Making the impossible possible: Fredonia Provost Terry Brown on her quest to make public higher education affordable again

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This is part one of a two-part series of interviews with Fredonia Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Terry Brown.

Terry Brown has spent her life in school — thirteen schools to be exact.

Born in Alaska to a United States Army defense contract auditor, Brown spent her childhood in transition. She’s now lived in Southern California, Connecticut, Virginia, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and for two years which she considers the most formative of her life, Bangkok, Thailand.

In that span, she went to four elementary schools, two high schools, three universities, and it is now in her third role as a university administrator at Fredonia. As Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Brown oversees everything that happens in Fredonia’s classrooms. 

And she’s gravely concerned, because those classrooms are becoming very difficult to afford.

Public universities, like Fredonia, were supposed to be accessible to families that couldn’t otherwise afford college. But thirty years of declining state support has shifted the burden of payment to students and families through hikes in tuition and fees. Today, the state of New York contributes just twelve percent of SUNY’s operating budget.

Public universities now must find creative ways to keep their schools accessible, much like their private counterparts. However, Brown can’t see a long-term solution that doesn’t involve states returning to their commitment of funding higher education.

Our conversation, which took place outside of the Starbucks on Fredonia’s campus, is divided into two parts: Making public higher education affordable again, and The future of the college classroom.

Taken together, given the seeming impossibility of our circumstances, Brown gives us hope that a possible solution does exist.

Ryan Maloney: What do you spend your time thinking about these days?

Terry Brown: Here’s the thing — I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it weren’t for high-quality, affordable, public higher education.

RM: I probably wouldn’t be here either.

Brown: Right. This experiment in democracy, entrusting the people to make the choice about who leads us, depends on making sure that those people entrusted with that vote are fully informed.  Our democracy, our liberties, everything depends on a strong, thriving public education system, from pre-school to post-graduate.  I absolutely believe in that. And I can see that over the last 25-30 years the public has lost an appetite for funding higher education. That’s what I spend my time thinking about. Legislatures, Democratic and Republican, have not been willing to continue funding state universities at the levels of the past. As that has happened, we’ve shifted the burden of the costs to the families and students with increases in tuition. So you can look over the last 20 years and see how tuition at public universities has risen more than a lot of other things people pay for. And that is directly a result of the disinvestment of states in public education. Our costs remain the same, and we’ve reached a point of crisis where things cannot continue the way they have been. They must change. People are beginning to refuse to attend four-year, residential public universities. They’re staying home. They’re commuting. They’re hearing that it’s not worth it. There’s a lot of finger-pointing, and it has become an important issue for politicians to talk about.

RM: And when you’re listening to them talk about it, what are you thinking?

Brown: I think they’re looking for political solutions without talking to people who are in the middle of it. Their solutions are presented in a way to get people to vote for them. If you say, “free college,” everybody’s going to want that. When I asked students last spring who were supporting Bernie Sanders, they said, “Who can argue with free college?” It becomes a slogan. I know where Bernie Sanders is coming from on that. And I know why it has become necessary to say that we are pricing the poor and the middle class out of higher education. And that is not good for any of us. I know where they’re coming from, but I don’t believe that we can have a solution that doesn’t include states returning to their commitment to support universities — having a pride in their universities.

RM: So New York having pride in SUNY?

Brown: Yes! The state of New York feeling a pride in its state system. But that doesn’t go just one way. Leaders of higher ed., and all of us who are faculty and staff in higher ed., we have a responsibility to be accountable to show that what they’ve invested in is working. That students are learning what we say that they need to learn, and that it’s having a positive impact in their lives and in their communities. We have to be able to explain why one in four of our students do not return in a year.

RM: At Fredonia?

Brown: Yes. We’re at about a 78% retention rate from first year Fall to Fall. Some of those students are going to other colleges. Some of them are just giving up. We have to be able to say why that’s the case. We need to have more students completing in four years. That’s on us. We have to be able to show that we’re doing our part. We can’t just moan and whine that the state isn’t investing in us — I have no tolerance for excuses. For me, leadership is about accountability and ownership. I believe that’s what the Chancellor was trying to do last year with what she called SUNY Excels, to say to the legislature that we will commit to being more successful at helping students complete their four-year degrees in four years and two-year degrees in two years. To help them manage their debt. In exchange, she asked for them to invest in us, and they didn’t come forward. They didn’t do it.

RM: Why not?

Brown: I don’t know why, that’s political. That’s what I’m talking about — that appetite for public education. We have to ask those legislators why they weren’t willing to invest in the funding of SUNY, so we no longer have to raise fees on students. So you asked what I spend my time thinking about. What I spend my time thinking about, is how do we make the impossible, possible? And it’s got to be possible for us. With the declining state funding that we’re dealing with we cannot keep shifting this burden to the students, because we will serve fewer, and fewer, and fewer. This is contributing to the income inequality that people are beginning to look at. Bernie Sanders made it explicit in his campaign, and it’s what Donald Trump is feeding into in his own way. People know that this was not the American dream. I don’t have kids but I can see my nieces and nephews, and what it takes for my sisters to make sure that they even have what we had. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. So that is what I spend my time thinking about. I believe that there are things that we can do that are within our sphere of influence as educators; things on this campus that I can do as Provost, to keep this experience as affordable as possible.

RM: Can you go specifically into what the things are that you can control?

Brown: What we can control is making sure that you are getting the best education possible. We can hold one another accountable — that includes the leaders on campus, and the faculty and staff — that we are doing our best by you. That we know who you are, as a student body and as individuals. And we know what that means in terms of your learning. That we adapt our teaching to meet the needs and the realities of the students we’re teaching. That’s within our control.

RM: And that’s a big deal.

Brown: That is a big deal. That we’re looking at how we can use technology to enhance and augment learning. That’s within our control. That we’re having conversations with colleagues about what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching. Something that’s in our control is when we offer classes.

RM: Like what time of day?

Brown: What times in what rooms, to make sure we’re offering classes in line with students’ needs. That’s within our control. When we look and we see we have courses with long waiting lists, that we’re looking at how we adjust that. We can be better at engineering the course schedule to meet the needs of student demand. We can now use data analytics to predict what courses these students will need next fall and next spring. We know who they are. We know what their majors are, their minors are, we know what classes they’ve taken. We’re using those analytics to help build the class schedule, instead of rolling over the schedule from last year and making adjustments. That is something we control. The course scheduling is a huge change. When we go to that student-centered schedule we will see that the time it takes a student to graduate will decrease. That time is money, and that’s bringing down the cost to the student.

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