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Former MDC board member and Senior Duke University Administrator, John Burness dies

We are sad to learn of the passing of John F. Burness. John was part of our MDC family, having served as a valued member of MDC’s board of directors. We are grateful for his counsel, insight and friendship as we worked together to advance the cause of equity in North Carolina and beyond. John was an advocate and force for equity in his leadership roles at Duke University. He led Duke University’s communications work for almost two decades and was the guiding force behind the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership.

We join his many friends, associates and members of the Durham Community in expressing our deepest sympathies to his family on this tremendous loss.

From Duke Today (12/20/22):

John F. Burness, who led Duke University’s communications work for almost two decades and was the guiding force behind the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, died Monday. He was 77.

Friends and colleagues called Burness a direct, friendly and caring collaborator whose work made Duke and Durham demonstrably better.

“John Burness was one of a kind,” said Nannerl Keohane, one of three Duke presidents for whom Burness worked, and the one with whom he served the longest.

“He was a wise counselor, canny strategist, man of principle, loyal and humorous friend,” Keohane said. “In his responsibility for communicating both the best and the worst of Duke, he presented the facts honestly, earning trust from all constituencies.”

Burness was Duke’s senior vice president for public affairs and government relations for 17 years, guiding the university’s interactions with reporters, elected officials, community leaders and others beyond the campus. He was directly responsible for the university’s offices of news and communications, community affairs, photography and government relations in Washington, Raleigh and Durham, and served broadly as an adviser to trustees, deans, faculty, student leaders and others.

After retiring from Duke, Burness joined the Durham Technical Community College Board of Trustees in 2009, later serving as chair. He also worked on other local leadership boards, including those of MDC Inc.; the United Way of Greater Durham; the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science; Downtown Durham, Inc.; the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce; and the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

Prior to coming to Duke in 1991, Burness was the senior public affairs officer of three other universities — vice president for university relations at Cornell University, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois and deputy to the president for university relations at Stony Brook University.

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