Paula D. McClain will conclude her service as dean of The Graduate School this September, wrapping up 10 years of service in that role. As she prepares to transition back to her position as a faculty member in political science, she shared some reflections on her time as dean and what lies ahead.
What are your plans once you wrap up your deanship? What are you most looking forward to?
After my year’s sabbatical, I am returning to my department, the Department of Political Science. I am looking forward to getting back in the classroom with undergraduates, something I have not done in 10 years. I continued to work with Ph.D. students while I was dean, and had two students defend their dissertations and two others defend their dissertation prospectuses this past June. One of the new Ph.D.s has a postdoc this coming academic year at Princeton and then will take up a tenure-track position at Temple University, and the other has a postdoc and then a tenured-track faculty position at George Washington University. But I have not taught Duke undergraduates in a decade. I know I will need to relearn that skill and am looking forward to it.
I am most looking forward to being able to return to my research on a more intense basis. I was able to continue to do research while serving as dean, but it was not at the level of my pre-dean years, and I am looking forward to getting back into it. I am an academic at heart, and research is one of the things I enjoy most about being an academic. I also involved my graduate students in my research efforts pre-deanship, and am looking forward to embarking on new projects that will allow me to pull them into my work again.
As you reflect on your 10 years as dean, what are some of your proudest accomplishments?
When I became dean, I was not aware of the role that fundraising would play in providing increased resources for graduate students, and The Graduate School did not have a development team or a fundraising strategy. We have been able to build a fantastic development team and they have done an incredible job of raising money to support graduate students in TGS. TGS will enter the next capital campaign with a robust fundraising team and strategy and that makes me proud.
Because of fundraising, TGS’s annual student fellowship support increased by 40 percent, and summer research fellowships tripled. We were able to begin providing guaranteed summer research fellowships for the first two years of Ph.D. study in 2014, and starting this fall, all Ph.D. students in their first five years will receive full 12-month stipends.
Another accomplishment is that TGS has been able to reconnect many of our alums back to Duke and TGS. The rebuilding of relationships and being able to get alums engaged with our current students has been beneficial to all parties. It has also allowed me to meet some incredible people that we have been able to put in positions on regional alumni boards and bring onto the Graduate School Board of Visitors.
I am also proud of the achievements we have made in diversifying our graduate programs, and other diversity, equity, and inclusion programs we have launched. Becoming one of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s University Centers for Exemplary Mentoring in 2017 has increased diversity in 10 STEM graduate programs, something that might not have happened as quickly as it did without the Sloan award. The insights and resources we created on that initiative also laid the groundwork for us to help more than 50 of Duke’s graduate programs adopt more holistic admission practices.
We also created fellowships to support research on systemic racism and on women or girls of color, and incorporated implicit bias training into our Responsible Conduct of Research programming. These changes have provided additional opportunities for graduate students to receive funding for their research.
Adding an assistant dean for professional development allowed TGS to provide career options for our Ph.D. students beyond the academy. The world has changed and Ph.D. students have options that were not available before or were not thought of as options for our students. TGS has a robust set of workshops, experiences, programs and other activities to help students explore various career options.
What remains to be done? What are the biggest challenges facing graduate education at Duke?
While we accomplished a great deal in the 10 years of my deanship, there is always more to be done. TGS needs to not take its foot off the development pedal, because stipend support is always an issue that will continue to be an issue in graduate education at Duke.
The university made the decision three years ago to move all Ph.D. students in their five years of guaranteed funding to full 12-month stipends. Clearly, that was a major decision, but as we are now at that point, we know that stipends need to be even higher than we originally anticipated. COVID, inflation, and substantial increases in cost of living in Durham have created local conditions where our students find themselves in more difficult financial situations than three years ago when the decision was made.
Funding for graduate education is a complicated process and unfortunately there are no quick and easy fixes. But it is imperative that we address these issues, and TGS has been working on them and will continue to do so.
Are there moments from the past decade that stand out in your mind?
One of the exciting moments during my second year, I believe, was receiving $7.5 million from The Duke Endowment! It was one of the largest gifts TGS had received. Five million dollars of that gift were for an endowment for fellowships, and $2.5 million were for challenge funds to increase our fundraising. Those challenge funds helped TGS raise even more money and help build our donor base.
Another continuing moment was my working with and getting to know the leadership of then GPSC and now GPSG. What an incredible group of leaders over the years! Many of their initiatives over the years continue to exist and some are supported by TGS. In particular, I am thinking about the initial proposal for the community pantry and how it has been sustained and grown over the years. There is such a need, especially among international master’s students and students with families, and GPSG recognized that need and partnered with TGS to get it done.
Inclusive excellence is a passion of mine. An institution cannot be excellent without being diverse. Creating the Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence in Graduate Education provided a vehicle to recognize programs and graduate students that were working in that vein. TGS and Duke are much stronger and more vibrant because of all the work that many, many people are doing to continue to make Duke the institution that students want to come to for an excellent graduate education.
How has graduate education changed in the last 10 years, both nationally and at Duke?
One major, and important, shift is in the area of professional development. We now understand the importance of providing graduate students with options for the use of their degrees. Students come to graduate school for a variety of reasons and not everyone wants to pursue a tenure-stream faculty position. Gone are the days when that was the only career option one thought one could have with a Ph.D. in the social sciences or humanities. There are so many career opportunities for individuals with Ph.D.s that it is important and necessary for graduate schools to have a full suite of professional development activities.
Duke was at the forefront of recognizing the importance of professional development for graduate students. In 2013, TGS hired its first assistant dean for professional development, Dr. Melissa Bostrom. Over the years, she has developed programs for students wanting to go into the academy as faculty, those that want to work at universities but in positions other than faculty positions, those that want to go into industry and the private sector, or the non-profit sector. It is the responsibility of TGS to provide students with career options, and I am very pleased with what has been done, what is ongoing, and where activities will move in the future.
When your term began in 2012, you were the first Black dean of any school at Duke. How do you think about that place in Duke history, and has that influenced the way you approach your work as dean?
In many ways, to be the first Black dean of any school at Duke in 2012 means that Duke was very late to the game in appointing senior Black administrators. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill appointed its first Black dean in 1983—Frank Brown at the School of Education—and a Black dean of Arts and Sciences in 2004, Bernadette Gray-Little. Emory University appointed a Black provost—Earl Lewis—in 2004. I could go on listing other schools that had appointed Black deans long before Duke, but the point is that Duke was far behind. In my 22 years at Duke, there had been a number of opportunities for Duke to have broken that barrier, but it took until 2012 for that to happen.
You would think that by 2012, having a Black dean of TGS would not be problematic anymore, and the support I received was overwhelmingly positive. I did receive an incredibly offensive email from a faculty member that felt it important to let me know that they had concerns about my appointment and wondered if my appointment was going to decrease the quality of Duke’s graduate programs. The implications of the email were evident—for this person my ascriptive characteristics as a Black woman did not in this person’s mind equate to excellence. The person offered to sit down with me to help them work through their concerns. Well, of course, I was not going to sit down with this person. In fact, I am not sure I had even met them. I assume they thought that I would feel compelled to discuss this with them as I would want to get their support? They had the problem and I was not going to let them make their problem my problem.
I have two sayings that I keep in the Notes section of my cellphone. One is on leadership, but the other is one that empowers me in situations just like this one. It is a saying that Quincy Jones and Ray Charles used to remind each other as they were making their way in their careers in the music industry and kept them motivated to continue, despite the struggles they encountered: “Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.” This is clearly something this faculty person did not understand about me. If they had, they would not have written the email!
As to whether my being the first Black dean influenced the way I approached my work as dean: Before I became dean, I had a set of academic values on excellence and commitments to inclusion and belonging to making Duke a more open, welcoming, and inclusive place for students, staff and faculty of color, so I continued to do that work as dean. From the dean’s position, I was able to make a difference in broader contexts across graduate programs.
If you could go back to 2012 and give yourself one piece of advice as you were about to step into the deanship, what would it be?
That is an interesting question, because what I would say was not possible at the time. The advice would have been to learn more about TGS and the university’s relationship to the school before actually stepping into the role. That type of knowledge comes from an onboarding process that I did not have. The circumstances at the time made that impossible. Jo Rae Wright, the previous dean, had died and the interim dean was anxious to return to their department, so the normal onboarding process was not possible. Given my experience, I have made it a point to work with the incoming dean, Suzanne Barbour, to make sure that she is ready to hit the ground running on September 15!
What qualities or skills from your faculty work have been helpful to you as dean? What necessary qualities or skills did you have to develop on the job?
At one point in my academic career prior to Duke, I taught organizational behavior and that knowledge came in handy in not only managing TGS, but also working with TGS partners across campus. Developing collegial and positive relationships with our partners is key to all of our programs working with TGS on the many facets of graduate education. Being diplomatic is an essential quality to keep TGS on an even keel.
I also think the ability to listen to others, especially when there is a difference of opinion, is essential. While everyone wants Duke to have the highest quality graduate programs possible, there are differences of opinion on how to do that. I also think patience is important. Sometimes issues cannot be solved quickly or unilaterally, and taking time to make the best possible decisions is preferable than rushing to make a decision that might prove disastrous as a result.
How do you think your experience as dean will influence you as a faculty member going forward?
I am a faculty member at heart, and having had the view of graduate education from my perch as dean gives me a better view of how to train my own graduate students moving forward. While I never stood in the way of my students choosing a non-academic career, I now understand that it is important for me as their advisor to help them find a career where they are passionate about what they are doing and how their Ph.D. training will help them achieve their passion.
As you were preparing to become dean in 2012, what kind of expectations did you have about this role? How have those expectations panned out?
As I mentioned earlier, I was not cognizant of the full extent of the role of the dean of TGS. But, I learned very quickly that having the commitment to graduate education and training graduate students was just one part of the dean’s responsibilities.
I had to learn the financial aspects of funding that goes across the schools and colleges that have Ph.D. and research-based master’s degrees. Funding Ph.D. students is a collaborative effort between TGS and our programs, and that effort requires continual negotiation.
Student affairs and the social and wellbeing of students in TGS was an area that was completely new to me. I had not recognized the immense role TGS has in this area and the importance of the collaboration with the Office of Student Affairs.
I was also blown away by the myriad of responsibilities of the admission teams. They not only processed all of the applications, issued admission letters, processed visas, and handled everything related to admissions, but also had to verify the information that every applicant submits to ensure that everyone who is enrolled in a Duke graduate program is eligible. I had not realized the incredible effort that goes into admitting students to our graduate programs.
Finally, becoming familiar with the academic policies, requirements, and rules and regulations of TGS took some time for me to comprehend, but I am a quick study and once I was versed in them, I found my decision-making in some areas easier.
It is an immense job, and simply being committed to graduate education and training graduate students is just one small part of the position.