Penn State alumnus and former Blue Band member Harry Burns and his wife, Patricia Wirth, have made a financial commitment to the University for the purpose of establishing the “Blue Band Diversity Fund,” which aims to increase diversity within one of the University’s most iconic organizations.
The fund will provide resources for diversity recruitment and scholarships that will support Blue Band director Greg Drane’s efforts to promote Penn State and the Blue Band as a welcoming place for students of all races and genders.
“We try, in everything we do, to show that this is an open environment that welcomes diversity,” Drane said. “We want to inspire people to work towards this goal and I’m grateful to Harry and Pat because, without hesitation, they said: ‘Here you go. Let’s get this done.’”
Promoting diversity is not a new endeavor for Burns and Wirth, who spent more than 30 years as communications research and development pioneers at AT&T Bell Laboratories, now known as AT&T Laboratories. During their prolific careers, they were instrumental in engineering major communications breakthroughs and were also on the front lines of a diversity movement within corporate America.
During her time at AT&T Labs, Wirth was the first woman to be named AT&T Fellow, the company’s highest technical honor. She also chaired the AT&T Labs Fellowship Program, which supports under-represented minorities and women in pursuing doctoral degrees. In that capacity, she mentored and supported almost 100 students and received the YWCA Tribute to Women and Industry Award and the Women of AT&T Management Executive Award. She was also honored as a “Master” by the University of Nebraska, her alma mater, and was selected as a member of the Nebraska Hall of Computing.
Burns made his mark in the company by encouraging diversity through proactive recruitment and mentoring as he rose from engineer to executive. He regularly spoke at historically black universities and colleges and strived for diversity throughout all research and development teams that he managed.
When one of those teams was named as the winner of the prestigious AT&T Bell Labs Software Excellence Award, Burns welcomed the recognition, but it was at the awards ceremony that he realized the significant diversity of the software team was making a profound difference.
“I looked around that stage and the many diverse faces is what I was tremendously proud of and it’s what struck me the most,” Burns said. “We’ve seen in action what diversity can do and we both looked at the Blue Band and saw the opportunity for that type of growth, which can lead to a more representative band that continues its success and grows its prestige.”
Burns played baritone horn in the Blue Band from 1963 to 1965 and has performed more than 20 times in the Alumni Band as part of the homecoming festivities. He has maintained, and strengthened, his deep ties to the University and while he didn’t have the opportunity to meet Drane until the fund was discussed, from afar he admired his efforts to improve diversity.
“There was an incredible alignment between what Greg wants to do with the band and our vision,” Burns said. “It was an exciting meeting, but it was also an open and honest conversation about challenges in the area of diversity.”
Unlike many of the schools Drane is recruiting against, Penn State does not offer full scholarships to Blue Band members. There is money generously endowed by Blue Band donors, which is used for scholarships, but out of the band’s 320 members less than 20 percent of the students receive partial scholarship support.
Despite the financial obstacles, the Blue Band’s retention rate is about 97 percent and the band has a combined GPA of 3.3. Those numbers and the illustrious history of the band allow for a steady stream of students trying out each year, but Drane said the diversity of that group is not where he would like it to be.
To increase exposure of the band and draw students from different backgrounds, Drane introduced Forward March: The Blue Band Experience. In its inaugural year, the program drew 450 students from 17 states and gave a high school band from Baltimore, Maryland, the opportunity to perform with the Blue Band at the 2018 Blue and White game.
The initiative was one that Burns and Wirth point to as an impetus for their philanthropy. As a result of the establishment of the Blue Band Diversity Fund, the 2019 Forward March initiative will feature two inner-city bands and the pool of money for scholarships will increase, which Drane said will help to “move the needle.”
“When I hear Greg say that, the engineer in me loves the concept because we’re measuring something, but what does that look like?” Burns said. “It’s my hope that when the TV cameras pan the Blue Band during future halftime shows we begin to see more diversity, and I think that will lead to a more representative band and ultimately a better Penn State.”