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Grad student advocate
Mason seeks more graduate support

 

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24 October 2001 | Social Welfare Professor Mary Ann Mason became dean of Berkeleyís Graduate Division in August 2000. In her role for little more than a year, she has focused the divisionís efforts on services for graduate students and maintaining the quality of Berkeleyís 100-plus graduate degree programs. As the Graduate Division now turns its attention to increasing financial support for graduate students, Mason talked recently about graduate education at Berkeley and the major issues facing her division.

What is the role of the Graduate Division?
The division provides quality control for the degrees that Berkeley graduate students receive, so that a Berkeley degree means the same thing no matter where it comes from among Berkeleyís many degree-granting programs. However, the major role of the Graduate Division, as I see, is to be an advocate for graduate students and graduate education. I see myself as a full-time advocate, at Berkeley, on the state level and nationally. My most important advocacy roles at the moment are to get more graduate student fellowship funding and to get new graduate housing, particularly for international students.

We are working to make the Graduate Division a user-friendly office, a virtual, one-stop counter for information on the Web and questions and answers, so that graduate students have a better idea of their requirements and the services offered for them at Berkeley, whether thatís fellowships, other financial support, help for graduate student instructors, or the monthly e-Grad newsletter.

What is the campus doing to increase the number of graduate fellowships it offers, and why are graduate fellowships so important?
We are planning a multi-year campus initiative to raise at minimum a $200-million-dollar endowment for graduate fellowships, focusing most immediately in the social sciences, arts and humanities.

The thing that makes Berkeley unique, and by most accounts the number one research university in the world, is the quality of its faculty and the quality of its research, which depends on its graduate students. They are really tied up as a package. If we begin to lose the top candidates to other universities because they offer a better package of financial support for graduate students, the whole mission of the university will be jeopardized.

What steps are being taken to improve the housing situation for grad students ó specifically, to counter high rents and limited availability of affordable rentals?
Weíre trying to do a number of things. First of all, weíre trying to help students learn whatís available and give them more clues about where the housing is, what it costs and how to find it. At Spring Visit Day, we sponsored a housing workshop for new students and will try to encourage them to hook up with a ďhousing buddy,Ē someone they can go to for advice and leads.

Weíre also looking into first-year housing for new graduate students. Iím working with the housing office on this issue. We would like to be able to offer a residence for any new graduate student who needs it. And we hope in the future to plan for some new graduate student housing, including new university residences and possibly housing planned with private developers.

In your first year as dean, what have you learned about the state of graduate education here at Berkeley?
Iím continually amazed at the breadth of graduate education here, the fact that we have so many degree-granting programs and how different each of these programs is. Itís like living in a country that has 105 nation-states, with their own identities and personalities. I think that adds to the enormous richness on the campus. We have the most serious physicists, we have the most serious Scandinavian literature students. Thereís such a wide range of academic interests among the graduate students. And yet the students clearly have a general feeling of community within their departments and a feeling that itís a great privilege to be part of the university.

Iíve always felt that way, too. Itís one of the reasons I took the job as graduate dean. Itís a privilege to be here, and important to serve in as many ways as one can.

How do you negotiate the challenges of this ďnation-stateĒ model?
Itís difficult. Graduate Division provides a centralizing force, in terms of the requirements for degrees and time to degree. It also provides basic quality control over the kind of degree people get. But beyond that thereís an enormous amount of academic discretion and freedom.

The other thing the Graduate Division can try to do is help even out the resources available to different programs and assist departments that are struggling. All departments are important, but some need more help than others.

I think of the Graduate Division as a central place where students can feel that they have an advocate, both in finding fellowships and in student appeals. Graduate Division also coordinates all departmental reviews of graduate programs ó an important part of maintaining quality, alerting the university to problems and helping departments solve them.

How can Berkeley increase diversity in its graduate student population? Does more need to be done on a departmental level, administrative level or both?
Obviously, because this is such a decentralized campus, it is the departments that really have to pay attention to who they reach out to and who they admit. Administratively, on a central level, we can help by providing some extra counseling, sometimes some financial support and a staff that is dedicated to diversity recruitment and retention ó but each department really has to make a commitment across the board.

What diversity means is very different in different departments. Whoís underrepresented in engineering is different from whoís underrepresented in music theory. Overall, very few departments couldnít benefit from improvement in diversity issues. It adds to the university to have an increasingly diverse population. You already have such a different population at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level. You have a national population, not primarily statewide, and you have a good percentage of international students. You really have a different demographic group that by its nature is more diverse.

At a campus this size, how do you keep in touch with the issues and concerns of students and faculty?
I meet regularly with the president of the Graduate Student Assembly, and I am engaged in a variety of activities with the assembly ó for instance, the Grad Division co-sponsored a forum about Sept. 11 a week following the attack. I have my own research assistants, who are graduate students, and I still am a mentor for many doctoral students from my home department, so I certainly learn from their perspectives. I also try to engage students whenever I can and ask them about whatís important, whatís going on.

I keep in contact with faculty partly through my own department, but also through the Council of Deans and frequent conversations with department chairs. And they contact me by e-mail. During my 11 years on campus, Iíve been very active in the Association of Academic Women and the Academic Senate, and Iím a participant in the Berkeley Family Forum, a group with a cross-section of faculty. So I have been out of my department a lot, too.

How do your experiences as a faculty member shape your perspectives as dean?
They really support what Iíve always believed, that itís important to have administrators who are also professors. Otherwise, you could be running the Bank of America or any other corporation and lose track of whatís important about the university: its academic mission. You do get caught up in the everydayness of administration, but itís important to think about the larger goals. I think faculty bring that to administration.

Also, because Iím a faculty member, I very much cherish the breadth of knowledge in all the departments. Itís not necessarily efficient to have so many departments focusing on so many topics, but thatís not as important as being a leader in the academic community and shining light on all areas of knowledge.

What research projects are you currently pursuing?
The feminization of graduate education is a topic Iím going to be starting to pursue. For the first time this year, more than 50 percent of the graduate students are women, and Iím going to be looking at what this means to the future of diversity and the professoriate, how it changes the academic culture.

As a professor in social welfare, my own research is on family law and policy, and Iím still continuing my work on stepfamilies. Iíve done a lot of research in the past on work and family issues ó a very useful segue into a study of graduate education. When youíre talking about the feminization of graduate education, you are introducing the work and family issue and how it plays out among graduate students and, ultimately, the professoriate.
My latest research project is called ďDo Babies Matter?Ē Weíre looking at the life cycle of men and women in the academic world and exploring whether babies and marriage have an effect. Weíll actually follow the life cycles of men and women past their Ph.Ds and into their careers. The purpose is to find better policies that will address issues of work and family for students during their graduate studies and later in their careers.

How do you find time to balance your research with your administrative duties?
It hasnít been so easy, but there are some very good researchers here on the staff. I also brought some researchers with me, with whom Iíll be working. Iím still working with the Berkeley Center for Child and Youth Policy, too. I think the real advantage of being an academic administrator is that you donít leave the research world entirely. You keep a hand in. I do miss teaching, though. I love to teach, and I hope Iíll be able to do some teaching in the future.

Youíre the first woman to be appointed graduate dean at Berkeley. What can the presence of more women in top administrative posts bring to the university?
Itís critical to have women in these positions, because they can really empathize with the graduate women coming in as students. In my own case, for example, I had work and family issues, I raised two children. Thatís an important dimension in the life of women graduate students. In terms of central administration in general, I wonít say that women necessarily have a different style, but they do understand the needs of women faculty and researchers. Also, women can be very effective because theyíre used to juggling many things at once. They are by training multi-taskers.

ó Portions of this story originally appeared in an interview by Elizabeth Babalis in The Graduate, a Graduate Division publication.

 


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