “Forest Gump” who comes from a shrimping family and knows every way to cook shrimp.

He also uses the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company as an example of the kind of work he did.

“If you saw ‘Forest Gump’ and know of Bubba Gump, that was kind of my childhood,” Burke said. “It paid for my college. It wasn’t great work, but it was honest work.”

Burke’s job in the shrimping industry was just one of the many jobs that put him through college.

“I had a lot of really college-kid type jobs,” Burke said. “I was a waiter, a bad waiter. One of my favorite jobs was where I cleaned swimming pools.”

Burke, a native Texan, grew up in poverty.

He was a first generation college student.

“My parents had high school educations,” Burke said. “They had jobs, but I grew up poor. I really didn’t know I was poor because everyone in my school was poor, so I really wasn’t aware of my circumstances until I went away to college.”

Although Burke’s parents never went to college, they expected him to go.

This was not an issue for Burke since he never considered not going to college.

“My parents weren’t really able to provide a lot of direction or guidance.” Burke said. “They didn’t understand what college was, but it was something I was going to go to.”

Burke holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Houston.

Additionally, he holds a doctorate degree in Educational Administration from the University of Texas at Austin.

Burke began his career as an English and ESL instructor at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Texas, and has worked in community colleges for over 25 years in Texas, Idaho, Wisconsin and California.

He worked as an administrator for the Dallas County Community College District, and as president of North Idaho College, San Jose City College and Milwaukee Area Technical College before becoming the chancellor of RCCD.

“I have fun at work, as weird as that sounds,” Burke said. “I think it’s important to find things on the job that you enjoy doing … I find myself drawn to the fine arts in general, so I always take opportunities to give myself mental time outs. When there is an art show or gallery show at one of our campuses, I’ll go and feed my head, so to speak.”

Burke enjoys practicing taekwondo in his free time.

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Tae Buddies: Chancellor Michael L. Burke (far right) poses with his Taekwondo group.

“I tell people I have a black belt in taekwondo, and I literally do,” Burke said. “I’ve always enjoyed martial arts. I think it’s a unique way to kind of focus yourself mentally.”

Naturally, Burke has a heart for impoverished areas, and this passion played a part in what led him to Riverside.

“There are a lot of people living in poverty here, and if there is a consistent theme through my career, it has been an issue around providing a quality education for people living in poverty,” Burke said. “I see it as the only systemic way of addressing issues of poverty in our country. I seek out areas like this.”

Burke was not aware of financial aid at the beginning of his college career, and he aspires that students become more aware of the scholarships and financial aid that is available to them.

“I am always kind of stunned at the way students are not always fully aware of the financial support that is available to them,” Burke said.

Although 54 percent of students in the district have Board of Governor’s fee waivers, there are many scholarships that are available to students but are never given out.

“Those scholarships are sitting on the shelves and students don’t apply for them,” Burke said.

His outlined goals for 2014-2016 include: creating a climate of stewardship, creating a climate for participatory decision-making, creating a culture of intentionality, and creating a culture of care.

Burke relishes his position as chancellor.

“I enjoy what I do,” Burke said.

From shrimp handling to student and faculty overseeing, Burke’s role in society has changed, and he is not complaining about it.