Reposted from a May 16, 2022 UMass Boston news post
In August 2021, Jan Mutchler, PhD, was appointed director of the Gerontology Institute, succeeding former director Len Fishman, who retired after seven years of service. In considering how she may use her position to advance the work of the Institute, Mutchler notes that while her predecessor had a deep and extensive background as a leader of senior-focused nonprofit organizations, she comes to this role as a faculty member and academic researcher.
A faculty member at UMass Boston for 22 years, Mutchler has served as graduate program director and chair of the Gerontology Department and as the founding director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging, a unit of the Gerontology Institute. “What I’m bringing to [the role],” she says, “is pulling back that academic sensibility, to some extent. I’m bringing a long history of working with doctoral students, and I’m bringing…a strong belief in the power of education, broadly speaking. Everything that I do intersects in some way with the…educational programs on campus.”
Additionally, Mutchler brings to the Institute an emphasis on the education processes and opportunities that align with an outward-looking investment in public education. “The work that I have done through my center is very outward-looking and about…public engagement, and to a considerable extent, that has taken the form of a mutually reinforcing educational process, so to speak. I learn from the community, and the community learns from me, and we all together learn something new.”
This is part of her vision for the four centers in the Institute as well. As director, Mutchler oversees the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging (CSDRA), the LeadingAge Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) Center, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), and the Pension Action Center (PAC).
The centers’ missions align with Mutchler’s dual and overlapping focus on research-based and community-based work. Within the Gerontology Institute, the CSDRA focuses on applied research addressing the wellbeing of the older residents of New England that organizations, stakeholders, and communities can use, and the LTSS Center conducts research on long-term services and supports—such as nursing homes, home care, and health promotion—to help the nation address the challenges and opportunities associated with a growing older position. On a community engagement level, OLLI emphasizes lifelong learning and social relationships for older adults, and the PAC offers counseling for citizens on pension benefits.
Mutchler acknowledges and finds value in the “crosswalks” that occur between research-focused and community-focused work and between publicly engaged research and more traditionally discipline-bound scholarship. For instance, the Institute offers Gerontology graduate students the opportunity to engage in quantitative and qualitative studies that add to our understanding of aging while informing policies and practices that affect older adults, their families, and their communities. Moreover, when faculty members conduct empirical research on older adults and need interviewees as their research participants, the Institute’s community networking often affords them those contacts. Mutchler commented, “We really do feel like the Institute and the department are just two pieces of the same whole, and so we’re always looking to highlight that interconnection, and…as we promote one aspect, we’re promoting another aspect of it.”
As director, Mutchler emphasizes the role that the Gerontology Institute plays in informing national, state, and local levels of policy. “We’re in a policy school, and that matters,” she says. Acknowledging the broader implications of the Gerontology Institute’s work to emphasize how aging issues intersect with policy issues, a particular vision for the Gerontology Institute is to continue “leveraging our interests and expertise in equity.” This is especially true given the local and contemporary context that the Institute operates within, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated a need for more equitable responses to health issues that resonate on nation levels like aging and illness. In working with populations like Boston, Mutchler notes, attention to issues related to diversity and equity in health-informed research and public policy is an obligation, and most of the faculty members within the department work with diverse populations.
“Up to this point,” Mutchler says, their work with diversity and equity “has been recognized as a strength and something important.” Nonetheless, she commented, “We’re working together to…lift it up to a new level to where we’re being a little bit more intentional about what we can add to that conversation and how we can add to strengthening our work in that area [while] adding more to the knowledge that we produce that will help communities, governments, and people.”
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