New Rudd Chair Focuses on Adoption
Harold Grotevant relaxing at a lake in Maine
“In academia no two days are ever alike,” says Harold D. Grotevant, Rudd Family Foundation Chair in Psychology and an international leader in the field of adoption. “You might find me working with my research team, writing a paper for a publication, giving a talk to a community group, teaching a class, analyzing data, reviewing journal submissions, writing a grant proposal, or getting acquainted with the many people working on adoption related issues.”
As director of the Rudd Adoption Research Program, affiliated with the multidisciplinary Center for Research on Families, Grotevant aims to establish UMass Amherst as a leader in research on the psychology of adoption. “The idea,” he says, “is to develop synergy among scientists from varied disciplines who share interests in the many topics relevant to adoption. Our activities will contribute to evidence-based practice in adoption and will provide research-based information to influence policy at agency, state, federal, and international levels. Right now we are planning our first conference in mid-February,” says Grotevant. Be watching these pages for more information.
Historically, adoption has been an understudied area. When one considers all the people who are adopted, live in adoptive families, are birth parents who placed children for adoption and who are in any of their extended families, adoption touches the lives of almost two-thirds of the U.S. population. Adoptive families are also part of the growing number of complex families in the U.S. and around the world that involve adults beyond the child’s biological parents who must coordinate their roles on behalf of the best interests of the child in the absence of clear social norms.
“In addition to adoptive families,” says Grotevant, “think about blended families post-divorce, children born through assisted reproductive technology, children of same-sex parents, and others.” Grotevant’s presence at UMass Amherst, therefore, offers a unique opportunity to position the campus as an international leader in the area of adoption studies.
Asked how he got started in studying adoption, Grotevant says he explored two potential undergraduate majors at the University of Texas at Austin: psychology, because he is a good listener and likes people, and chemistry, because he had a great teacher in high school that fed his fascination. After a semester, psychology won. “Even in an auditorium of 500 students, the professor engaged me from the start. I’m sure he never knew the impact he had on my future. That makes me very mindful of the critical influence faculty play in students’ lives.”
At the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, Grotevant was selected a graduate research assistant for a new project, headed by Sandra Scarr and Richard Weinberg. “The studies were behavior genetic investigations into the malleability of intellectual and personality development,” Grotevant recalls. “My interest in adoption was clinched, as I was one of the RAs who interviewed the adoptive parents and teenagers. I was fascinated by how families negotiate differences and identities.”
Grotevant points out that Scarr and Weinberg instilled in him a model of relationships between faculty and graduate students that has guided him as a faculty mentor. “I learned things from them that are rarely taught in classrooms: how to review manuscripts and write grant proposals; how to handle rejection of your work; how to treat students well; how to organize a large research project; how to treat research participants with respect; how to deal with contentious colleagues; how to hold to one’s principles in the face of controversy; and, most important, how to be passionately in love with your work.”
With PhD in hand, Grotevant returned to UT Austin as an assistant professor in 1977. Working through the tenure system, by 1988 he was a full professor and head of the division of Child Development and Family Relationships. Two years later he returned to the University of Minnesota to lead the Department of Family Social Science.
For the past twenty years, Grotevant has been the director of the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project, a longitudinal study he and Ruth McRoy from UT Austin developed. Just before he left the University of Minnesota for Amherst this past summer, they completed collection of the third wave of data from young adults and their parents. “We have a great deal of information to sift through, analyze, and write about,” Grotevant says.
His long lists of honors, grants, publications, speaking engagements, teaching, consulting, community outreach, and service to the profession leave no doubt that Grotevant’s work has made an enormous impact in the field of adoption and on the many students with whom he has worked. However, Grotevant is self-effacing. “Success in the social sciences is less about individual achievement than it is about developing and nurturing collaborative relationships. One of the most important markers of success is the ability to bring out the best in other people. Then, in collaborations, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Grotevant’s work has changed attitudes about open adoption—in which adopted children know and have contact with their birth relatives. “In the mid-1980s many people thought that open adoptions were potentially harmful to children, families, and birth relatives. Our work over the past 20 years has clearly shown that open adoptions can work well, although they do make one’s family relationships more complex and require flexibility, commitment to the relationship, and good communication skills.”
The opportunities associated with the Rudd chair, says Grotevant, lured him away from the University of Minnesota. “The Chair allows me to focus exclusively on research, teaching and engagement related to adoption. It also allows for a more explicit opportunity to connect the research I’ve been doing all these years with practitioners and policymakers. My colleagues here in psychology are excellent—they have international reputations and they think in interdisciplinary ways. We are already talking about new initiatives in areas such as stress, developmental science, and applied psychology. And I’m really excited about teaching a seminar for twenty senior psychology majors on the Psychology of Adoption next semester. There’s energy and excitement—and a commitment to growing UMass Amherst’s strengths in the adoption area.”
October 22, 2008