Graduate School dean follows circuitous path to senior leadership position

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- By the time Regina Vasilatos-Younken entered high school, she already possessed an awareness of academic interests and professional goals that would exert supreme influence throughout every stage of her career.

As a seventh-grade student, Vasilatos-Younken had a ready response to the essay question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I knew I wanted to become a research scientist and that I was interested in studying the natural world; at that time, biology would have been the field,” recalled Vasilatos-Younken.

Vasilatos-Younken emphatically discounts any notion that her May 2015 appointment as the first Penn State senior administrator to hold the title of vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School was the product of long-term personal planning.

“Not at all,” Vasilatos-Younken exclaimed when asked to consider whether the career path she had envisioned in middle school included her current station. “One of the things that I would like to share with graduate students is that no one ends up with a career that starts at A and ends exactly at B. That’s part of what makes it interesting. The benefit of a graduate degree is that the skills you take away will be invaluable and serve you in every aspect of life. I find myself using many of those skills in everything from personal decisions to managing the portfolio of the Graduate School.”

A professor of endocrine physiology and nutrition in the department of Animal Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Vasilatos-Younken earned her doctorate in animal nutrition in 1982 from Penn State and became an assistant professor at the University in 1983. She has been a full professor since 1999. Also from 2000 to 2013, she served as senior associate dean of the Graduate School.

Vasilatos-Younken’s appointment as vice provost and dean followed a national search. She had been serving as interim dean since 2013.

“Our search committee did an extraordinary job in vetting many highly qualified candidates for this appointment,” said Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost. “That Jean emerged from this process as the clear choice speaks volumes about the vision and expertise she will bring to this expanded role: One that is critical to Penn State’s future leadership in graduate education.”

While Vasilatos-Younken did not aspire to become a senior executive at a major research university, her own willingness to embrace change has forged unexpected opportunities throughout the years. She was in her second year as an undergraduate at New York University, with a double major in biology and geology and a minor in physical anthropology, when the geology department was closed.

“In a way, the imposed change in my educational path made me reconsider my remaining major in biology and look for a track in what we now call the life sciences that would have a more immediate application to a societal problem,” Vasilatos-Younken said. “My father was a Greek immigrant who grew up on a sustenance farm on the island of Cephalonia and during the Second World War experienced the kind of severe food deprivation that arises too often during political conflicts. Because of him, when I was prompted to reconsider my remaining major I decided to make a change and transfer to a school with agricultural programs so that I could better position my background in the sciences for improving food production in the world.”

Vasilatos-Younken earned a bachelor of science degree in animal and pre-veterinary science from the University of Maine in 1976 and began her distinguished career at Penn State as a doctoral student and graduate research assistant the same year, eventually being recruited back as a faculty member following a postdoctoral position at a USDA research center.

“When I started as a faculty member at Penn State, I felt very fortunate to have an opportunity to pursue my ideas in a research venue and to teach and interact with students,” she said. “I would not have predicted that I would ever go into an administrative position. In fact, I was what you might call a “reluctant administrator.”

“At one point, I was chairing an Intercollege Graduate Program and visited with an administrator in the Graduate School to talk about that program and to request some resources for our students. During that meeting, I was encouraged to apply for a position in the Graduate School because of service I had done on Graduate Council and having chaired some special committees related to graduate education. I really wanted to get the program support and the person I was speaking with was really pushing for me to apply for the position, so I came to a compromise in my mind. I thought it would be educational to go through the application process with no expectation of being hired, and was willing to do so if it would move this administrator to another place in our conversation where I could make the appeal for resources.”

The self-described “reluctant administrator” is now a visionary leader of one of the nation’s largest graduate schools, with more than 12,000 graduate students and more than 2,800 graduate faculty members. The scope and diversity of the enterprise is reflected by more than 160 graduate majors or fields of study that include 92 research doctorates and eight professional doctoral fields; more than 100 research master’s degrees; and a growing number of professional master’s degrees, many offered online through Penn State’s World Campus. During the 2014-15 academic year, the Graduate School conferred more than 3,500 graduate degrees, including almost 700 doctoral degrees and close to 3,000 master’s degrees.

Vasilatos-Younken’s strategic goals include advancing technologies for support of graduate education; advancing strategies in support of graduate education quality; promoting and facilitating interdisciplinary graduate education; and increasing diversity of the resident graduate student population. Her stated priorities also include raising the visibility of graduate education and better communicating the strengths of Penn State’s graduate programs, faculty and students, and the value of advanced degrees to society.  

“Graduate students are the focal point of our priorities in the Graduate School,” Vasilatos-Younken said. “We are pursuing every opportunity for them to have robust professional development opportunities, intellectual growth, and to really get the most out of their graduate experience here. We want to position our graduate students for a great career trajectory that will not only be fulfilling to them, but will help society. In every way possible, we are committed to making sure that occurs. Part of that is ensuring that our graduate programs are of the highest quality in every way; including the courses our students take, the mentoring they receive from faculty, and the research and scholarship opportunities they are afforded.”

Vasilatos-Younken said a diverse educational community is a critical element to achieving excellence.”

“Diversity in every dimension ensures different experiences, perspectives and awareness, and invariably leads to expanding all of our intellectual horizons,” she said. “Intellectual diversity is critical in order to solve the really complex problems that are facing us today, and to prepare our graduate students to be contributing members of what will be a continually expanding global community. That has to be a very high priority for us and we worked very hard for transparency in our strategic plan to bring those messages out.”

With considerable pride, Vasilatos-Younken recites an array of “markers of excellence” that distinguish graduate education at Penn State, including the most recent assessment of research doctorate programs by the National Research Council which placed many of the University’s doctoral programs at the very top of their fields; rankings of online graduate programs which positioned Penn State’s professional master’s programs across many disciplinary areas at the top; and the annual selection of one to two Penn State doctoral students to join a national contingent at a meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany.

“These are all markers of the excellence we have in graduate education at Penn State,” Vasilatos-Younken said. “But I would also have to say that we are the best kept secret out there. We have world-class faculty who, together with our graduate students, are doing extraordinary research to solve a multitude of different problems. We have a dynamic intellectual community. We produce graduates who become leaders in many different careers, not just in the academy but in the private sector and government, and all over the world.

“I do not think we are as recognized as we should be. Moving forward, we hope to raise our visibility, which will better help achieve our vision for the Graduate School at Penn State to be a first choice institution for the very best prospective graduate students.”

Last Updated August 11, 2015