It was the 1990s when Kristen Renn started studying gay and lesbian issues in higher education. From that time as a young scholar, she “grew up with the field,” and has helped make it more inclusive, theoretical and methodologically diverse.
As the definitions of gender and sexual identities evolved, so too have her efforts to help colleges and universities across the United States better understand and support the students and scholars they serve. She became a mentor, thought leader, activist.
And now she is being honored for the collective impact of her career by the American Educational Research Association (AERA). In fact, she will receive two awards at the 2018 meeting: the AERA Distinguished Career Contributions to Gender Equity in Education Research Award and the Body of Work award from the Queer Studies Special Interest Group (SIG).
“Getting to see her reach beyond MSU’s College of Education and across higher education has been wonderful and astonishing to see,” said Adam Greteman, co-chair of the Queer Studies SIG and a doctoral graduate of the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education (CITE) doctoral program at MSU. “She is always able and willing to push the edge of these studies, while also bringing historical understanding.”
Renn is a professor in the No. 1 ranked Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) programs and has been on the faculty at MSU since 2001.
Among her published works, her 2010 article in Educational Researcher on the state of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) research in higher education—and the need to integrate queer theory—is considered a cornerstone piece that pushed the field forward.
She created and continues to co-direct the National Study of LGBTQ Student Success. The study is the first to explore experiences intended to support LGBTQ college students, and on a large scale. Her team interviewed and surveyed over 950 LGBTQ students in 2013. Now they have just finished a four-year longitudinal study of 20 students that is expected to provide valuable new insights.
Renn also broke new ground with her landmark research on female-only institutions of higher education. She explored the value of 13 different colleges and universities in 10 countries around the world, resulting in a book and many articles.
Beyond her scholarship, Renn is often lauded for her purposeful and dedicated mentorship of young scholars who are LGBTQ and/or wish to study LGBTQ issues. It goes back well into her career as a student affairs administrator at Brown University, where a mentoring program she started is named after her.
At MSU, she has influenced countless students in the Student Affairs Administration and HALE programs, such as Erich Pitcher, who last year won a national award for their research on trans* academics.
“There’s probably not a better place for students to study to do this kind of work,” said Renn, who also donates to the MSU LBGT Resource Center. As she tells the next generation of LGBTQ scholars, “You have to write about [your experience] to create a space to live in.”
Renn has helped to build a robust intellectual community for colleagues in gender and queer studies that will last. But she is also a leader across the broader sphere of student affairs administration, and higher education as a whole.
Renn was named president-elect of the nation’s leading organization of higher education scholars, ASHE, in November 2017. She will become president at the conclusion of the 2018 ASHE conference this fall, and begin planning the 2019 conference. Renn has selected MSU colleague Leslie Gonzales to serve as program chair.
Ann Austin, associate dean for research in the MSU College of Education, also served as ASHE president during the 2000-2001 year.
In addition, Renn has been instrumental in implementing major student success initiatives at MSU, such as the Neighborhoods. She continues to study those initiatives as associate dean of undergraduate studies for student success research.
“She’s a generous person, which is sometimes a rare thing to find in the academy,” said Greteman, a faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who nominated Renn for the SIG award along with Z Nicolazzo. “It’s not just about the top-notch scholarship she’s produced, but that she’s produced it with such a generous spirit.”
Many scholars from the MSU College of Education are also receiving honors for their research and expertise during the AERA annual conference.