For most of his 23 years at UMass Boston, Jeffrey Burr, PhD, has worked as an administrator in addition to teaching and conducting research on aging issues. From the State University of New York at Buffalo, Burr came to campus in 1999 as the gerontology graduate program director. He served for many years as the gerontology department chair as well as three years as associate dean of McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, where gerontology was one of the founding programs.
Burr’s research, meanwhile, has evolved to include a focus on social determinants of health for older adults with a wider lens on a range of mental health issues. The eclectic mix of topics is driven in part by the biggest constant in his career: his strong rapport with doctoral students, many of whom seek him out to collaborate on projects.
In recent years, UMass Boston has attracted an increasing number of international graduate students, including from China, Korea, and other East Asian countries. “Some time around 2015 or so, I started to get interested in aging in China,” Burr says. He and his wife, Jan Mutchler, PhD—now director of the Gerontology Institute, she joined the UMass Boston gerontology faculty in 1999 at the same time as Burr—were invited to participate in a conference on aging in Beijing. About this same time, “we started getting a steady stream of PhD students from China,” he says. “Many international gerontology students want to be researchers, including those from China. Most of them want to be in a university or other research environment when they graduate. Our students are highly motivated and ambitious, with the attributes it takes to be successful researchers.”
Burr sees clearly why the study of aging is attracting more international students. “Every country in the world is aging, some of them much faster and in a larger sense than others. For example, China is projected to have more people over age 65—360 million—than the total U.S. population in the most recent census. When you think of the potential caregiving and health issues, China is really facing an unprecedented challenge. The government is working to provide support, they’ve introduced new entitlement programs. And similar policy engagements are going on in other Asian countries.”
Burr serves as editor-in-chief of Research on Aging, an international peer-reviewed journal. The top country for submissions, outside of the United States, is China, he says.
Working as a university administrator for many years taught Burr to see both sides of bureaucracy. It can make things work, and it can make things not work so well. He learned, among other things, how to work effectively with people who may not share his world view. “There’s no training for this. Most university administrators just step into the job,” he says.
He has been on sabbatical for the 2021-22 school year. His days have been plenty full: He currently chairs 8 dissertation committees, of the 59 dissertation committees he’s served on in his career, and he has several discrete research papers in the works.
“Over the course of my career, it used to be that I’d get a big charge out of publishing something or winning a big grant. Now the thing that keeps me going is working with our PhD students,” he says. “I often let them drive the “car.” They’re all smarter than me,” Burr jokes.
In truth, Burr has plenty to teach the graduate students, and much of that learning is outside the classroom. “When they work with me, I teach the students how to write for professional, peer-reviewed journals. And I give them a lot of encouragement. I try to be very supportive of our students and their career aspirations.”