Helen “Lena” Astin (1932-2015): Feminist Scholar and Activist, UCLA Distinguished Professor

Helen “Lena” S. Astin, Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles and Senior Scholar at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), passed away on October 27 after a prolonged illness at the age of 83. She is best known for her loving heart, as well as her research on higher education issues relating to women, equity, civic engagement, and spirituality.

Distinguished Professor Emerita of Education Helen "Lena" Astin was a higher education scholar with expertise in women's issues, equity, civic engagement, and spirituality.
Distinguished Professor Emerita of Education Helen “Lena” Astin was a higher education scholar with expertise in women’s issues, equity, civic engagement, and spirituality.

For most of her early professional life, Astin’s scholarly work focused on issues of equity for women. This work was motivated in part by her personal experience as a young woman Ph.D. in psychology trying to find work, and also by her activism during the early years of the women’s movement. Her 1969 book,The Woman Doctorate in America,” which has since become a Citation Classic, was published just as the Women’s Movement was beginning to gather steam. This national study debunked several myths about highly educated women, including the belief that they don’t remain in the workforce because they drop out to have children and raise families. It also documented the existence of widespread sex discrimination in the higher education workplace.

Astin’s 1991 book, Women of Influence, Women of Vision (co-authored with Carole Leland), was an in-depth study of 77 prominent women leaders who had helped to bring about societal change on behalf of women. The study found that these women shared power, saw leadership as a collective effort, and demonstrated a passionate commitment to social justice, equality and inclusion.

“The entire GSE&IS family mourns the passing of our beloved colleague Helen Astin,” says Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. “Lena was a brilliant, humane, charming, and cosmopolitan citizen of UCLA and of the world; we shall miss her enormously. Our thoughts and prayers are with her husband UCLA Professor Alexander (“Sandy”) Astin and their sons John and Paul.”

Helen “Lena” Astin (née Stavridou) was born on February 6, 1932 in Serres, Greece, and in her youth, witnessed the occupation of Greece by the Axis powers during World War II. She traveled to the United States in 1951 to pursue higher education, meeting her husband, Alexander W. Astin, in 1954 when both were doctoral students in psychology at the University of Maryland. They were married in 1956. The couple had two sons, John Astin (b. 1959) and Paul (b. 1961).

In 1973, the Astins accepted professorships in Higher Education at UCLA where they remained until their retirement in 2002. Helen Astin served as the Associate Provost of the UCLA College of Letters and Science (1983-87), during which time she established the Student Research Program, which provides opportunities for undergraduates to work directly with faculty on their research projects. In 1989, she co-founded the UCLA Center for the Study of Women with fellow faculty members Nancy Henley, Anne Peplau, Kathryn Sklar, and Karen Rowe, and served for a time as Interim Director of that Center.

Helen Astin’s 14 books also include “Higher Education and the Disadvantaged Student” (1972), “Some Action of Her Own: The Adult Woman in Higher Education” (1976), “Minorities in American Higher Education” (1982), and “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives” (2011). Astin also described her experiences of growing up in Nazi-occupied Greece, her path to higher education in America, and her career as a scholar, activist, faculty member, and administrator in “The Road From Serres: A Feminist Odyssey” (2014).

At the time of her death, Professor Astin served as a Senior Scholar at HERI. The nationally renowned institute houses the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), which is the nation’s largest and oldest empirical study of higher education, through an annual longitudinal study of the American higher education system, involving data on some 1,900 institutions, over 15 million students, and more than 300,000 faculty. It continues to provide the most comprehensive source of information on college students. CIRP surveys have been administered by UCLA’s HERI since 1973, and include the Freshman Survey, Your First College Year Survey, Diverse Learning Environments Survey, and the College Senior Survey.

Helen Astin served as a trustee of Hampshire College (1972-79) and as a trustee of Mt. St. Mary’s College (1985-97 and 2001-11). She was on the Board of Governors of the Center for Creative Leadership, the Board of the National Council for Research on Women, and Chair of the Board of the American Association for Higher Education. She was active in the American Psychological Association (APA), serving on the Boards of Policy and Planning, and Education and Training, as well as president of the Division of the Psychology of Women. In addition, among her many accolades, Professor Astin was a recipient of the Distinguished Research Award of Division J of the American Education Research Association (AERA) and received the Mentoring Award and the Howard R. Bowen Distinguished Career Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Astin has also been the recipient of three honorary degrees.

Professor Astin is survived by her husband, Alexander “Sandy” Astin, their sons John and Paul Astin, and three granddaughters Erin (b. 1994), Amalía (b. 1997), and Ila Astin (b. 2000). A memorial service will be held later this Fall.