Reflections on a Career of Service: Essay by the 2021 Recipient of the Debra W. Stewart Award for Outstanding Leadership in Graduate Education

By Karen Butler-Purry

Expanding Access and Support

Being named the 2021 recipient of the Debra R. Stewart Award for Outstanding Leadership in Graduate Education is a special honor to me. Debra took me under her wing as I transitioned into my leadership role in graduate education at Texas A&M and in my early involvement with CGS. Debra’s mentorship has been invaluable to me, and her dedication to advancing graduate education has been something I have tried to emulate.

In my first year as Associate Vice President for Graduate Studies at Texas A&M, Debra came to College Station in spring 2011 to kick off an inaugural event called the Graduate Community of Scholars Dinner & Dialogue. She delivered an address on expanding access to graduate education and improving success rates and career outcomes for graduate students to an audience that included Texas A&M graduate and professional students, faculty, as well as system, university, and college level administrators.

Her remarks aligned with my thinking and perfectly suited the spirit of the event (to bring the Texas A&M graduate community together) in a way that set the tone for how I have tried to lead Texas A&M Graduate and Professional Studies. I have always believed firmly in the value of graduate education and, because of that, focused my efforts on expanding access and supporting programming for graduate students.

Education Matters

As I reflect on my educational and career journey, I am constantly struck by the good fortune I have experienced. I return over and over to those pivotal moments when a parent, a teacher, a mentor, or an administrator provided the guidance or support that enabled me to learn, grow, and advance.

I grew up in Plaquemine, Louisiana, a small town just south of Baton Rouge. I entered first grade in 1969, the first year Louisiana public schools were integrated. It was a time of intense racial strife in my town, so intense, in fact, that it became a national story in the New York Times. The Iberville Parish school board took measures to follow the letter of the law prohibiting segregation, but to defy the spirit of that law. Black schools were closed, Black administrators and teachers fired, and Black students placed in segregated classrooms within “integrated” schools.

In response, most black families in our parish boycotted, refusing to send their children to school. My father, however, insisted – over the protests of white residents who wanted to preserve segregation and black residents from our community who wanted our family to join with them in the boycott – that we go to school. Above all else, he believed education to be the great equalizer.

His insistence on sending me to school left me conflicted. I was appreciative of the opportunity to go to school amidst the anger and chaos surrounding me, but I also felt a sense of guilt, especially in the ensuing years, that I had benefited from a year of school that many other children in my community had missed. While their education was disrupted, I was getting a solid foundation.

As I progressed through school and my academic potential began to emerge, I remember the sense of pride that beamed from Blacks in our community who took pride in my success. My feelings of gratitude and guilt were suddenly joined by a sense of responsibility. I resolved that I owed it to my father to make my education the path to opportunity he believed it to be and that I owed it to my community to achieve and to validate his decision by getting myself in a position to give something back – in service to others and by advancing the cause of education.

My father was one of many mentors who had a profound influence on my life and helped me find my way, first in high school then as an undergraduate and graduate student. Dr. Wesley McClure, the Chancellor of Southern University and A&M College had an unwavering belief in me. He met with me regularly, coached me on pursuing undergraduate research opportunities, told me I was destined for a PhD, and helped me weigh many offers for grad school. After I chose the University of Texas, he connected me with people there to aid my transition to grad school and continued to mentor me all the way through. Then there was my PhD advisor at Howard University, Dr. James Momoh, who provided me with a breadth of experiences as a PhD student which laid the foundation for me to succeed at Texas A&M.

These and other experiences were instrumental in getting me through high school and college to a doctoral degree and into the professoriate, as well as in influencing me to take on administrative roles.

In administration, I knew I would be better positioned to direct and shape policy initiatives that create a stronger sense of community for students, improve graduate student and faculty relationships, increase diversity and inclusion, and broaden the collection and use of data for transparency and evidence-based decision making. And from my own experience I know that community matters, diversity and inclusion matter, student-faculty relationships matter, and accountability matters.

Building Community and Inclusion

Graduate school is a challenging time for students. The bulk of the work they do must be done independently, so the road to a graduate degree can be a lonely one. Graduate school is more difficult to navigate for students who feel like outsiders. We’re all familiar enough with “imposter syndrome” to know that, issues of identity aside, many students feel like outsiders in graduate school.

Therefore, it’s important that we create programming that enables graduate students to connect to each other, faculty, and staff in a supportive community. At Texas A&M, we have invested a lot of resources and time creating and expanding events year-round to build community and encourage conversations among our students, faculty, and staff. In being able to share stories and get to know one another outside the classroom, lab, field, office, or library, we cultivate mutual respect and build that vital sense of belonging for our students.

Our signature event is the one I mentioned earlier, the Graduate Community of Scholars Dinner & Dialogue. At Dinner & Dialogue, we provide a formal dinner, select “unsung heroes,” (graduate students who exemplify that year’s theme) to speak and participate in a panel discussion led by a keynote speaker from our faculty, and place students at tables with faculty and staff “table hosts” who lead discussions with students based on our theme. (This year’s theme was Building Community through Respect). By talking to each other – and listening – in a spirit of openness, collaboration, and support, we grow together and lift each other up so that everyone has the chance to reach their potential.


Diversity is one of the keys to a rich education. The more unique voices you can bring to a conversation, the better chance you have to innovate, discover, and advance knowledge. And high-achieving students come from all different cultures and educational backgrounds.

When I arrived at Texas A&M in 1994, I was a bit apprehensive about entering a white male-dominated field at a school rich in tradition, which we know often translates to a resistance to transformational change. There were few Black faculty and staff and most of us knew each other. I found community in the Texas A&M African American Professional Organization and the Black Graduate Student Association. Throughout my years at Texas A&M, in addition to my engineering research, I have engaged in projects and initiatives to increase the diversity of our students and faculty and foster an inclusive culture.

In my graduate dean role at Texas A&M that engagement continued. I have led our efforts to seek and establish partnerships with other universities, secure research and training funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and participate in several CGS projects to identify best practices, improve outcomes, and increase diversity and inclusion in graduate education and the professoriate.

We are improving the diversity in our graduate student body at Texas A&M but still have work to do. At a heavily STEM and Agriculture-focused university, 20% of our graduate and professional students are Black/African American and Latinx American, 26% are international, and 48% are female.

Improving Graduate Student and Faculty Relationships

As I pointed out earlier, mentors have had a profound impact on my life. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for the mentors who blessed my life. I have talked to countless peers who say the same thing.

That makes sense, because graduate education is fundamentally different from undergraduate education. Graduate education involves close interaction and collaboration between students and faculty. The extent to which graduate education is transformative for students hinges on the quality of their interaction with faculty. And, mutual respect in that engagement is critical.

We have developed a Graduate Mentoring Academy (GMA) using the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER) resources which build on their seven evidence-based mentorship competencies. The GMA, along with efforts from the Office of Faculty Affairs, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the Division of Research, works to create a culture of mentoring across our institution so that students feel supported and included throughout their student lifecycle.

We are also encouraging students to use Individual Development Plans (IDPs) as a career exploration and planning tool.  Further we are using Interfolio’s Faculty Information System to support annual doctoral student and faculty advisor engagement about accomplishments, goals, and skills development and for doctoral students to manage their academic profiles.

Other programming, such as our Graduate Resources and Development for Aggies (G.R.A.D. Aggies) professional development program, which is a collaborative of many academic support services offices, and our heavy schedule of events year-round, promote engagement between faculty and students.

Data Transparency

One of my priorities as an administrative leader has been to make sure we’re not just saying all the right things about diversity, inclusion, equity, and student success, but that we are truly committed to making improvements in these areas and accountable to all those Texas A&M – as a land grant university – serves. For meaningful accountability, we need to track our progress toward diversity and student success goals and enable prospective and current students and others in our community to see what we’re doing and give us feedback so we can assess what’s working and identify areas for improvement.

Over my time as dean, we have expanded the ways we generate and collect data from external and internal sources. Tools such as the Graduate and Professional Student Dashboards on our university Accountability Site ensure transparency about demographics, admissions, enrollment, time-to-degree, degrees awarded, job placement, and more. Moreover, they make data accessible to stakeholders, students, and the public. With surveys of new graduate students, current grad students, graduating students, and alumni, we also collect and analyze data and are able to track campus climate and levels of affinity for programs and the university.

Data is a useful resource for helping us improve our campus climate, programs, recruiting efforts and student success programming. Without it, we can only speculate about whether our initiatives are achieving the outcomes we set.

Final Thoughts

When I received the Debra Stewart Award last December, I was considering the very difficult decision of stepping down, after twelve years, from my role as Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School at Texas A&M. I have since decided to return to my faculty position.

As my time as dean winds down, I am humbled to have been able to give back or pass forward, depending on how you look at it, to the educational community – including the teachers, mentors, administrators, and peers – who made my journey possible. The advice I have to offer others is to always remember the people and sources of support that enabled you to achieve your successes and strive to make sure you are one of those people who put in place the support systems to enable others to enjoy the same transformative experiences. That is our job as administrators – to cultivate a culture of inclusion and put in place programming that creates opportunities for others.

I should also acknowledge that I don’t think this charge – to ensure that educational opportunities are accessible – has ever been more important. There’s a growing public distrust in higher education, but we know its power to transform because we’ve experienced it. It’s imperative that we keep sharing our stories and giving others the opportunity to do the same. That’s how we continue making progress toward justice and equity and creating a better world for generations to come.


Karen Butler-Purry is Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate and Professional School at Texas A&M University