BLACKSBURG — When Karen DePauw arrived on Virginia Tech’s campus in 2002 as a dean, more than a few naysayers chafed at her plans for graduate education.
“Even when I interviewed, I had quite a vision for things that I wanted to do, and people didn’t think that I could do it,” DePauw said this week at her office. “And — again, this may not be the right words for publication — but I said, ‘Watch me.’ And we did it.”
Over the next two decades, DePauw would, in essence, build Tech’s graduate education programs from the ground up. She oversaw the transformation of an old hotel into the academic and residential center for graduate students; founded a childcare co-op; and introduced programs that exposed students to international travel, preparation for a life in higher education and interdisciplinary studies — all with a special emphasis on fostering inclusion and diversity.
“My goal has been to build, to create, an affirming, inclusive graduate community,” DePauw said. “It’s really about changing the way we do graduate education.”
Last week, DePauw, 71, announced she will retire Aug. 1. The university will launch a national search for her replacement, and has no plans to appoint an interim dean.
“She has been an amazing mentor, one of the most level-headed administrators that I’ve met in my career,” said Manuel Pérez-Quiñones, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte who served as an associate dean under DePauw at Tech. “I think the graduate school at Virginia Tech is a thousand times better for having had her for that long.”
Pérez-Quiñones noted UNC Charlotte is one of numerous universities nationwide that have sent representatives to Tech’s Graduate Life Center to learn about its programs.
Before coming to Tech, DePauw spent 22 years at Washington State University, where she held several positions. As a graduate school dean there, DePauw developed a framework she called Transformative Graduate Education, aimed at preparing future faculty and higher education leaders for the 21st century.
“I knew that the experience that I and others had, had in graduate education needed to be changed,” said DePauw, who earned a master’s degree from California State University Long Beach, and a doctorate from Texas Woman’s University.
“There used to be the notion that you just had to survive graduate school, and you had to just tough it up,” DePauw recalled. “I was a single mom with a 2-and-a-half-year-old son going back to finish a Ph.D., and keep working, and honestly ... there was very little acknowledgment of my situation with a 2-and-a-half-year-old and what I could and could not do.”
DePauw’s arrival at Tech sparked controversy and national media attention when the school’s board of visitors initially refused a promised English department post for her partner, Shelli Fowler.
“In my view ... it was not about my partner. It was about me,” DePauw said. “They didn’t want me to come.”
Over time, DePauw said, she was able to overcome those hurdles. She recalled an early meeting of faculty where she outlined her vision for graduate education at Tech. A man in the audience sat arms-folded, shaking his head “No” as she spoke. Today, she says, he is one of her biggest fans.
News of DePauw’s retirement prompted an outpouring of gratitude from students.
Hani Awni, president of the Graduate Student Assembly, said that DePauw has been proactive in helping students navigate the university bureaucracy and advocating for issues such as graduate stipends.
Awni noted that thankfulness existed alongside nervousness among students who hope the university will find a successor who will continue and build on DePauw’s work.
In the coming years, the university plans to boost graduate enrollment as the Innovation Campus in Alexandria comes online. Tech just last week named the inaugural executive director of the campus, who will oversee an incoming class of 100 students in the fall.
Despite all the programs DePauw helped put into place, she cites graduate student housing in Blacksburg and university-wide childcare as issues that remain unresolved fully.
Cortney Steele, who also serves on the Graduate Student Assembly, credited DePauw for prioritizing students at governmental and in one-on-one meetings.
“Honestly, the way I would best describe Dean DePauw is a champion for students,” Steele said. “It’s sad to see her go, but she definitely left a legacy behind.”