Burstyn leaves lasting legacy: First female Department chair implements change despite obstacles

By Caroline Cole
Department Communications

person with glasses smiling
Former Department Chair Prof. Judith N. Burstyn stands in a Buckyball model in the Shain Tower Lobby. | Photo by Tatum Lyles Flick

Prof. Judith N. Burstyn, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemistry’s first female Department chair and a member of the UW–Madison chemistry community for more than 30 years, finished her landmark term in June.

In addition to challenging low female representation in the chemistry field and in the Department, two major obstacles presented themselves during Burstyn’s term. While undertaking her ambitious project of reorganizing the Department’s structure, the Chemistry building complex flooded in February 2019. Then, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges across the country, including UW–Madison, to adapt to online instruction. Despite these challenges, Burstyn used her decisive qualities to advance the Department through difficult times.

“My attitude to adversity is to never let a crisis go to waste: crises can be opportunities for learning and growth,” Burstyn said.

The flood had operational impacts that were difficult to navigate, in part because the organizational structure was not well defined. Although she had initiated the transition toward a more resilient structure, the reorganization process was barely beginning at the time of the flood, Burstyn said. Department leadership had started conversations with consultants, but no structural changes had been implemented in time to benefit the Department during the crisis. However, these new arrangements, which included distributed leadership and clear-cut responsibilities for faculty and staff, were finalized prior to the Department’s second tribulation: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I believe that if the pandemic happened before our reorganization, we would’ve been in a state of disaster,” Burstyn said. “We were able to manage the issues associated with COVID-19 because the reorganization helped everyone understand who was responsible for what tasks and act much more effectively.”

Burstyn acknowledges the insight of prior Department leaders in helping her understand how the Department functioned and in planting the seeds for the reorganization project.

Burstyn credits former Chair Prof. Bob McMahon with mapping out the Department’s existing organizational structure and former Chair Prof. Jim Weisshaar for speaking with her about the organizational challenges facing the Department. She also appreciates Executive Director Matt Sanders, for sharing his understanding of the ins and outs of Department operations, including some processes that were not functioning at full efficiency, Burstyn said. Though she credits her colleagues’ persistence through many challenges, Burstyn perceived that small adjustments were insufficient to meet the increasing demands on Department operations. Burstyn’s can-do attitude and leadership style remedied these issues efficiently through the reorganization.

“I appreciate that Judith is not willing to hide how she feels and expresses herself fully,” Rebeca Fernandez, a fifth-year graduate student and a former co-chair of the Graduate Student Faculty Liaison Committee (GSFLC), said. “She checks her privilege, says things that aren’t easy to hear, and then is willing to have the difficult conversations.”

Some of these difficult conversations included addressing the lack of diversity within the Department of Chemistry in the faculty and staff, Burstyn said.

“One task I really tried to work on was to diversify the faculty,” Burstyn said. “In the immediate period before my term, we went down in numbers for women faculty. Now, the Department is back at where we were prior to my term, but we have not advanced in numbers.”

Introducing more women into the Chemistry Department has been a historic subject: before becoming the first female chair, Judith was also the first and only woman to have served on the Finance Committee, now called the Leadership Council.

With Burstyn’s term ending, there are still many changes the Department is undergoing and challenges that present themselves for the incoming Department of Chemistry’s chair, Clark Landis. Currently, the undergraduate program is being reorganized. Burstyn is optimistic for a change in the Department’s environment after her transition.

“I hope that the Department continues to excel, but there are challenges in doing so: we need a cohort of new faculty, which I hope includes a more diverse faculty than what we’ve had in the past,” Burstyn said. “I also hope that the Department continues the idea of continual process improvement and that people have learned more through our reorganizational processes about how to be a more effective organization.”

Landis began his term in the summer, but the policies Burstyn implemented during her term will have lasting impacts on processes in the Department.

“Clark has been particularly innovative over many years in his ways of thinking and quite a visionary,” Burstyn said. “I am optimistic that the Department is moving in a positive direction.”

Fernandez echoes this sentiment, as she hopes the Department continues to implement changes based on the numerous conversations the students, faculty and staff have had over the years.

“As someone hoping to be a faculty one day, starting frank conversations and action is something that Judith has really pushed,” Fernandez said. “I hope that future chairs take action based on what we have discussed, whether that is faculty, students or staff.”

Despite both physical obstacles, such as the building flood or the pandemic, and societal forces, exemplified by her overcoming of gendered spaces, Burstyn’s leadership has made a mark on the Department’s history.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to have been chair of the Department, and I also appreciate that my colleagues have been enthusiastic supporters of my ideas,” Burstyn said.