The Graduate School Sister Act

February 18, 2003

Mary Ann Travis

Ruth Barnes' "sisters" at the Graduate School accuse her of breaking up the gang. After 35 years at Tulane, program coordinator Barnes is retiring and embarking on a new phase of life, filled with gardening and travel. Together, the "sister" trio of Barnes, Kay Orrill, assistant dean of the Graduate School, and Deborah Troescher, assistant director of graduate school admissions, have 92 years of experience at Tulane.

"We are family," says Orrill. They can finish each other's sentences, they know one another so well. Barnes and Orrill both started at the School of Public Health in 1967. Orrill moved to the Graduate School in 1976. Barnes followed in 1979, and Troescher began a year later.

Although Orrill says she likes to be in the shadows, Barnes and Troescher acknowledge her as the leader of their gang. Orrill knows the ins and outs of the university better than almost anyone, they say. She gets things done. Orrill demurs, but says she has learned to work independently while serving under 10 deans of the Graduate School.

During their service at Tulane, the trio has participated in fundamental changes in the way the Graduate School operates. Most obviously, as with much of the university, information technology has transformed workloads and eased the execution of tedious tasks. On the programmatic side, the Graduate School has instituted four-plus-one programs in which a student can earn a master's degree in one additional year after completing a bachelor's degree. The trio also has observed more women students in the sciences, more interdisciplinary work and more students from other countries.

"I remember our first application that I ever saw from China," says Troescher. That was in the early 1980s, but now applications routinely arrive postmarked from every corner of the globe, and students from 30 countries are enrolled.

"Now we can almost pronounce their names," says Orrill.

Mike Herman, professor of chemistry, has been dean of the Graduate School since last year. With the goal of improvement in mind, he is leading a review of the strengths and weaknesses of Tulane's more than 40 graduate programs. Herman has already succeeded in increasing stipends for graduate students, which, along with faculty-student interaction, is a key factor in keeping PhD students happy and productive.

Faster "time to degree" has been an issue since the last graduate program review in the early 1990s, when Tulane imposed a limit of usually five years of funding for doctoral student support. Part of Barnes' job has been to monitor students' progress. Along the way, she feels she's "contributed to the lives of these young people."

Because graduate students "never get old, they only seem younger," Barnes says they have kept her attitude and outlook fresh. "I think that I probably benefited more than they did." People ask Barnes if she has read the approximately 2,000 disser-tations in the sciences, humanities, engineering and public health, whose titles range from the obscure to the esoteric, that she has okayed over the years. "No," she says. "If I did read them, I'd be the smartest person in the whole wide world."

Every dissertation is an unexplored area, Barnes points out. She's seen some graduate students make smooth progress, taking setbacks and success equally in stride. Others get bogged down by failed experiments or bothered by the "nitpicking stuff that has to be done for the dissertation to be accepted."

Some doctoral candidates, when they finish, can't quite believe they've reached the end. Focus, drive, ambition, goals and a faculty that "encourages them, even prods them" are all essential ingredients for a student to attain a PhD, says Barnes. "It just has to be somebody who wants to do this."

Barnes has mothered many graduate students, admonishing them to read simple instructions and advising them on relationships. Now the 1,018 currently registered graduate students will have to go on without her. But Barnes knows she's leaving the students in capable hands. The gang members will carry on. As with Barnes, Troescher says the "fresh faces" of new students energize her. And even though e-mail is de rigueur, Troescher finds opportunities to talk in person to students.

"I hear about their home life, their culture, what they're studying. It makes the job enjoyable." And Orrill values her work with faculty members. "They're nice people, in general." And they're getting better, so the Graduate School can only improve. Not that the faculty wasn't good before, Orrill hastens to add. "But the tenure process is very rigorous. They have to be great."

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

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