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May 9, 1997
Susan Austin blends family life with career
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
Susan Austin answers the door to the president's residence and leads the way to the drawing room with Muzzy, a white poodle, at her heels. She does not stand on ceremony as she reflects, over a cup of coffee, on how she juggles the roles of career professional, wife and mother.
"I want to do whatever I can to be helpful, within the time I have available after my family responsibilities," she says.
Though her resume includes a Ph.D. in public health, work experience in industry and academia, establishing a small business and an impressive list of publications, Austin is quick to point out that her role at the University will be shaped above all by being the mother of Patrick, 10, and 8-year-old Philip James, P.J. "My most important job is the boys," she says. "They are my principal focus."
Austin spends most days making sure her sons get on with their homework and music practice and driving them to baseball, basketball and soccer practices. "I'm enjoying watching them grow up - the day they finally rode a two-wheeler, the day they jumped off the high dive," she says. "I like to be there."
The Austin household sets strict limits on TV watching and Nintendo - no more than one hour a night - and even that's a privilege Patrick and P.J. must earn.
President Philip E. Austin also is involved - as much as his schedule allows. "Since he's been here, he's just been running," Susan Austin says. "His schedule is incredible." But, she adds, he is able to separate family life from work. "When he's with the family he's very relaxed," she says. "He goes with the flow and enjoys the children."
When second-grader P.J. played the lead in his class play, the Austins rescheduled a planned social event at the University so they could both be there.
Susan Austin is enthusiastic about her sons' experiences in the Mansfield public school system. Still, there is a price to pay for living in a small community. "This is a highly visible position," she says of the presidency.
Some classmates have made a big deal about the fact that the boys' father is president of UConn, she says. "I don't want them to get an inflated sense of who they are." This is one of the reasons underlying the Austins' planned move to Farmington at the end of the school year. "I think it will be easier for them to blend in there," she says.
Her father, a physician, fostered in them a competitive drive. Susan competed with her eldest brother for grades. "I learned to make it in a man's world according to men's standards," she says.
Her experiences shaped her approach to women's issues. "I endorse most women's issues, particularly that of equal pay for equal work," she says. "I am particularly supportive of changes in the workplace that recognize that working women often have different circumstances from working men." Her main concern, she says, is "about being recognized for what we can contribute."
And Susan Austin clearly has a great deal to contribute. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in math and a master's in biostatistics from the University of Pittsburgh, she considered teaching math. Instead she went on to study for a Ph.D. in health services research.
In 1977, she met Phil Austin, then a professor at George Washington University, and they were married in 1978. Having helped raise her younger siblings, Susan was not in a hurry to start a family, and for several years she continued to pursue her career while her husband was provost at Bernard Baruch College in New York City. "Phil has been very supportive of my choices," she says.
Soon after completing her doctorate, she was hired by Union Carbide Corp. as its first corporate epidemiologist. There she built a program, still being used today, to study exposure to health hazards among the company's employees and surrounding communities.
When Philip Austin took up the presidency of Colorado State University in 1984, Susan began a consulting business in occupational and environmental health and was an adjunct professor of community medicine at the University of Colorado.
She continued to teach and do research two days a week at the University of Alabama School of Public Health in Birmingham during the seven years her husband served as chancellor of the University of Alabama system. And she hopes, once the family is settled, to find a job in Connecticut in epidemiology or health services research.
As wife of UConn's president, Susan Austin sees herself as a champion for the University. "This is a new era for UConn, and the eyes of the nation are on UConn 2000 and how it unfolds," she says.
For the time being, she is working to become knowledgeable about UConn. Muzzy has helped, she says, with his daily walk serving as an excuse for her to get to know the campus.
Though well aware that New England prides itself on being the land of steady habits, Austin says her husband is a person who can bring about change. "Phil's a very hardworking, behind-the-scenes kind of guy who can get things done," she says. "But it's the human qualities that make him a great leader."
Quickly switching back to her role as mother she adds, "I hope I see that in both of the boys; I hope it's genetic."