This is an archived article.

October 27, 2005

New grad dean calls position ‘best in country’

Suzanne Ortega was immediately interested when she saw the UW’s Graduate School was looking for a new dean. Not only did she have family in the Seattle area, but she had colleagues telling her, “Oh my gosh, Suzanne, that’s the best graduate dean position in the country.”

So Ortega was happy to trade her job as vice provost for advanced studies and dean of the graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia for one as dean and vice provost of the UW Graduate School. And now that she’s been on the job for six weeks or so, she’s still feeling excited.

“It’s wonderful to be part of a committed group of faculty who are really absolutely dedicated to all aspects of education,” Ortega said. “We have knock-your-socks-off graduate students — you just know the world has to be OK because here they are. And of course there’s remarkable leadership from the top all the way through assistant and associate deans and a terrific staff.”

Ortega had been at the University of Missouri for the past five years after a 20-year career at the University of Nebraska, but she was born in Seattle and lived here until the age of 12. Then her family traveled around, following her Boeing engineer father to various job sites. Ortega continued her wandering ways after marrying a man who was in the Army. When they finally settled down long enough for her to complete her education, it was in Tennessee, so her doctorate is from Vanderbilt University.

She didn’t exactly plan a career in academia, Ortega said. She earned a degree in sociology out of a desire to “do good.” But she enjoyed school and a research fellowship beckoned her on. “In retrospect I can see it was the smartest decision I ever made,” she said.

Ortega’s research is in the social distribution of mental disorders — specifically depression and substance abuse. She says she’s interested in the relationship between class, race and place of residence and the etiology of mental disorder and in the barriers to mental health care.

She earned tenure at Nebraska, along the way serving as her department’s director of graduate studies. It was in that position that she first became involved in developing programs to recruit a more diverse student body. “By the time I left I think we had gone from one student to a departmental profile that was 33 to 37 percent students of color,” Ortega said.

Ensuring a diverse faculty through minority student recruitment is, of course, still a very important concern for graduate school deans. One of her goals at the UW, Ortega said, is to “create a more comprehensive and integrated diversity recruitment strategy.” She points to the success of earlier UW efforts such as The Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program, and says, “Now we need to take the next step and ask how we can use those programs as part of our recruitment strategy and how else we can engage faculty in this really important process of helping us create a more diverse student body.”

At Nebraska, Ortega moved from her departmental work to recruiting at the universitywide level as a special assistant in the graduate dean’s office. She says she learned early on that recruiting underrepresented students isn’t a one-person job.

“Your faculty colleagues have to be as committed as you are, because it really is about personal relationships and networks,” she said. “Faculty are the ones who will attract students. They’re the ones who go the extra mile in saying, ‘Are there any questions I could answer; can we bring you out for a visit?’ It is that personal contact that makes the difference.”

Ortega spent several years in the graduate dean’s office in Nebraska, where, in addition to diversity recruitment efforts, she is particularly proud of her work in the “Preparing Future Faculty” initiative, a professional development program for graduate students that had its origins in work started at the UW. She continued that after she’d moved on to Missouri.

“We started building the program out from just a focus on faculty to what we called preparing future professionals,” she said. “We wanted to help master’s and doctoral students think strategically about non-academic as well as academic careers.”

The labor market has changed, Ortega believes, from one in which, if you didn’t start out as a faculty member, you’d never get a faculty job, to one in which people move in and out of the academy.

“Inside the academy I think we’re even eager for those connections in ways that didn’t used to be true,” she said. “But I’m not so sure what we know about how careers are changing is translating into the advice we give doctoral students.”

This is a focus Ortega wants to continue at the UW. She says the Graduate School is working on creating an inventory of all the professional development activities available to graduate students across campus — including everything from CIDR teaching workshops to training in grant writing and professional ethics and much more.

“Once we identify what all the opportunities are, we’ll see if there are pieces or places that are missing,” she said. “We’ll create programs to fill those niches, and then, by golly, we’ll make sure our students know what opportunities are available.”

There is another aspect of the Graduate School’s relationship to the wider world that also concerns Ortega. “We are really at a point where universities need to more carefully hone their message so that it resonates with our different constituencies,” she said. “We’re getting better at it, but what we’re still not good at is figuring out how graduate education fits into that message. Yet we all know that the prestige and reputation of a university depends on the quality of its graduate programs. So I’m very interested in beginning a conversation about how we can really showcase the incredible accomplishments of our graduate students and our alumni.”

Ortega says she’s been spending her time since arriving in Seattle visiting with as many people as she can on campus and asking lots of questions, and is looking forward to the challenges ahead.

“I really do believe that graduate education is at the intersection of everything that’s interesting and important in the university,” she said. “Other than the provost, no one is in a better position to see the whole span of human inquiry within the university than the graduate dean. I think it’s because graduate students are the bridge between undergraduate students and faculty and the next generation of research. I don’t know if graduate schools are an agent of change or just the locus of change, but you see all sorts of institutional pressures that are changing curriculum, that are creating new research teams happening in graduate education, so I find it enormously interesting.”