Karen Buck Burgess '72
Karen Buck Burgess has worked for more than 25 years as a public interest lawyer, specializing in financial market issues. She served at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in a variety of senior legal positions, including associate general counsel and counsel to the chairman. She helped spearhead SEC initiatives fighting penny stock fraud and helped draft laws strengthening investor protections. She’s currently legal counsel at the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which was chartered by Congress after the Enron collapse to strengthen financial reporting. Burgess has a long-standing interest in education. After graduating from Oberlin, she taught in a rural school in Kenya, attended an innovative poverty-oriented law school (Antioch School of Law, 1976), and worked for the federal Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Karen also worked in Hong Kong and Japan for U.S. law firms, and for the U.N High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand. Helping address the needs of Cambodian refugees made a lasting impression on her. Burgess arrived at Oberlin in 1968 during the tumult of the Vietnam War. Her education and experiences there profoundly affected her decision to practice public interest law. She lived at Keep Co-op and served on Student Senate and educational reform committees. As Class of 1972 president, she lined up Pete Seeger as graduation speaker—and he sang! After graduation, she worked as an assistant to President Bob Fuller for a year. Karen is married to journalist John Burgess ’72. They have two daughters, Katharine and Sarah.
Questions and Answers
What strengths would you bring to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees?
As happened with so many of us, Oberlin changed my life. I met my husband at Oberlin. My closest friends are Oberlin classmates. An Oberlin professor was guardian of my children. An Oberlin family “adopted” me into their home and gave me insights into the broader Oberlin community. It’s not an Oberlin trait to be self-congratulatory. But here are some reasons why I could make a good trustee: 1) Tending to Oberlin’s budget and balance sheet is not the most glamorous job, but in the current economic environment, preserving and investing the college’s resources require serious attention. My experience in law, finance and corporate governance gives me special insights into this work. 2) Oberlin’s small classes, excellent faculty and challenging intellectual environment are among its greatest strengths. To keep the college competitive, we need to build on these strengths. My experience teaching, on college reform committees, and as a federal grants officer for innovative educational programs, would give me real standing in discussions on the college’s educational future. 3) Oberlin is remote; however, its history as a stop on the underground railroad and as a pioneer in higher education for women and people of color takes it beyond its little corner of the world. We can carry on these traditions by fostering student diversity and supporting urban and international study programs to push beyond the comfort zone of College and Main. My international and humanitarian experience could help accomplish this. 4) Most of all, I love and understand Oberlin. It would be an honor to give back to a place that has meant so much to me.
What is important to you? What do you spend your time thinking about and/or working on?
In my work, it's always been important to me to try to advance the public interest. Over the years, I've worked on investor protection legislation, the strengthening of financial reporting, and enforcement of laws against securities fraud and money laundering. It's not always easy to advance these causes in a Washington where corporate power is strong and industries insist they can regulate themselves. To be successful, I’ve found that you have to be more prepared than the person sitting across from you at the table, and very persuasive. I spend a lot of time thinking about strategies to move the public interest forward, and I devote more time than I'd like to reading and mastering complex laws and regulations.
As a mother, I probably spend more time than I should worrying about my children, and trying to support them without stifling them. I don’t think I was a "helicopter parent" as my two girls grew up, but I did spend a lot of time making cupcakes, acting as class mother, organizing the school book fair, and raising money—for their elementary school, high school, and colleges. Now that they’re grown, I try to make sure that we take the time to be together as family.
What do you most want alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?
I grew up in the '50s, watching the Mickey Mouse Club and Leave It to Beaver. It was a time of affluence in our country, and I was given great opportunities – including the chance to be educated at a place like Oberlin and to live and work overseas. But I’ve also seen real poverty and despair. I represented abused children during law school. In Southeast Asia, I worked with refugees, some of whom had been raped during their escapes or who were searching for children separated from them by war. I'm grateful and humbled for how fortunate I have been. I try to volunteer where I can, to give something back. In my current life, I've worked with the homeless, with a local theater group, and at my church. I want to be doing more. Serving as an Oberlin trustee would help me do that.
What attracted you to Oberlin?
Applying to college in the 1960s was simpler than it is today. I was looking for a college that was engaged in the social justice movements of the 1960s, a place very different (and preferably far away) from the suburban Long Island town where I grew up. I’d never heard of Oberlin until 1967, when during my senior year in high school, I cut out a picture in my local paper of Oberlin students surrounding the car of a Navy recruiter in an anti-war demonstration. I applied, was accepted, and saw the college for the first time when I drove into town with my father in our red Rambler station wagon.
What about Oberlin resonates with you today?
Oberlin is still small. It focuses on intimate classes and the individual student in a world that is increasingly complex. It nurtures its students with a wonderful college town environment, while at the same time challenging them in the classroom. It provides a haven in which students can learn, experiment and make lifelong friends. And the music! All in all, Oberlin represents the very best in the small liberal arts college tradition. The college's history of fairness, equal rights and social justice gives this little part of rural Ohio continuing relevance in a modern world.
What do you believe will be the most important issues facing Oberlin in the next five years?
Happily, there’s no shortage of ideas to make Oberlin even better. Sadly, the most important thing holding Oberlin back is likely to be money. The economy is still depressed. Federal budget cutbacks will likely affect all institutions of higher education. High tuition and the uncertain environment for jobs mean that qualified students may not even apply. Carefully managing the college's resources, and seeking new sources of revenue, is, unfortunately, what I see as the most important issue the college faces in the near term.
With limited financial resources, what would be your funding priorities at Oberlin?
Students. Maintaining funding for scholarships is critical to diversity and affordability. I would also support funding aimed at helping students study abroad.
Faculty. A good teacher can change your life, and there are many good teachers at Oberlin. We need to make sure that Oberlin continues to attract and hold them. This means keeping faculty salaries competitive and supporting research and professional opportunities.
Oberlin Environment. Walking through Oberlin tugs at my heart. The college has done a fabulous job of preserving the campus, enhancing Tappan Square, and constructing new buildings that are energy efficient. I would continue to support those efforts.
What is your vision for Oberlin College?
I want to contribute to Oberlin through my talents, energy, and commitment. However, I honestly don't think my personal vision for Oberlin should be the one that counts. (In saying this, I’m thinking about the recent scandal at the University of Virginia.) I think that, as a trustee, it’s important to listen, and be respectful of those who are closer to the scene. I would also hope to be a conduit for the views of alumni. I love Oberlin, and want to help make it the best it can be.
What elements of your personal and/or professional life would be helpful in your service as an Oberlin trustee?
I was one of those “painfully sincere” Oberlinians of the sixties who had a hard time being self-congratulatory. I think my personal statement expresses how I think my personal and professional experiences could benefit my service to Oberlin as a trustee.
With respect to personal qualities, here are some that may be relevant: I am practical and like to get things done. I think on my feet, work hard, and am committed to Oberlin. It would be an honor to serve.