New social welfare dean Linda Burton officially begins her work at UC Berkeley this week. A former dean of social sciences at Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and an expert on child poverty, Burton boasts a long, impressive and colorful history of scholarship and leadership.
As she tells it in an in-depth Q&A with the School of Social Welfare, Burton started her professional academic career at Penn State in the 1980s, a single African American mother of four young children, intent on gaining tenure as doors began to open for junior faculty of color. To gather prominent scholars and other potential mentors under one roof, she organized a national conference on black families.
“I brought them to Penn State and got to know everybody all at one time,” she recalls. “When I went to the provost’s office, he kind of giggled and said, ‘If you’re bold enough to come to the provost as a second-year assistant professor and ask for money for top brass, I’m going to give it to you.'”
Her early research was on very young grandmothers, a trend which she says led to a “skipped generation of parenting.”
“I would see these very compressed generations, where a young girl would have a child at age 13 so her mother becomes a grandmother at 27 and her mother’s mother then becomes a great-grandmother at 40,” she says. “So the 27-year-old grandmother/mother and 13-year-old daughter behaved more like siblings to one another.”
Later, her focus turned to children in poverty. As director of Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy from 2017 to 2018, she oversaw research to improve the lives of needy families, including an initiative that evaluated the impact of certain policies on families in the American South.