When Michael Burcham was awarded the Executive MBA Outstanding Professor Award at Vanderbilt University’s May commencement ceremonies, he had a definite sense of déjà vu, not to mention no small amount of satisfaction.
“It was a happy surprise, but I had gotten similar recognition at Belmont four or five times before moving to Vanderbilt,” Burcham said. “Still, it was quite an honor and I was very pleased to be recognized.”
While he did indeed receive such student-chosen honors at Belmont University, where he received his master’s degree and taught graduate classes in the Jack C. Massey Graduate School of Business from 1997 through 2001. He also received recognition of another kind at Belmont when he was outed by a student and subsequently chose to resign his commission rather than defend his sexual identity to a board of trustees packed with Southern Baptist ministers.
“I had been asked to teach an undergraduate class, and a student did a Web search and found that I had donated to Nashville Cares, and was a part of the gay community,” Burcham said. “The student then sent a letter to the pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church, who was on the board, and asked ‘What is a gay person doing teaching classes at the university?’”
That led to his being called on the carpet in the president’s office, and a quick realization that while his teaching record was exemplary, the school’s administration was unlikely to back him in what would likely become a board-led effort for his ouster.
“I was asked if I was gay, as though I had done something wrong, and I said I was indeed a gay person,” Burcham recalled. “I had never tried to hide it, but I felt as though I had done something to cause all this to happen.”
After some soul searching, he regretfully left an institution where he’d achieved a postgraduate degree and invested no small amount of his teaching skills. A year of entrepreneurial work followed as he continued to operate his own businesses as well as provide advice and consulting services in the venture capital and startup communities. Then Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management came knocking, and he chose, tentatively, to answer.
“I knew there was nothing to be gained by sticking around Belmont, and Vanderbilt had been reaching out,” Burcham said. “But I wasn’t quite ready to jump back in. It took me a year to prepare to do that, because I was still learning a valuable lesson: You can’t force people to accept you, and you have got make sure that you’re at someplace where you’re wanted.”
Once he’d landed on the Vanderbilt campus he says he quickly realized that the atmosphere was different there in terms of diversity, and over the ensuing seven years he’s settled in quite nicely. He holds no grudges against his alma mater, though, and is quick to point out that a person’s goal should include evaluating employers, and institutions, to make sure there’s a good fit before making a solid commitment.
“Before you start building a career somewhere, do an honest assessment of the place,” he said. “Is this the best setting for me? Is this a place where I won’t be arbitrarily judged? When you’re working in a state like Tennessee, where there is no real employee protection, you’ve got to be sure you’re at a place that’s more embracing of diversity. You have to be in a place that will support you.”
In his case, that place was right around the corner.
“It amazed me that I left a place that did not want me, and literally down the street found one that said ‘We’d love to have you and your creative talent.’" Burcham said. "I was very fortunate. It’s so important to spend the time to investigate places, to make sure you’re wanted.”