Women’s History Month: Patricia Beeson

Issue Date: 
March 17, 2008

A Guiding Force for Academic Excellence at Pitt


Later this year Patricia Beeson will celebrate the 25th anniversary of her arrival on the Pitt campus as a newly minted PhD in economics from the University of Oregon, ready to launch her academic career as an assistant professor of economics.

“My sister and I packed up the car and started off in Oregon, where I was born, grew up, went to high school, and got my bachelor’s degree in economics [at Oregon State University] in addition to my graduate education,” she recalls. “It took us a week to drive to Pittsburgh. Every morning we would listen to Simon and Garfunkel sing ‘America’ [‘They’ve all come to look for America’] and made sure the part where they sing ‘we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh’ was playing as we went through the Fort Pitt tunnel!”

Beeson says she was “a sheltered West Coast Oregonian” back in the summer of 1983, one of a family of six kids, “right in the middle, the only academic in the bunch,” and yet “came here to be in a big city.”

Why did she come? “Because I’m an urban economist, and Pitt has had a long tradition in urban and regional economics as one of the strongest programs in the U.S. in that area. It was great to join that tradition.

“Like most people beginning an academic career, I thought I would be here a short while, hoped to get tenure, but didn’t know whether it would work out. I didn’t expect to be here that long, but 25 years later, here I am. I was hopeful, but you never know,” she says.

It turned out to be a case of being in the right place at the right time for an academic researcher focused on studying the effects of radical shifts in a major urban region’s economies.

“When I arrived here, in the early ’80s, the region was in great decline with the mills closing,” Beeson remembers. “My initial research interests were why certain regions grow and others decline, and what the impact of that growth and decline is on labor markets and other aspects of the local economies.” As it happened, Beeson’s interests squared with those of the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland, and during her third year at Pitt, she began a long-term, ongoing relationship with the Fed. “The bank asked me to come there because there were a lot of synergies between my research interests and its interests: The Federal Reserve had special concern about the fourth district—which includes parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky—and the industrial decline, which it knew I was studying.”

Later on in her affiliation with the Fed and in her academic research, Beeson became interested in issues surrounding housing markets, “and so again we started working together,” she says. “That project looked at discrimination in mortgage lending, and so I spent many years collaborating with researchers, working at the Cleveland bank as well as at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in D.C. and at some of the other regional banks, and working with not just the researchers, but people who work on the other side of the Fed house—auditors, operations people—trying to better understand how that market was working and why we observed differences in lending patterns.” That research influenced the design of new policy and the enforcement of existing policy related to fair lending. She and her fellow researchers, for instance, developed a statistical method to aid regulators in their charge to monitor individual lenders’ compliance.

At Pitt, she was promoted to associate professor in 1990 and full professor in 2000.

Beeson says she’s currently working on two academic research projects “in my spare time.”

The first, which she started “a long time ago,” was spurred by her interest in regional growth and involves the analysis of a data set of every county in the United States from the earliest census, 1790, onward. She and her fellow researchers have looked at the natural advantages of certain regions—such as mineral resources and lakes or coastlines—versus man-made advantages like the presence of universities, and how important these advantages are in determining regional growth.

And then she’s pondering theories of growth. “Do economies diverge, so some get bigger and bigger while others disappear, leaving only really big cities like New York City or Boston?” she asks. “Or do we end up with some big cities, medium cities, smaller cities, but in stable patterns?”

But all of this now has taken a back seat to her all-consuming passion: overseeing the destiny of the University’s academic programs as Pitt’s vice provost for graduate and undergraduate studies. It’s an awesome list of responsibilities by anyone’s reckoning, but she seems to be unfazed by it all when reciting the litany, stating modestly that, after all, “the heavy lifting is done by the schools. I merely manage the process.”

Her experience in higher education administration began when she was asked to serve as associate dean for undergraduate studies in the School of Arts and Sciences in 2001. In that role, she was praised by Pitt Provost James V. Maher for her having “guided the implementation of an important new undergraduate curriculum that emphasizes a culture in which students are engaged with faculty in the scholarly activities of the University.” She also was responsible for the provision of student services, including the Arts and Sciences Advising Center and Academic Support Center, and she played a lead role in developing quantitative models of student enrollment, to ensure that quality instruction was available throughout the school to meet students’ educational objectives and ambitions.

In 2004, Maher named her vice provost for graduate studies; he added interim vice provost for undergraduate studies to her title in 2006 and then named her vice provost for graduate and undergraduate studies in May 2007.

“In my graduate studies role, I oversee 209 graduate and professional degree programs offered by faculty in 14 schools and more than 9,500 graduate and professional students,” Beeson explains. “This represents all graduate and professional programs Universitywide, including the health sciences.

“I am responsible for policies and procedures Universitywide relating to graduate programs. I work with deans as they develop new graduate and professional programs. I chair the University Council on Graduate Studies, which makes recommendations to the provost. I establish allocations policies, distribute graduate financial aid, and address student concerns and complaints that arise.”

Pitt is unlike other universities in that there is no graduate school here, Beeson is careful to point out. “Each school is responsible for its own graduate programs, and not just academic programs, but student services, complaints, financial aid allocations,” she says. “We have to make sure that dissertations are complete, that they conform to policies and procedures.”

Beeson, by the way, has served on dozens of dissertation committees during her years at Pitt; students whose committees she has chaired are now pursuing academic careers at colleges and universities throughout this country and abroad.

In her role as vice provost for undergraduate studies, she has responsibilities related to undergraduate studies at all campuses. “I work with deans and campus presidents to improve programs, on efforts to retain and graduate students. I chair the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Programs. I also manage the academic integrity process and address student concerns rising to the provost’s level.”

She also is responsible for enrollment management, working with Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Betsy Porter on enrollment issues. She cochairs the Enrollment Management Committee and coordinates Universitywide efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate undergraduates.

She coordinates Universitywide assessment efforts, including the new effort on learning outcomes assessment. She works with the Office of Institutional Research in developing data to assess academic programs. She also is the liaison responsible for University-level accreditation through the Middle States Association.

She works with the Office of the Registrar to develop and interpret policies as they relate to that office, and she chairs the Academic Calendar Committee.

In the diversity arena, she chairs the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns (PACWC), is responsible for the Provost’s Office’s affirmative action review of all faculty appointments, and is an administrative liaison to the Pitt Board of Trustees Affirmative Action Committee and the Senate Antidiscrimination Policy Committee.

“I see my role as working with faculty and staff to ensure that Pitt has undergraduate and graduate programs befitting a major research university, that we recruit those students best able to take advantage of those programs, and that we provide the support those students need to be successful,” Beeson says.

Over the past few years, Beeson has been focusing on the assessment of student learning outcomes as a way to “make sure that we continue to build on the strong academic programs offered at Pitt,” Beeson says. “We are asking our faculty to reflect on the academic programs they offer, consider what it is they expect graduates to achieve, and determine whether or not our programs are delivering on those goals the faculty have set. As we consider these questions, I expect that our faculty will identify areas in which the programs can be improved to better help students achieve the goals we have for them, and in this way we will continue to build on the strong academic programs offered at Pitt.”

Beeson emphasizes that Pitt has always assessed its students and evaluated its programs. What is new, she says, is that “we are asking faculty to use the assessment of student learning as part of their overall program evaluation. Until recently, program evaluation has focused on what I would call the ‘inputs’—faculty quality, curriculum, qualifications of students, and facilities such as labs and classrooms. We are now saying, ‘Let’s also look at the “outputs”: Are our programs graduating students who have the skills, attributes, and knowledge we expect they would?’ This is a different way of looking at things, and as is often the case with things that are new, it is not easy. It takes careful, considered reflection by our faculty, and it takes time. But I do believe that once we have the system set up, and assessment becomes a routine part of what we do, it will take less effort, and we will see the benefits in terms of program improvement. In fact, I think we already are seeing some of the benefits.”

To have an undergraduate experience that nurtures the development of thoughtful, reflective individuals, Beeson also sees the need to have student services and cocurricular programs that are aligned with and support academic programs. “In recent years, the University has invested in student services such as advising because of their importance in helping students get the most out of their years at Pitt,” she says. “We also are very fortunate to have Kathy Humphrey as the vice provost and dean of students, and I am happy to be working with her on this aspect of the undergraduate experience. She places a high value on aligning student affairs with the academic mission of the University, and she has the ability to make that vision a reality.”

For Beeson, working on recruitment at the undergraduate level means “letting people like Betsy Porter and her staff do what they do best—getting the word out about what Pitt and Pittsburgh have to offer, identifying those potential students who could best take advantage of what we offer, and getting them to campus to meet some of our faculty, to meet University Honors College Dean Alec Stewart, to see our campus and our city. Once they visit campus, there is a very high probability that they will enroll. It also means finding the resources to provide scholarships and other financial assistance to attract undergraduates to our campus.”

Graduate and professional recruitment is much more diffuse at Pitt, says Beeson, because individual programs recruit and admit students: “Last year we had an admissions workshop, but mostly we have been trying to help program directors think about how better to use existing resources to recruit and support students while we also work to improve the financial support available for graduate students.”

Beeson has adopted as an additional focus of her work “making people at Pitt and outside of Pitt more aware of the strengths of our academic programs.” She noted that over the past few years there was more emphasis on relating stories about undergraduate research at Pitt, a genuine strength of Pitt’s undergraduate programs and “something we have been trying to let people know about.” This year, Beeson adds, “we have been focusing on raising the visibility of our graduate and professional programs.

“Pitt has traditionally been known for its strong graduate and professional programs. In recent years we have not heard as much about these programs because of the focus on undergraduate education. Right now we are trying to remind everyone that Pitt continues to have great graduate and professional programs that produce leading scholars and professionals in medicine, law, business, government, and the nonprofit sector.”

The issue of diversity, Beeson feels, is related to all of this. “I think it’s important that Pitt be an institution at which individuals with diverse backgrounds, ideas, and points of view come together to learn from and with each other,” she says.

“Now in my own role with PACWC, I am involved particularly with women’s issues, and I am pleased to say that over the past decade there has been a lot of success achieving goals set by this committee in the mid-’90s. We are currently updating that agenda with input from the University community so that we can continue to make progress.”

After such a full plate set at her worktable, does Beeson have time left for anything else as her long days stretch into evenings? “As a mom with a 10-year-old son, I spend a lot of time going to SpongeBob SquarePants movies, spring recitals (he plays piano), and Little League baseball games. I also enjoy going to Pitt basketball, both the men’s and the women’s teams.”

And then there’s that weekly night out that’s been going on for 25 years.

“When my sister and I drove into Pittsburgh back in 1983, econ department colleagues Shirley and Jim Cassing had invited us to stay with them while I looked for an apartment (little did they imagine that we would end up staying for a month!),” Beeson recalls. “When we arrived at their house, they had a group of friends over to welcome us to Pittsburgh. Those same people are my friends today. In fact, for years Shirley, some of those friends, and I have gone out for beer every Tuesday evening after teaching night classes. We still do; only instead of teaching a night class, I just work late. In fact, it was through them that I met my husband, Werner Troesken, who also is on the faculty at Pitt, and who joined us for beers his first year at Pitt!”