Remarks of Associate Dean Barbara Turpin on the Occasion of Her Retirement Luncheon

Author: Barbara Turpin

Barbara Turpin, associate dean of students in the Graduate School

Following are the remarks shared by Dr. Barbara Turpin at the retirement luncheon held in her honor on May 16, 2011.

I would like to talk a bit today about the ways in which I think I have changed the Graduate School over the past 21 years, and a bit about the ways in which the Graduate School has changed me.

I joined the Graduate School as its director of admissions in January 1990. At that time, I was the only female associate dean in the Grad School—and, with the exception of a couple of years in the mid-’90s, I remained so for the next 19 years, until Nyrée McDonald and Laura Carlson came on board two years ago. The first indication of what being the first and only woman would mean for me and for the Grad School occurred during a staff meeting in the fall of 1990. Nathan Hatch, the dean, had called a meeting of us deanlings to discuss how we might help students with families pay for their medical bills. (The issue of health insurance for students’ families has been a very long-standing one.) On the table was the creation of a “medical assistance program,” a slush fund to help our neediest families with those bills. The question arose of how we should define “family.” One of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless, suggested that we define it as “student, wife and children.” Yes, this is where we were in 1990.

If anyone had asked me at that time if I had ever been discriminated against in the academy, I would have said “absolutely not,” and I would have believed it—despite my vivid memories of having been told once that the reason I wasn’t awarded a stipend at a grad school I’d applied to was because, in their experience, “women are bad risks.” The only explanation I can offer for this total disconnect between my head and my experience is that my respect for the academy, and my desire to join its faculty ranks, led to a certain blindness and deafness on my part. Being unprepared to see or hear discrimination, I neither saw nor heard it. Until this meeting.

And then, all of a sudden, in the middle of that meeting, with the words of my colleague ringing in my ears, my head and my experience came crashing together. Why then? Because in the months since taking the job, I’d been widowed, and it’s safe to say that, on my own for the first time in my 39 years of life, I’d become sensitive to the many ways in which women, particularly single women with children, were stereotyped and discriminated against in the world. And stereotyping was what my colleague was doing in this meeting.

When he defined “family” as “student, wife and children,” he was assuming that: (a) women did not earn graduate degrees, which made me what? I wondered. Chopped liver? And (b) because I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a family. In an instant, I felt both invisible and humiliated. My first instinct, as it always was, was to seek refuge in silence. Unlike King George VI, I didn’t stammer, but I still knew what he knew: That you can’t get into trouble if you don’t open your mouth. But if I’d remained silent, the neediest families—single women and men raising children on their own—would not have been eligible for this program. I cast my eyes about the room, but none of my colleagues appeared to have heard what I heard, or saw what I saw. They couldn’t be counted on to save me or the day. So while struggling to overcome my fear that speaking would literally stop the earth in its orbit, I summoned up my courage and opened my mouth, suggesting that we define family as “student and dependents,” which, thank God, is what we did.

Because of my newly-discovered sensitivity to gender issues, in my job as director of graduate admissions, I began to notice a difference in tone in the letters of recommendation written for men and those written for women. If you ever doubt the reality of the choice women must often make between their careers and their families, you need only compare letters of recommendation written for women with those written for men, as I did in the summer of 1994. For men, having a family (if/when it’s even mentioned in those letters) is an asset; the family will keep the student “balanced and on track”; for women, the existence of a family (which is always mentioned) is a reason to doubt commitment to a career. The most extreme example of this bias that I came across was a letter of recommendation written on behalf of a young female applicant to a department in the College of Science. After praising this young woman’s talents to high heaven on the first page, the writer immediately cut her legs right out from under her on the second by mentioning the fact that she had three children and wondering aloud if she’d be able to complete the program. One might ask why he even bothered to write the letter. I put together an analysis of those letters of recommendation and published it in an essay in Common Sense, which, to my surprise, stimulated an interesting dialogue with some faculty on campus who confessed that they’d been guilty of doing the same thing, without realizing it or the damage their words could do. I hope that their behavior changed. If so, I consider that a minor victory.

As director of graduate admissions, I also noticed that some departments withheld stipends from married women but not from married men. Now, one could argue that the reason for this is that married men are just way smarter than married women, but I couldn’t help thinking that something much more nefarious was afoot, that had something to do with that assumption that women didn’t get graduate degrees. I suspected that this difference in treatment was based on the assumption that women’s husbands could support them, but that men’s wives could not, what with their proper role being at home and all. Knowing by this time where power in the University truly lay, and with Nathan’s blessing, I just happened to mention this inequity at a Grad Council meeting one day, in the presence of the college deans, and the practice stopped immediately!

I have to mention an incident that happened maybe seven or eight years ago—one that I hope helped a few women grad students here. I call this my “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” moment. The Graduate School’s former associate dean for financial aid, Peter Diffley, and I were discussing the persistent failure of a particular faculty member in his department to obtain funding for her research. He was going on about how tough it is to get those rejection letters, and I thought I knew where he was going with this, and so I was sitting there, in his office, nodding my head in agreement. He said that it’s tough to get back on the horse, so to speak, and apply again after you’ve been rejected – and I was sitting there, nodding, nodding, thinking that he would say that it’s hard to get back on the horse when you feel like an idiot and a failure – but what he actually said was that it’s hard to get back on the horse when you finally realize what idiots are reading your applications! I suddenly stopped nodding my head and just burst out laughing. I laughed so hard and for so long that I couldn’t catch my breath and tears began rolling down my face. What was even funnier was that Peter had no idea what was so funny! He looked at me quizzically, as if he were trying to decide whether or not to call Psych Services.

What this incident taught me was that while this isn’t universally so, women do tend to internalize rejection, while men tend to externalize it, to blame someone else. This may not be the best way to live your life—always blaming others—but surely sometimes blaming others is a bit healthier than always blaming yourself. So whenever a female grad student has suggested to me in some way that she is a “loser” because she didn’t get a job or fellowship that she wanted, I’ve told her that story and advised her that, sadly, it would behoove us Venusians sometimes to think more like Martians.

Finally, over the years the thorniest issue for pregnant grad students has been getting the time off they need to care for a newborn child. One may want to argue that women shouldn’t be having children when they’re in grad school, but it just so happens that women’s prime childbearing years coincide with their years in grad school. And holding off childbirth until after they’ve obtained a tenure-track job—when the stress on them for seven years is even greater than it is in grad school—isn’t an attractive alternative. Neither is waiting until they reach tenure; the average age for that is now 39, a bit late to start a family, not to mention a bit dangerous. Since I came into the job, all that it was possible for me to do was to advise pregnant women to take advantage of the leave-of-absence policy. When I was in grad school here and found myself pregnant in my third year, I didn’t even know there was such a policy; no one ever told me. I just thought I had to suck it up and soldier on. It was UGLY. Very ugly. I had a child with colic who cat-napped during the day, 10-15 minutes at a time, who didn’t sleep through the night until she was five months old, and an adviser who kept breathing down my back, wanting to know when he was going to get my first chapter. Like Pavlov’s dogs, whenever my phone rang, expecting to hear my adviser’s voice at the other end, my blood pressure sky-rocketed and the palms of my hands began to sweat. I didn’t want other female grad students to have to endure that kind of stress while trying to adapt their lives to a newborn child. There was an option. They could take a leave of absence. They wouldn’t get paid, but they could at least take the time off. So while I encouraged DGSs to always offer a pregnant woman this option, I was on the lookout for more expansive policies, and found them at a meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools in December 2009, at which the deans of the graduate schools at Cornell and Berkeley presented “family-friendly” policies on their respective campuses.

Thanks to the financial support of our dean, Greg Sterling, and with much help from the community of men and women on campus who also felt the need for more family-friendly policies in the Graduate School, I was able to create a new childbirth and adoption accommodation policy that, while not perfect, does allow a new mother (or father, if he’s the primary caretaker of the child) to reduce her commitments and delay deadlines for a semester while continuing to get paid; it also gives him or her an additional semester of academic eligibility. This policy brings us into line with our competition. Ironically, a benchmarking study I conducted revealed that Notre Dame would be the first Catholic institution in the United States to offer such a policy. That is, it is the first Catholic school to put its money where its mouth is, to pay more than just lip service to the importance of the family. Whatever the shortcomings of the policy, we can at least be proud of that.

It is a measure of how far we’ve come from that Grad Council meeting in the early ’90’s, when we had to shame the college deans into funding married women, that the response to the proposal of a childbirth accommodation policy by the Graduate Council in January was not (as I expected) to ask why we needed such a policy, but to ask why it didn’t go further.

But whatever small impact I may have had on the Graduate School over the last two decades, it has had a much larger impact on me. And as I prepare to leave, this is what I’m thinking about most.

When my husband died in April 1990, I was thrown pretty much flat on my back. The story is a tragic, if all-too-familiar, one: A woman, raised to believe she would always need to be taken care of, is shocked, SHOCKED, to discover upon her caretaker’s death that, despite her PhD, she cannot take care of herself, much less the two children who are now totally dependent on her. The primary emotion I felt upon widowhood was neither anger nor grief; it was abject terror. I had no one to hide behind any more.

And because Pat’s death was so sudden and violent, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for about a year afterwards. The worst symptom for me, even worse than the nightmares and sleep deprivation, was the memory loss. Not only couldn’t I remember what I ate for breakfast in the morning, I also couldn’t recognize the names and faces of the 18 students I’d just had in class for an entire year, or remember what happened at Grad School meetings at which I was physically present and apparently actively involved. I thought I was losing my mind. It was as if someone had surgically excised a chunk of my brain. Nathan Hatch could have started documenting all of my screw-ups, which were legion, but he didn’t; instead, he asked my colleagues to cover my back. I will never, ever forget that.

As important as his compassion and understanding were at that time, the succeeding years in the Grad School were even more important in lifting me up. My responsibilities during those years forced me to grow up, to daily confront my deepest fears, to think, speak, and act for myself, as well as for others, and to take responsibility for my decisions and actions. Of course, raising two kids on my own did the same thing. In the process, I learned that, even when I messed up or had to tell a faculty member—or a child—something he or she didn’t want to hear, the earth would not stop dead in its orbit and the sun would still rise in the morning. Whatever I was able to accomplish in the last two decades, both at work and in raising my two girls, is due in no small measure to the sustained faith and confidence my friends, colleagues and kids had in me. Unlike myself, they expected me to succeed, not to fail. Over time, gradually, almost imperceptibly, I began to expect success, too, to have faith and confidence in myself. Along the way, I found a voice. The ways of The Lord are inscrutable; 21 years later, I still can’t imagine what possible purpose my husband’s death at the age of 40 served in the Cosmic Scheme of Things. But I do know that having no one to hide behind, having to confront all my fears head on, was the best thing that ever happened to me. That is why leaving this job is so bittersweet.

A number of people have asked me how I made the decision to retire. I told them that the decision was a difficult one, and that it took me two years to make it. In the end, I made a chart of all the reasons to stay and all the reasons to go. The reasons to go column was lengthy: Life is short; I have a couple of writing projects I want to work on; I want to rent a cabin for a month in the fall in the Green Mountains of Vermont; I want to work on a friend’s political campaign; and I want to spend more time with my granddaughter. But the reasons to stay column contained just one item: FEAR.

It was definitely time to go.