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The Fabric of a Black Woman President

The Fabric of a Black Woman President

Here at the Fashion
Institute of Technology, officials would like people to understand one thing: FIT is not just about fashion. With course offerings in museum studies, graphic design and even toy manufacturing, officials at the school feel they are truly on the cutting edge. They brought in a Black woman to preside over the institute — one who had already cut her teeth in New York’s City University system. More than a year into her tenure, Dr. Joyce F. Brown is the school’s first African American president — and its first female president.
Before coming to FIT, she held a number of senior administrative posts at City University, including vice chancellor for student affairs and urban programs, and vice chancellor for urban affairs and development. In 1990, she was acting president of Bernard Baruch College, also part of the CUNY system. She also served as deputy mayor for public and community affairs under Mayor David N. Dinkins.
Married to H. Carl McCall, the New York state comptroller and the highest Black elected official in the state, Brown is no stranger to maneuvering the treacherous political climate of New York City.
She recently sat down with BI editor Jamilah Evelyn to talk about the intricacies of being a Black woman president; working in the infamous New York higher education systems; and training students for an industry that has been especially lax in its employment of people of color.
BI: How did you come to FIT? Were you always interested in being a president?

JB: I was at City University of New York for a very long time. And I’m a psychologist by training but have always been in higher ed administration. That’s what I did for all those years at CUNY, so that I tend to have the mailroom story. I mean, I had done every job it seems that there is to do in a university. But the last 10 to 14 years of my time at CUNY, I was in central administration. I was a vice chancellor in a number of different areas and I was an acting president over at Baruch. So it was a logical sort of progression to take on a full-time position as a president. Although at the time that I was contacted for this position, I thought that it would be good to spend some time in the classroom, and I was teaching in the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at CUNY. So that’s sort of what I prepared myself to do. As I went from one position to another in City University, it really did prepare me to take on such a position.

BI: You’ve had some time to settle in now. Are you enjoying your tenure here?

JB: Yes.

BI: What do you like about FIT?

JB: There’s a number of things to like. I think probably the thing that would draw anyone in a position is the ability to get things done, and we are really getting an awful lot of things done. We’ve been able to establish a vision for the college and work progressively towards achieving the elements and projects that would allow that vision to materialize. So that’s been really exciting and a lot of fun.
I like the fact that the faculty, for the most part, has been here a really long time and they’re very invested in the place. They are very committed to the college and so they care very deeply about the kinds of things that we are doing that will ultimately improve the institution both academically and from a projecting of our vision and mission element to the outside world.
And the students are very special. They really are. Aside from their distinctive look, they are really very focused and they care very deeply about their work and what they do and they really want you to appreciate their work. They’re not really very revolutionary — except in a creative sense. They’re really not trying to change the world except by making beautiful things. In many ways that’s true also of our business students, who are certainly committed to the business end of things. But it’s always in a creative industry so it’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun place.

BI: Did you always have an interest in fashion?

JB: Well, it depends on who you ask. If you ask my husband…As an avocation, I suppose. I grew up in a family where my grandmother was an incredible seamstress and in fact all those many years ago was able to start her own business and worked for the major department stores and some of the major designers. So I grew up around fabrics and textiles and pins and bobbins and all of those things. And I suppose there are many people in the world who never did grow up around those things and have a sense of them or feel for them. So I have a tremendous affinity for fashion and textile. I mean, I really enjoy that. It’s not anything I’ve ever worked in or ever thought about other than the fact that I’m really drawn to it. So it’s kind of a serendipitous arrival in this place.

BI: Where do you think the fashion industry is in terms of accepting people of color working in the industry and moving up through the ranks?

JB: I think the fashion industry is a very competitive industry. For hundreds and hundreds of talented people, five get recognized. So I think there’s a real natural kind of competitive selectivity that goes on. I think, as in anything else, there is a network that gets created. Look at any corporation, look at any country club. It’s who you know that can sponsor you, that mentors you, that helps you to advance. So whether majority firms would be seeking people of color to bring in and to sponsor and to say, ‘We need that different kind of perspective,’ I can’t imagine that there’s a great movement afoot to make that happen. I think that a number of people of color who are designers at whatever end of the business that they’re in, there are a number of organizations who have come together for the purpose of really reaching out to young people trying to break into the business. I think that’s been helpful. I think it’s gotten a greater number of young people of color exposed to the way the business works and what some of those challenges and issues are. But it’s a slow and tedious and difficult process.

BI: As a Black woman heading a major institution that feeds that industry, do you see a role for yourself in aiding people of color to break into it?

JB: I don’t know exactly what we can do other than from an academic perspective. And that is to train the students in the best way possible to make as many academic, educational and internship opportunities available to them. And prepare them so that they are competitive on the same ground as other people are competitive. I guess my belief really is that if we can get more talented and creative young people in and get them to learn the techniques and learn how to really develop and project their ability, then they’ll at least be able to compete with others who have an “in” from some other connection.

BI: So in that respect, do you feel like FIT is doing its part?

JB: I think we’re doing our part with the kids that are fortunate enough to be here. I think we need to make sure our doors are open — (it’s) not that our doors are closed, but we need to make sure that we are reaching out and bringing in as many talented young people as would like to be able to come here. I think we probably need to do more of that, and I think we are trying to do more of that. We are developing more and more internships and I think that is a great opportunity for kids. Most of our graduates who are employed prior to graduation know they have a full-time job; most of those jobs are coming through their placements in the internships.

BI: As a Black woman presiding over a majority institution, you’re in relatively small company. Does that come with any added responsibilities? A lot of times when Black people reach certain positions, a lot is expected of them from the community. But in your eyes, does that add any pressure to accomplish anything specific?

JB: I guess there’s always a pressure, if you will, to be the best and better than, because slips are really not tolerated — which is not necessarily to say that they are tolerated otherwise, but we can be sure they are not tolerated in these instances.
But I think there is always an additional responsibility to listen differently, to listen better, to be sensitive to access issues, to be sensitive to the importance of a multicultural dimension in both your statements and in your opportunities that you create. So I take those things very seriously because to not do that, then I think it wouldn’t matter who was here. I have brought with me a tremendous sensitivity to the need to reach out to public school kids. I have done that through most of my career at CUNY. I headed up programs where we established those kinds of bridge programs and trying always to create opportunities for kids who might not otherwise know that they should be aspiring to certain things. We have in the time that I have been here, redoubled our efforts to reaching out to our teachers and creative kids in the public schools, trying to increase the number of kids who have an opportunity to come in here and see what we can offer.
What I find is that for young kids of color in our urban schools, they really don’t get the same exposure to arts education. So they don’t know how to compete. They might be very talented but they don’t know how to compete if they’ve never been instructed on how to develop a portfolio, for example. So I think we are missing a lot of talented and creative young people and they are missing a tremendous opportunity here. Now, does my own background make me more sensitive to that? Possibly. But I take it as an important part of what we do here. I can’t say I feel it as an external pressure. I just happen to think it’s an important part of my job. I guess people watch and they expect certain things.

BI: As someone working in a city and a state and a system that is notoriously brutal when it comes to politics, is it harder as a Black woman?

JB: That part has not occurred to me. And maybe it’s because I spent so many years in these trenches battling these battles — I’m not an unknown voice or an unknown entity. I just think it’s tough. It’s tough in general.
I think I fight on the same grounds that everybody else tries to fight to get additional resources and additional approvals and the opportunities to sort of move your agenda. But I’ve been in New York my whole life, and I’ve been in the system for most of my life, so I can usually sort of cut through it.

BI: You have a pretty diverse student body here and it seems like part of that is somewhat automatic because of your mission and your location. Do you think that you do a good enough job of celebrating the diversity that you have here and taking advantage of the kinds of things that diversity brings?

JB: I think in terms of our academic offerings, we certainly do talk about making sure we have the multicultural dimension in our outlook and assignments and those sorts of things. And certainly because of the international aspect of fashion and the fashion-related industries we really do look very carefully at global marketing and what that diversity really ought to mean in terms of what our students need to expect to interact with when they leave here. We also have a number of international programs where we have exchange programs as well as sending teachers to foreign sites, always with the notion of incorporating that multicultural dimension.
Beyond that, I suppose the things that we do on campus –  there are different clubs and activities and opportunity for people to have a sharing of different perspectives and values and traditions. So I think part of how you celebrate it is to live it. I think we live as a pretty complex and diverse and integrated community here.

BI: Complete the sentence: Behind every good president is…

JB: It would be a very long sentence. I feel like the conductor of the orchestra. You need good people who are smart and quick and interested and enthusiastic about the work and the institution. You need people who are team players and just good administrators who care deeply about their work and have their own vision about how to meet our collective goal. You certainly need faculty who are going to bring that kind of enthusiasm to their work so that the students feel connected to this movement in the fields that they are studying. You can’t do any of it without a tremendous staff effort that you really have to work to encourage and keep focused in terms of the ways in which the whole fabric of the institution needs to come together to move forward.
You need students who are gonna work hard and not be distracted by all the things that can take them away from their work to help you maintain a good reputation for the institution.
I certainly need my family and my extended family because these jobs are 24-7.
You really do need public support in terms of financing when you are in a public institution. You have to have good alumni support, otherwise you can’t do all those sort of value-added things. You need people who are going to be interested in your mission sufficiently that they will contribute and see the value of the institution. I always think of FIT as really a part of the economic engine of New York City because we fuel so many important industries, so we need those industries to sort of fuel us as well. So it’s just various centers of activity and critical support centers that I look to to sort of help weave those pieces together and move the institution forward.

BI: Is the answer any different if I ask you to complete the sentence: Behind every good Black president there is…?

JB: Well, certainly you need all those things as any president — Black or not. I think you certainly need in addition, people who believe in you and are willing to not work against you and therefore help you succeed. People who see that perhaps the importance of diversity and leadership in the university is important for the health and well-being of the university. If this university were to end up looking the same as it could have looked 50 years ago, the university is not taking care of its own mission and vision and projection to the outside world. So you need people who recognize that and who support your success and ideas and who really capitalize on all the things that you bring to the table.
It’s not like being on scholarship, so everybody is giving you a handout — but certainly to be supportive and recognize the talents that all of us bring to these jobs for the greater good of the institution. I definitely think that the changing look in academic leadership across the country is good for the health of higher ed in America. 

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