The great equalizer — that’s how Dr. Joyce Brown defines higher education. With more than 30 years of experience in public higher education, Dr. Brown has blazed many trails. She served as New York City Deputy Mayor during the David Dinkins administration and created and directed programs with the government of South Africa, including the Professional Development program, an effort inspired by Nelson Mandela. She earned her doctorate and master’s degree in counseling psychology, and in 1998 became the first female president of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a State University of New York (SUNY) school. Throughout her career, Dr. Brown has been a strong advocate for public higher education and has done an amazing job at helping people transform their lives.
BELLA had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Brown to garner insights on what inspires her, the causes closest to her heart, and the best piece of advice she ever received.
What was it like being deputy mayor for public and community affairs during the David Dinkins administration?
Well, it was intense. [Laughs] It was always very busy. It was an exciting time and difficult time, but an important time in the city. The Dinkins administration brought a lot to society that I think he doesn’t get credit for. Being in public and community affairs, we had safe schools and a safe city, we had good relations between police and communities, and you really felt like you were a part of something important. We were making a difference in people’s lives.
How has being FIT’s first female and first African- American president influenced the direction in which you’ve led the college?
It’s difficult to separate what I do and who I am. Obviously, I bring my life experiences to everything I do. What I know how to do is run a college. Certainly my philosophy of life and education and dealing with people passes through the prism that is my life.
I certainly think it was timely for a woman to run this college, as we are 85 percent female.
I’m a psychologist by training and I think I can connect with people on different levels because of that. I think differently, I listen differently; it’s my training. I try very hard to recognize what the messages are that reflect what people really need and are looking for, and we try to address that. The point of running an institution is not to “run” an institution, but to really make that institution responsive to the needs of the people it’s serving. I want students to have a good experience and to value their time here at FIT. I certainly think being a woman and African- American and being a psychologist growing up in New York City – [having an] understanding what life in an urban environment is like — all those things come to bear.
You have served on statewide commissions and task forces on the black family, childcare, and domestic violence. Why are those causes important to you?
We have a responsibility to use our positions to be a voice for the people who don’t have a voice. These are issues that certainly affect families and black families and various community-centric kinds of family constellations that really need to be examined and understood, particularly by people who are going to make statewide policy. You use the position you have to surface issues and talk about them, presumably to influence policies that can provide all young people with improved opportunities.
How would you define beauty?
I think someone who is beautiful is comfortable with themselves and presents themselves in a way they want to be presented. Someone else in that same outfit and same presentation would look ridiculous, but that person is making a strong statement and projecting a beautiful sense of themselves. It’s from the inside out, it’s attitude … it’s a lot of sense of comfort and not needing permission — that’s beautiful.
What would you say is needed to become a successful woman in NYC?
There is probably a platform everyone has to be on or above to be successful, either male or female. I do think there are obstacles for women, just in the mindset. It’s unbelievable that in 2016 people still hold onto prejudices or beliefs of what women can or cannot do. I think the discerning characteristic is when people you know give up, and you keep going. Don’t listen to the naysayers, and don’t pay attention to the people who try to pull you back saying you’re not going to succeed anyway. I believe it’s important enough to make the sacrifices I need to make. Women have to convince or overcome the people who don’t believe in them, but it’s probably easier to just overcome.
What does FIT mean to you?
FIT represents an opportunity for talented young people. It represents an opportunity for me to create that access and opportunity that young people might not have otherwise. I think it’s a safe haven for people to develop their innermost talent and creativity and to realize their dreams and ideas. I often say the students are the best part of my day, and they really are — they are so wide-eyed and pressed down and overflowing with all of the things they want to create. Particularly today there is a big transition happening with the way we learn and communicate and get information and how people read.
In what ways have FIT and the community changed over the years?
We’ve gotten a lot done over the last 19 years. I’ve been here a long time with an eye to a vision for the future of the institution and the role this institution can and should play in the larger society. We talk a lot about the global market; you really need to understand how to deal with different communities and cultures. You need to be able to speak a language that is interdisciplinary and not just be subject experts because that’s not how the world functions anymore.
One of the things we’re going to do is open an innovation center. What I’m hoping is that people will come here for problem-solving and [to find] creative solutions to things. Once we open the center, we will invite other people to partner with both the students and faculty. We’ve also revisited the entire curriculum over the years; we’ve engaged experts and brought in visiting scholars and faculty working at being more interdisciplinary.
“[EDUCATION] TRANSFORMS PEOPLE’S LIVES. THERE’S A CERTAIN LEVEL OF RESPECT THAT IS GIVEN FOR THE ACHIEVEMENT OF HAVING MASTERED SUBJECT MATTER AND PREPARED ONESELF FOR THE WORLD.”
Why do you think higher education is so important?
I think it’s the great equalizer. It transforms people’s lives. There’s a certain level of respect that is given for the achievement of having mastered subject matter and prepared oneself for the world. The truth is higher education does do that, and it does prepare you for the world. It teaches you how to think about it, problem solve, interact with people whose experience has been different from yours; it’s preparation for life. You give kids an education and prepare them to be successful in the professions of their choosing, and doing so makes a difference for their families and generations after that.
What has been your most rewarding accomplishment to date?
In the context of FIT, I would say that the most rewarding accomplishment has been the ability to create the environment for the conversation that is going on. We have moved from being narrow in our focus, and we’ve done it as a community. We’ve had dialogue across the community with everyone having an opportunity to speak about the direction we should go and how we should get there.
That’s sort of a culture change by any measure and a difficult thing to achieve, but I think overall to move an institution forward, you do it with your people. You don’t do it from the top down, and the only way to get people involved is to give them a voice and listen and respect their opinions. By incorporating that, it becomes the overall message of the community.
“OFTEN PEOPLE ASK ME WHO OUR COMPETITION IS, AND I SAY, I HAVE NO COMPETITION, BECAUSE I DON’T THINK ANYBODY DOES WHAT WE DO. “
What sets FIT apart from other New York schools?
Often people ask me who our competition is, and I say, I have no competition, because I don’t think anybody does what we do. We have almost 50 majors; we create the opportunity and pathway for people with multifaceted talents to either pursue what they wanted to do or to begin in one area and learn about another. I think we are very pragmatic in our education. We have an 85 percent job placement rate after graduation, which is unheard of. I think it’s because our curriculum is very pragmatic. We don’t stifle the great creativity and great aesthetic that people bring. Instead, we really give them the hands- on ability to be value-added in a job setting, and we have a large internship program, so the companies bring in the young people and infuse them in the culture of business.
What was the best advice you ever received?
I would have to say that to remain true to myself was probably the best advice I ever received. That goes back to an earlier conversation about really believing in something and having it resonate with you and then really remaining true. You have to compromise and make things work but never compromise your basic principles. There’s no turning back if you waver from that. You always have to be able to be true to the core set of values that you have and bring that to bear, and it will allow you to continue to fight when no one believes in you. Hold your ground when people try to sway you (and they will). They will be very convincing in all the reasons why you should pursue another path. Sometimes it’s hard, but you have to remain. There are some things you cannot change if you’re going to be true to yourself, and you have to recognize those things.