The pursuit of higher education has become a family affair for Western Carolina University Chancellor-elect Kelli R. Brown, whose father insisted that his children seek four-year degrees despite the fact that he was the first member of his family to have a college degree.
“I firmly believe in higher education,” said Brown, who is coming to WCU from her role as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Georgia College & State University. “I believe that a post-secondary degree is critical for changing the trajectory of one’s life and in turn their family’s lives. It certainly has changed my life.”
In her first address to the campus community since being named WCU’s 12th chancellor on Thursday, April 25, Brown described how her passion for higher education leadership is grounded in her professional career and her family’s experiences. She received a standing ovation from several hundred faculty, staff, students, community members, alumni and donors gathered Monday, April 29, in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.
“My father was the only one in his family to have a college degree. My paternal grandparents graduated from the eighth grade. My maternal grandparents and my mother graduated from high school. My mother took some classes in college, but she was not a college graduate,” Brown said. “Yet, my parents believed in a college education for all three of their children. They instilled in us there was no other option – you were going to college.”
Brown, whose first tentative steps into a career in public health education began as a technical college student studying to become a dental hygienist, would go on to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Toledo and a doctorate in education from Southern Illinois University. Her two siblings both are college graduates, and their children are either college graduates or are currently enrolled in universities.
Brown’s husband, Dennis Brown, is a first-generation college student whose parents both earned their GED certificates later in life. His sisters both earned degrees as adults, and their children all have four-year degrees, she said.
“This is what I mean by changing a family’s life. And this is what Western Carolina University is doing for students, not only in the 17 westernmost counties of North Carolina, but beyond the borders of North Carolina,” she said. “A college education changes one’s life. It provides opportunities, it opens doors and it makes people better community citizens.”
Brown also spoke of the impact of her mother, who passed away in the fall of 2013, just a few months after her daughter became provost at Georgia College.
“She never really got a chance to see me in my provost role, but I know she is watching me now, and that she could not be any prouder. She guided, nudged, encouraged, supported and inspired me to work hard, despite disappointments or setbacks, and I am the woman I am today because of her,” she said.
“We all have people in our lives who have nudged us along the way, suggested an opportunity such as going to graduate school or maybe getting involved in a special program, or have encouraged us to challenge ourselves. I feel pretty confident that WCU faculty, staff and alumni have encouraged, nudged, supported and inspired many students to go a little further, take a chance, do something they never thought of,” Brown said. “This is what makes WCU a very special place, and this is why I am deeply honored and humbled to be selected as this university’s next chancellor.”
Among Brown’s first orders of business will be to listen and to learn from members of the campus community. “I want to be known as fully collaborative and transparent, and to develop initiatives and solve problems through open discussions with all of our many stakeholders,” she said. “I truly believe that we will do our best work when we work together.”
Brown also acknowledged that she realizes she is following in the footsteps of a beloved leader, David O. Belcher, who died in June 2018 after a two-year battle with brain cancer.
“All leaders stand upon the shoulders of those who came before,” she said. “Just as David Belcher built upon the solid foundation left behind by his predecessor, I pledge to do everything within my power to ensure that Western Carolina University continues to thrive during my time among its stewards.”
Brown said that she is in total agreement with – and inspired by – Belcher’s oft-repeated mantra that “Western Carolina University is in the business of changing lives.”
“Western Carolina has the opportunity be a thought leader in regards to how regionally engaged universities can maintain a student-centered focus, with high levels of teaching innovation, yet at the same time graduate first-generation and diverse students at a rate that exceeds the norm,” she said. “I believe Western Carolina is the place that others look to for solutions to complex higher education challenges.”
Brown closed by introducing her husband to the crowd as “a wonderful partner.”
Welcoming the Browns to the stage was Patricia B. Kaemmerling, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees and co-chair of the committee that guided the search for WCU’s new chancellor. Kaemmerling introduced members of the search committee and thanked Alison Morrison-Shetlar, WCU provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs since January 2014, for serving as interim chancellor.
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors on April 25 approved UNC System Interim President Bill Roper’s selection of Brown from among three final candidates for the position of chancellor. The finalists were chosen by a 21-person search committee made up of representatives of WCU’s trustees, faculty, staff, administration and students, as well as alumni and community members, and one non-voting member from the UNC Board of Governors – David Powers, who serves as that board’s liaison to WCU.
Brown’s appointment as chancellor is effective July 1.