Women in Leadership – Karen Butler-Purry



Karen Butler-Purry
Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering
Associate Provost for Graduate & Professional Studies
Jack K. Williams Administration Building, Suite 112
1113 TAMU
College Station,TX 77843-1113


What made you decide to become an administrator?

The decision to become an administrator evolved over time.  My leadership experiences as a faculty member directing certain programs such as National Science Foundation LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation), the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), and the Sloan Foundation Minority PhD program piqued my interest in administration.  I enjoy stepping up when needs arise and being a part of a team working to impact process, policy, and change.  I also am extremely interested in helping the university diversify its student populations.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being an administrator?

The process I use in administration mimics the process I use in performing my research. By this I mean I identify the issues, gather background information, decide on strategies, implement those strategies, assess the results and then identify areas for improvement.  Thus, when an approach I or my staff created produces a positive result, it energizes me and produces considerable reward.  Examples include streamlining processes to increase efficiency, laying a firm foundation of quality programs for future administrators, deploying cost-cutting measures that save taxpayer dollars and improving the campus climate for students, faculty and staff.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an administrator?

Prior to becoming Associate Provost for Graduate and Professional Studies, my administrative experience included stints as Associate Department Head and as Assistant Dean of Engineering.  I would say the biggest challenge I have encountered in my current position dealt with transitioning into the role of sole person in charge.  In my faculty role, I primarily worked with my graduate students and faculty peers as collaborators.   As Associate Provost, I became responsible for an office, making decisions that I didn’t have to before.  Acting as leader and properly creating policy and procedures on my own required me to develop new skills.  I also needed to figure out how best to manage a complete staff with diverse personalities and skill sets, and to encourage and motivate them to perform at their very best.

What were the choices you made (and why) related to maintaining (or not maintaining) your scholarship as you took on an administrative role?

The first tough choice for me when taking on my current Associate Provost role dealt with teaching. I decided to give up teaching for now because I knew I could not devote the time required to produce quality instruction. I elected to stay engaged in my research topics on a more limited basis, and also decided to continue guiding the 10 PhD students whose committees I chaired at the time. I was determined to fulfill the commitment I made to them. I am proud to say that all but one student out of the 10 has completed their degree, and the remaining student is scheduled to graduate in a few months.

Another choice dealt with continuing my service on committees within my field. I decided to stay involved, engaged and current in my discipline. For instance, I attend the annual Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Power and Energy Society Conference. I also completed my service commitment to the IEEE Power and Engineering Society, first chairing its Power and Energy Education Committee and then cycling into the active Past Chair role.

Further, I continued my research and development for a video game on digital systems to use in teaching undergraduate electrical and computer engineering courses. Funding for this research comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through their Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM program (TUES).
I retain my scholarship with the end goal of returning to my full-time faculty position.

How have you balanced your personal life with your career?

A strong personal support system can often mean the difference between success and failure in administration. Each time I considered taking on a new administrator job, I sat down with my husband and extended family. We agreed that the new position afforded me a chance to make a real difference and that I could bring value to the job. Once we settled on that, we decided on division of responsibilities.

Second, I would say finding a supportive boss also helps. My superiors have always understood my family situation, including providing care for extended family relatives like my mother. I am fortunate that they allow me adequate opportunity to prioritize family appropriately.

What advice would you give to women faculty who are considering administration?

I encourage any woman with even casual interest in administration to go for it! Women today undoubtedly encounter increasing acceptance as administrators. Take advantage of the abundant leadership and professional development opportunities available on campus and nationwide. Seek out part-time administrative roles at the college and department level to gain valuable on-the-job experience.

Second, seek out other men and women currently serving in administrative roles. Pick their brains and gain a clearer picture of the skills needed and time demands required for administration. For example, in the late 1990s I attended several Women In Engineering Leadership Institute workshops, which provided training, mentoring and networking opportunities in academic leadership for women engineering faculty.

Finally, utilize resources such as the ADVANCE Center for professional development.  Their Speaker Series, STRIDE Workshops, resources, and events represent valuable tools to prepare for administrative roles.