Tufts University

David W. Burke (A'57)

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2009

Factory worker, labor expert, political operative, TV executive: DAVID W. BURKE, A57, has traveled many paths, all the while devoting his life to public service and civic engagement. His career has taken him from the inner workings of government to Wall Street to the highest levels of media influence. In a remarkable career, he has shaped key legislation, helped save New York City from financial catastrophe, created a long-respected social investment fund and set new standards for television news coverage.

In a Boston Globe column published when Burke was named chief executive of CBS News in 1988, he was described as a man of "unusual integrity, toughness, intelligence and humor."

After graduating from Tufts, Burke, a native of Brookline, Massachusetts, became a union worker in a factory before pursuing an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago on a National Honor Society scholarship.

A few years later he worked with his mentor, future Secretary of State George Schultz, to produce a major policy report for the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan public policy organization, that laid the groundwork for creating a national labor relations policy. He worked for President John F. Kennedy on labor issues and on the staff of U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., as a legislative aide and then chief of staff. Burke's work in the Senate helped end quotas restricting immigration from non-European countries, influenced the Supreme Court to stop a poll tax that prevented minorities from voting and exposed the U.S. Department of State's neglect of Vietnamese refugees displaced by U.S. military bombing campaigns.

He then moved to Wall Street, where in 1972 he created the Third Century Fund, a Dreyfus mutual fund that invests only in socially conscious companies. Burke returned to public service in the mid-1970s, joining the administration of New York Governor Hugh Carey, creating the team and guiding the policies that rescued New York City from bankruptcy.

In 1977 Burke became vice president of ABC News. During his tenure at the network, he worked with Roone Arledge to elevate ABC News from third to first place in the ratings. He also oversaw the creation of Nightline with Ted Koppel and 20/20 with Barbara Walters. In 1988 he was named president of CBS News, where he directed the network's continuing coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests. CBS was the only network to have an anchor and news crew on site broadcasting live, allowing the world to witness the historic event.

President Bill Clinton in 1994 appointed Burke the first chairman of the federal government's Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and other U.S. government-sponsored international broadcasts. The board honored him by creating the David W. Burke Distinguished Journalism Award for broadcasters who demonstrate exceptional performance and courage.

Today Burke serves on the board of directors of the John F. Kennedy Library, and he is a founding board member of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Study of the United States Senate.

Tufts University will award Burke an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.