For Karen Holden, the question is often one of finding opportunity, whether to help a student broaden her professional experience, for an academic staff member of the university to serve as a principle investigator on a research project, or for a husband's pension plan to ensure the widow is taken care of.
Holden retired from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the summer of 2009 after 30 years on campus, 20 of them as a La Follette School faculty member with a joint appointment in the Department of Consumer Science.
For La Follette, Holden taught program evaluation and the public affairs workshop. She served two terms as associate director, from 1995-1998 and 2005-2007. During her second term, she helped to establish the public affairs and public health dual-degree program, a partnership between the La Follette School and the Department of Population Health Sciences in the School of Medicine and Public Health.
Throughout her career, Holden made listening to students a priority. "Karen has gone beyond the call of duty to reach out to students experiencing family and personal crises, helping them to manage their courses so they could finish their degrees," says La Follette School director Carolyn Heinrich. "She always gives generously of her time and effort to mentor students and young faculty."
Students appreciated Holden's warmth and receptiveness — and that she would invite them to her home for social events. "Karen is very welcoming and open," says 2008 grad Jennie Mauer. "She encouraged students to share their ideas, which made us feel valued."
When part-time student Emily Engel realized her full-time job precluded a formal internship, she asked Holden how she could get a taste of that public policy experience. Holden invited her to attend a meeting for a project the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Institute for Research on Poverty were conducting.
"They ended up hiring me as project assistant, even with my limited schedule," says Engel, who graduated in May 2009. "I would not have had that opportunity without Karen taking the time to listen to me and inviting me to participate."
Holden focused her research on women and retirement. "She is one of the foremost experts in Social Security," says colleague and collaborator Barbara (Bobbi) Wolfe, a former director of the La Follette School. "Karen was among the first public policy researchers to focus on the ways in which social insurance influences incomes in the retirement of women who combine work and family in different ways."
While Holden retired 20 years after starting her appointment as an assistant professor, she has been on campus since 1975 in research positions with the Department of Economics, the Center for Demography and Ecology, and the Institute for Research on Poverty. As an academic staff member, she worked alongside faculty on investigations into retirement, pensions, Social Security, and the economic well-being of elderly women. When the principal investigator for a grant died, Holden won her argument that academic staff members should be eligible to be lead researchers on grant-funded projects. "Since then, UW has granted more faculty-like privileges to academic staff researchers," Heinrich says. "Indeed, one of Karen's last committee appointments was (appropriately) to the campus committee that approves permanent PI status to nominated academic staff."
After becoming a professor, Holden continued to investigate retirement and widowhood, looking at pension survivorship provisions. Her findings on who chooses the pension option influenced the U.S. debate on privatized Social Security. Closer to home, she convinced administrators of the Wisconsin Retirement System to require spouse approval when a married worker rejects a survivor benefit. "While federal pension law requires spouse approval for private employer plans, it does not cover public pensions," Holden says. "What we find is that women whose husbands sign away the survivor benefit are more likely to be poor as widows."
Holden plans to continue to examine happiness and financial well-being of older women to determine the circumstances in which higher economic status increases their satisfaction with life.
As for her own happiness in retirement, Holden will play music with the Cajun Strangers and the new Prairie Bayou Band. She plays the t-fer (triangle) with the Cajun Strangers and is the bassist and a vocalist for the Prairie Bayou Band. Cajun Strangers released its second album "Cajun Country Ramble" in summer 2009 with Swallow Records, one of the major Cajun labels.
Holden, who began playing Cajun music about eight years ago, finds that the demands of performing and maintaining camaraderie among the band members are very similar to skills teaching requires, lessons she shared with students.
As associate director, Holden invited students to her home for potlucks. At one gathering she had several students playing musical instruments. "It was pretty hilarious," Mauer says. "I turned around, and there were my classmates strumming guitars and playing percussion."
Associate professor Pamela Herd feels she has known Holden for her entire career. "I read her work on women and Social Security when I was an undergraduate," Herd says. "I read her throughout graduate school, then when I was considering coming to Wisconsin, I met with her at a gerontology conference.
"Now, when you read people's scholarly work, you build up this image of them, and then you're often disappointed in the real person, disappointed in their character," Herd says. "This was not the case with Karen. She was so very lovely — and I think we spent about half of that breakfast talking about her band."
This article appeared in the fall 2009 La Follette Notes newsletter for alumni and friends.
Prof's Cajun band wins award for album, August 7, 2007, La Follette School News
Thanks to federal grant, Holden to co-direct financial literacy research, October 13, 2009, La Follette School News