Mentally Tough, Not your Average Department Head

From training and competing in Ironman races, to a new position right before a global pandemic, you could say Scott Burris, Ph.D., is physically and mentally tough. 

Burris, who became chairman of the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications at Texas Tech University in January 2020, is a product of this department; he was an agriculture education major and graduated under one of his long-time mentors, the late Paul Vaughn, Ph.D. Burris accredits a lot of where he is today to his late department head.

Burris and two of his training buddies after finishing a race.

“He stayed on me and stayed on me,” Burris said. “Without Paul Vaughn, I would not have gone to graduate school, and there’s no way I would be where I am today.”

Burris said he has learned a lot from past department heads who have been mentors. He said he is thankful for the guidance and leadership from not only Vaughn, but also Matt Baker, Ph.D., and Steve Fraze, Ph.D., who have all been influential in his education and career in academia. 

However, Burris has an experience that not many people, let alone college department heads, can say —  he has finished 13 Ironman races. Though this a physical challenge, it truly highlights his mental strength.  

“Whether it’s in life, work or an Ironman, no one ever has had a great time the whole time,” Burris said. “You get to a point to where you think you can’t handle it anymore and you want to quit. However, that’s not an option.”

Dr. Burris said that you have to know bad times are inevitable, but it is how you handle these situations that really matter. 

“Quitting is unacceptable and is not allowed,” said Burris, quoting his favorite book Toughness by Jay Bilas from his phone notes.

“Not only does this help me when I’m racing an Ironman, this defines my life,” Burris said. “That is the basic rule right there. If you believe that quitting is no longer an option, that eliminates a whole lot of things that are no longer realistic for you. Then you can focus on the choices that are more important.”

Burris and his daughter after an IronMan race that finished on the 50-yard line of the Texas Tech Football field

Burris often references his running notes page of quotes from the book Toughness, by Jay Bilas, to help him push through as he started his role as AEC chair and while guiding the department through a pandemic. 

“I’ve only been doing this for two months,” Burris said. “This is all new, and no one has ever done this before, so who knows if I’m doing a good job.”

Courtney Meyers, Ph.D., professor and graduate coordinator for the agricultural education and communications department, has worked closely with Burris and said she has enjoyed working for and alongside Burris during his transition to department head. 

Meyers said she admires his lead by example leadership.

“One thing I love about Dr. Burris is that he is so open with his communication and he shows genuine interest in everything we do,” Meyers said. “Dr. Burris always asks, ‘What do you need from me?’ and just knowing that if I really did need something, I have someone to go to.”

Meyers praised Burris for being accessible during the COVID-19 crisis and the university’s transition to online courses during the spring 2020 semester. 

“Once a week Dr. Burris has virtual coffee,” Meyers said. “There’s no agenda. It’s just a check-in period to ask questions, see everyone and it really makes us realize that we do miss all being in the same building and being around one another.”

Burris said his colleagues within the AEC department make his job easy.

“I’m on a really good team,” Burris said. “So that changes everything, and I feel honored just to get to play a role on it.” 

Burris believes the AEC students, faculty and staff will all be better following the pandemic because of the way everyone has united to navigate the challenges.

“Eventually this pandemic will end, but we will never go back to the way things were,” Burris said. “Our students are being forced into being self-directed learners, and because of that our students will be better in the future.”

Scott Burris, Ph.D., and his family after his very first IronMan race.