Award-Winning Criminal Justice Professor Earns Ph.D. at UA Little Rock

Whitney Gass

Whitney Gass, a native of Emerson, Arkansas, was never your average Ph.D. student. Unlike most of the members of her cohort who were full-time students with graduate assistantships, Gass balanced her part-time doctoral classes while being a wife, mother of two, and criminal justice professor at Southern Arkansas University.

“Getting the degree is for my future and my family, but I felt selfish at moments for having children and working on the Ph.D,” Gass said. “They didn’t choose for me to work on this degree, so I made sure I didn’t miss dance classes or t-ball games. That wouldn’t be fair for them. Working on your degree with a newborn isn’t always easy.”

It’s been a milestone year for Gass. In addition to completing her Ph.D. in criminal justice and graduating on Dec. 18, she also earned tenure and was promoted to associate professor of criminal justice at Southern Arkansas University this summer. She also used her own experiences as a busy student, professor, and parent for her dissertation research.

“My dissertation topic was stress among university faculty and coping mechanisms that they use to survive,” Gass said. “A lot of people think being in the ivory tower is a cushy place to be, but there are stressors that are very specific to faculty members. Usually, professors coped with traditional things like exercise and hanging out with family.”

Gass was inspired to become a professor after one of her own professors gave her the confidence to go to graduate school.

“When I was finishing my undergrad at SAU, I had a professor, Dr. Jason Ulsperger, that really inspired me to think that graduate school was an option for me,” Gass said. “My dad had a master’s degree, and my mom took some graduate credits. I knew it was a thing, but I didn’t have the confidence to think it was something I could do. I wanted to teach students and inspire them to do things that are hard or do things they didn’t always believe they couldn’t do.”

After completing her master’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Louisiana, Monroe, Gass began her career as an admissions and scholarship coordinator at SAU and became a criminal justice instructor in 2010.

“That’s what really prompted me to start working on a Ph.D., getting an academic job but not truly feeling like I was an academic,” Gass said. “With a doctorate degree comes a certain level of confidence.”

Gass started UA Little Rock’s Ph.D. degree in criminal justice in 2013, when her son was just a year old. She found a mentor in Dr. Tusty ten Bensel, director of the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at UA Little Rock.

“Dr. ten Bensel was amazing and patient and encouraging and just precious,” Gass said. “She was working on her own career while also being understanding and patient with me while I was working through my career, parenting, and working on my dissertation. I admire her a great deal.”

On the other hand, Dr. ten Bensel greatly admires the hard work and dedication of Gass.

“It has been wonderful working with Whitney over the past few years as she grew from being a student to an academic scholar,” she said. “She has been a hardworking student who, like many of our students, had to manage and balance competing life responsibilities to achieve her goal of getting a Ph.D.  Her dissertation grew out of some of her challenges as a faculty member, which focused on interviewing faculty at UA Little Rock to understand workplace/personal stress and various coping strategies employed by faculty to manage the stress, especially during the pandemic. A very timely project, which stands to make an important contribution to our understanding of managing stress in academia.”

Gass has been honored multiple times at Southern Arkansas University for her service and teaching. Over the years, she’s been honored as SAU’s organization advisor of the year and academic advisor of the year. She’s also received the Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching and Faculty Excellence Award for Service.

“I genuinely feel that my gifts are connecting with students in a way that isn’t connected to the classroom material,” Gass said. “I want them to feel capable and encouraged, and I want them to feel visible and that they are relevant. I’m a compassionate person, and it’s one of my strengths.”

Gass is also very active in criminal justice issues in the state. In 2017, Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Gass to a seven-year term on the Arkansas Board of Corrections. In that capacity, she serves on the Arkansas Correctional School Board and is the liaison for education and drug court.

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