Passing the Baton

A conversation with outgoing dean Sharon Burgmayer.

This spring, after eight years as the dean of graduate studies, Sharon Burgmayer, W. Alton Jones Professor of Chemistry and a Bryn Mawr faculty member since 1986, handed the baton to Xuemei May Cheng and returned to the research lab full time.

Being able to come into her office in Park and spend the whole day thinking about a particular problem or working with her students has felt luxurious, she says, though she also reflects with gratitude on being able to serve the College as an administrator and make positive changes.

What were some of your goals as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS)?

My emphasis was to try to make things better both for the faculty involved in graduate programs and for the graduate students themselves.

In terms of student-facing stuff, I listened to what the students’ concerns were. You can’t address everything, but we were able to add some big things, such as creating structures so that graduate students in their final years had opportunities to be involved in teaching.

We also created a parental accommodations policy to help graduate students who were adding to their family.

We streamlined a lot of procedures, including changing how students would be reimbursed for travel to a research conference or to do research in another location.

Again, we can’t satisfy every scenario that gets presented to us, but we were able to offer substantially more travel funding, and in a way that the student could know ahead of time how much they would be supported.

And for faculty? What did you focus on to make their experience better?

Procedures were streamlined to assist faculty as well. In addition, we changed the structure of the membership of the Graduate Council, which is the committee that deals with and addresses all aspects of graduate policies and procedures. We’ve made sure that faculty from all departments are represented on the Council. The communication and information flow to faculty about graduate programs has been improved a lot through these changes, I think.

What parts of your personality helped you as dean?

Something that occurred to me midway through my deanship is a theme that I’ve recognized in my life: how much I enjoy taking old things and making new things. This occurred to me while I was refashioning a blouse. Likewise, in the lab, figuring out how to build a new molecule out of another molecule. It’s about taking something that exists and refashioning it and making it work better.

Was there a big learning curve involved in the transition from being a faculty member to an administrator?

It was quite a learning experience. I had not appreciated how a faculty member can regularly expect, and thrive on, positive feedback—an excited student, or a student who understood your lecture, or a result in the research lab. In administration, similar feedback is absent—in fact, you are more regularly presented with a constant stream of problems to be solved. But you stay dedicated to the job because the satisfaction comes from resolving the problems and making someone’s situation better.

What are your hopes for the future of GSAS?

I hope the College will continue to support GSAS and that its impact on the College will continue to be valued. There are so many ways that graduate students enrich the College, from their scholarship to their impact on undergraduates and synergies with faculty.

Click here to read about the new GSAS Dean, Xuemei May Cheng.