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New Face: John Burlison

This new director brings wisdom and determination to the Harrah Hotel College’s executive education program.

People  |  Jan 23, 2017  |  By Angela Ramsey

John Burlison, director of the Center for Professional & Leadership Studies (PLuS Center.) (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

John Burlison relished the challenge of heading the Harrah Hotel College’s Professional and Leadership (PLuS) Center.  And after only four months on the job, he says he will settle for nothing less than completely transforming the online executive education market as we know it.

Why UNLV?

UNLV presented an amazing opportunity, and I jumped at the chance. I love the challenge of growing a program, and that’s what I’m committed to doing here at the PLuS Center. Also, it’s really fun to be part of a big institution like UNLV. Not only has the community been gracious, our hospitality industry partners have been extremely supportive of our mission at the PLuS Center. 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small community called Sierra Madre, California, which is a suburb of Pasadena. My dad was the town doctor. My grandfather was the pastor. It was a great place to grow up.

What inspired you to get into your field?

For many years, I worked in the real estate field in sales, lending, syndication, and property management. I knew I was good at growing and developing programs, but I found myself searching for something different. I decided to pursue a position in higher education, and in 2001, I was hired to run a regional center for adult education through Azuza Pacific University — my alma mater. During my time at Azuza, the program went from being the smallest regional center to the largest. From then on, I was hooked.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Whenever you disrupt a market, it is not easy. We are changing the way executive education is delivered, which is no small task. We want to move away from the standard online model and add learning elements like games, badging, etc., making online executive education engaging, accessible, and relevant to the hospitality industry.

Tell us about your role at the PLuS Center

My job as director is to put the PLuS Center on track to build a catalog of programs, both online and in person, that serve the hotel-gaming industry. The goal is to become self-sustaining and return revenue back to the hotel college. Our larger purpose is helping to market the UNLV brand as we deliver our services worldwide.

Proudest moment in your life?

I have two: my first proudest moment occurred when I became an Eagle Scout at 13, which very few people do at such a young age; the second was when I completed my doctoral degree in 2010.

One tip for success?

Work doing what you love. If you love Mondays, you’re in the right job.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I’m extremely handy. I can build a house from the ground up. 

Who was your favorite professor and why?

Lee Mahon, my mentor during my doctoral program, was my favorite professor. She and I just clicked. I had her for educational leadership, which was my favorite course. We still keep in touch. 

Who is your hero?

My dad. As a doctor and the son of a pastor, he lived his life serving others. He associated with everyone and made everyone feel important! He showed us all how to give back. 

Pastime or hobbies?

I love golf. I’ve been playing since I was 12 or 13. Lately, I haven’t played as much as I would like.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you and why.

My Los Angeles pottery cookie jar collection. I inherited my first jar from my grandma, which I unfortunately lost in a fire. Once I found a replacement in an antique store, I continued collecting. I have about 30 pieces now.

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked or where you went to school?

This is the first public institution I’ve ever been associated with in any capacity, and I’m loving it! It’s bigger than anywhere I’ve attended or worked. I love the sports programs and the energy of the students. It’s fun to be part of something big.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.

Coming here. If you look at my background, my experience has been limited to parochial higher education. I can’t say that coming to a public university and working with hotels and casinos didn’t raise some eyebrows. It was a big move, but I have no regrets.