John Burness will return to Lancaster, Pa. to lead his alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College, this summer.

Burness will begin a one-year term as interim president of Franklin & Marshall July 1, according to an announcement from Dale Frey, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees.

“I’ve just had an extraordinary experience over the time that I’ve been [at Duke] and I’m going to a place that I care about very, very deeply,” Burness said. “I think it’s like a sabbatical—it’ll be a very interesting year for me, hopefully I can do some good for [the college], and I’m looking forward to coming back to Duke.”

Burness has served in a number of roles at Duke, including 17 years as senior vice president for public affairs and government relations.

Provost Peter Lange, who worked with Burness for eight years, said Burness’s time at Duke will serve him well in his year-long post.

“I’m just really really pleased for him, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to contribute to his alma mater in a way that will really help them and he’ll be really good at,” Lange said. “John is a very observant person. He observed three presidents, and I don’t know how many provosts, and lots of administrative changes and things. And he’ll absorb all that and see how it relates to being interim president at Franklin & Marshall.”

When Burness was approached about the job informally about six months ago, he said he dismissed it. But he began to reconsider the possibility when he was formally approached about a month ago.

“It occurred to me that it’s the kind of contribution you can make to an institution. Just like this place changes lives, [Franklin & Marshall] changes lives,” Burness said. “So the more I thought about it, the more interested I got.”

Burness, who has been a member of the Franklin & Marshall College Board of Trustees for seven years, will serve while a search committee looks for a replacement for current president John Fry.

Fry is leaving the college to become president of Drexel University. In a Franklin & Marshall news release, Fry said Burness was the first person he approached to become a trustee.

“I admired him both for his great expertise and standing in American higher education as well as his incredibly warm personality and wonderful common sense,” Fry said in the statement. “I welcome him and Anne in their new capacity to the Franklin & Marshall family and know that their presence will be wonderful for the faculty, professional staff and students for the coming year.”

Burness is currently a professor of the practice in the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He has been a consultant to several universities and is an invited columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Michael Schoenfeld, the current vice president for public affairs and government relations, praised Franklin & Marshall’s decision and said Burness had been a mentor figure since they met more than 15 years ago.

“[He’s] one of the best in the business and is widely respected and highly regarded by anybody who has been in this profession,” Schoenfeld said. “I think it’s a brilliant move for Franklin & Marshall to bring him in. He loves and cares for the school as much as he cares for anything.”

Burness said he will miss Duke, and although he will not be able to teach his scheduled Fall course, “Higher Education and News Media,” Burness said he is looking forward to returning to teaching in Fall 2011.

Taylor Doherty contributed reporting.