University of South Florida

In Memoriam: Patricia Burns, PhD

Former USF Nursing Dean Patricia Burns, PhD, a consummate leader and formidable advocate for her beloved nursing profession, who helped lay the foundation for a nationally prominent USF College of Nursing, and played a key collaborative role in establishing what is now USF Health, passed away Sept. 21. Dr. Burns, who was also a USF Health senior associate vice president, was 77.

Dr. Patricia Burns

Dr. Patricia Burns

“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Pat Burns,” said USF System President Judy Genshaft. “Dr. Burns was instrumental in building the College and laying the groundwork for our strong trajectory in National Institutes of Health funding. She was an early advocate for the kind of interdisciplinary education and teamwork that is crucial for modern-day health care and is a point of distinction for USF Health.”

“Faculty and others who worked with Dr. Burns speak fondly about her tenure here as nursing dean,” said Charles Lockwood, MD, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine. “She was a tenacious advocate for the nursing profession, helped to raise the profile of the USF College of Nursing and was ahead of her time in recognizing the value of the students and faculty working across health disciplines to improve patient care. Her humanity and humor added depth to all she did.”

Dr. Burns served as dean of the USF College of Nursing from 1997 to 2010. She came to USF from the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY) with a mission to catapult the young nursing school into the national arena on multiple fronts – graduating more prepared nurses to meet the growing nursing shortage, building a pipeline of nursing research to enhance education and patient care, and recruiting faculty who would elevate USF’s nursing program and develop programs for advanced degrees in nursing.

She was a leading force on the national nursing stage, from the American Academy of Nursing, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing to the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculty. In the late 1990s she was a moving force in Tallahassee, helping to change Florida statutes that limited to 70 the number of nursing students schools who could enroll each year. Her vision advanced the College in teaching innovations that provided quality learning opportunities in the classroom, as well as through distance learning along with web-based and web-blended courses.

Donna Petersen, ScD, CPH, interim dean of the College of Nursing and dean of the USF College of Public Health, said Dr. Burns was instrumental in building what became USF Health out of the earlier Health Sciences Center model, working with her fellow health professions deans to map out strategies for programs that could bridge disciplines.

“She understood the power of collaboration, that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. But she never stopped being the strongest champion for her College of Nursing,” Dr. Petersen said. “Many people owe their careers to her stewardship, her creativity and her tenacity. She definitely left the world a better place than she found it.  She will be missed, but never forgotten.”

Dr. Burns retired as dean in 2010 but remained active in teaching for several years thereafter, as well as committee and community work.

Among Dr. Burns’ numerous and significant accomplishments during her career at the College of Nursing and USF Health:

  • Started the Clinical Collaborative Initiative, a partnership with Tampa Bay area health care partners to allow students seeking a bachelor’s degree to begin their clinical training on day 1 and provide opportunities for placement following graduation. The innovative model earned national attention and was featured in national journals.
  • Developed new advanced degree programs and created innovative education models. The College’s Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Nurse Anesthesia, and Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) advanced graduate degree nursing programs epitomize Dr. Burns’ vision of the ideal innovative education model. One of the first colleges in the country to offer the CNL and DNP programs, USF has graduated some of the first nurses in the country with these degrees. Started in Fall 2006 in response to the nationwide demand for more anesthesia providers, USF was only the third public university to offer the nurse anesthesia program out of seven accredited nursing programs in Florida. USF’s program was the first in the Tampa Bay area.
  • Launched the first USF Nursing Research Center, which significantly broadened the College’s research portfolio, including multidisciplinary collaborations, and substantially upgraded its research infrastructure and capacity, including enhanced administrative support and expertise in data management, project management and statistical analyses.
  • Built a reputation for excellence. During her tenure, she set the nursing school on the fast track to reaching Top 20 ranking in federal research funding, ranking first in Florida for research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and #3 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report in e-learning online programs. Under her leadership, USF nursing graduates achieved a 100 percent pass rate on Florida’s state licensing exam.
  • Maintained active research. Dr. Burns’ research and clinical focus was on female urinary incontinence and was nationally recognized. In her career, she was funded for more than 50 research studies and nursing training grants totaling more than $11 million. Dr. Burns served as a reviewer for national and international journals, participated in federal and private grant review panels, published extensively both nationally and internationally in her specialty, and was part of the team that developed a federally patented “Improved Perineometer” device.
  • Opened the state-of-the-art College of Nursing building in 2005, which tripled the size of the College facility from 25,000 to 75,000 square feet.
  • Built enduring relationships of support. Donations to USF nursing programs, facilities and scholarships blossomed under Dr. Burns’ guidance, with endowed chairs, professorships, simulation centers and more than 30 scholarships established. As dean, Dr. Burns fostered a large increase in financial donations to the College – endowments grew by more than $5 million during her 12-year tenure.

Please read this profile written about Dr. Burns in 2008, a wonderful telling of the woman, the nurse, the educator and the dynamic leader.

Dr. Burns is survived by her husband Steve, her children Karen and Robert, and her grandson Jonathan. Funeral services for Dr. Burns will be held Sept. 27 in Clarence, NY.  For memorial information, please visit:

Additional quotes remembering Dr. Patricia Burns:

“Even more than her academic accomplishments, what I treasured most about Pat was her warmth, her energy, and her sense of humor. Pat touched so many of us across the USF System and the Tampa Bay community, and she will truly be missed.”
— USF System President Judy Genshaft


“Much of what I know about leadership in academia I learned from Pat, who knew how to graciously, but fiercely, get what she needed. I’ll never forget her calling me to recruit me to USF to be dean of the College of Public Health. She had a way about her that made it impossible for you to tell her no! And after I got to know her, I always knew to look out when she got that twinkle in her eye that meant she was on to or up to something.”
Donna Petersen, ScD, MHS, CPH, senior associate vice president, USF Health; dean, College of Public Health; and interim dean, College of Nursing


“We would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for Dr. Burns. No one gave to this college more than she did. She worked tirelessly at every level and with every person she possibly could to make USF Nursing what it is today. She treated us and what we stood for as a national treasure and a gem. We were special to her. And she wanted to prove it to everyone else. She wanted to increase our ability to recruit top quality faculty, conduct life-changing research, and prepare top quality nurses. She wanted us to be a nursing leader not only regionally, but nationally. She had a great impact in changing the perception of nurses and nursing. She was one of the pioneers who took nursing and made it a science where nurses could be leaders, researchers, scientists – where they can transform health care and make life better for patients and their families. She led the way for future nurses and she was our dean.”
— Anne Phillips, MABS, chief operating officer and director of business affairs and technology for the USF College of Nursing, who was hired by Dr. Burns


“I fondly recall Dean Burns inviting me to lunch shortly after my arrival at USF in August 2004. We discussed many things, including the DNP degree and she asked that I serve on the College of Nursing DNP committee as the School of Physical Therapy was slated to achieve Board of Governors approval for our DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) degree program that month.  Later, during the construction of the new CON building, the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences got to host nursing students and faculty for classes in our MDT Building.  It was the foundation of a rich partnership that continues to this day.”
— William S. Quillen, DPT, PhD, FACSM, professor and director, USF School of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Sciences, and senior associate dean, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine

“Pat came onboard when Betty Castor was USF President, and when I took her to Tallahassee she was very forward thinking in focusing on what could be accomplished together with other universities and community colleges to improve the training of nursing students.  She was so dedicated to the future of nursing, including increasing pay to hire the best faculty.  The gratitude for her work transcended the Tampa Bay area to include the entire State University System…. She was one of my favorite deans, and every time I eat an egg salad sandwich, I think of Pat.  She loved egg salad sandwiches.”
— Kathy Betancourt, former USF associate vice president for Government Relations

“Dr. Burns was very particular and liked to have things done on time and done well. However, she also recognized that she could learn from others and was an enthusiastic student when I gave her online teaching lessons. Occasionally, she would do something that exasperated me, and I wasn’t shy about letting her know when she was wrong. She didn’t exactly apologize, but the next day she would show up with a mystery novel she thought I might enjoy. Over the years, this became our routine. She could be tough, but she also respected me as a person and a colleague, and for that I am eternally grateful. Even during these last few months, she was full of humor and still loved to keep up with everything that was going on… Every time I walk through the College of Nursing building and see a paper taped to a wall I still think of her and in her honor, I frequently rip it off. After all, that’s what she would have done.”
—   Denise Passmore, PhD, assistant professor and media and communications director, USF College of Nursing, who was hired by Dr. Burns in 2003.


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