Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Banita Brown

Today I continue an interview series that will run through the remainder of this year. The interviews will take place once a month and feature discussions with African Americans in formal leadership positions in academia, including department chairs, deans, associate deans, and organization directors. My goal is to provide our readers with information on the various challenges and opportunities that come with such positions and an understanding of the type of training necessary to become a successful academic leader. The first interview was with Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University. The second interview was with Dr. Jeffrey B. Leak, Professor of English and Africana Studies at UNC Charlotte.

Today’s interview is with Dr. Banita Brown. Dr. Brown was first appointed as a member of the faculty in the Department of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. While in the department, her area of teaching and research was in the sub-discipline of Organic Chemistry. Her research interests consisted of the chemical syntheses of various heterocyclic derivatives. Numerous undergraduate and graduate students as well as high school students have participated in research projects of her laboratory. Dr. Brown was also recognized as a finalist for the UNC Charlotte Bank of America Award for Teaching Excellence. Her administrative roles at UNC Charlotte have included the Chemistry Masters’ Program Coordinator, the UNC Charlotte Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program Director, the NanoSURE Program Director (a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates site), the UNC Charlotte Principal Investigator for the National Science Foundation North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (an alliance consisting of eight UNC System institutions), and finally the Associate Dean for Academic and Student Success in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. 

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Dr. Banita Brown
Dr. Banita Brown

Cameron: I’d like to begin with your former position as Director of the McNair Scholars program at UNC Charlotte. What are some of the major duties and responsibilities that come with directing a program like McNair?

Brown: The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program is a federally funded TRIO program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Therefore, the primary responsibility of any Director of this type of program is to acquire a working knowledge of the requirements of the grant in order to effectively perform the administrative tasks within the required guidelines. Federal regulations, policies, and procedures set by the U.S. government were associated with the McNair grant. My awareness of the fact that continued funding was contingent upon adherence to these federal regulations caused me to take advantage of professional development opportunities in order to learn the federal guidelines. In addition, as Director, it was my responsibility to be knowledgeable of the federal OMB Circulars, which contain the rules and regulations of grant expenditures (i.e. allowable and unallowable costs). This knowledge was necessary in order to assure UNC Charlotte’s program met the participant eligibility requirements and offered appropriate program services.

Other duties as Director of the program were to recruit the targeted population of student cohorts and to design and implement program activities and services that helped to fulfill the purpose of the McNair funding, “to prepare eligible participants for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities.” UNC Charlotte’s McNair Program was also a collaborative effort which included participants from two additional institutions. Thus, program recruiting involved traveling to these other campuses to attract eligible participants in addition to the recruiting which occurred on UNC Charlotte’s campus. Assessment of the recruiting methods and program activities were also necessary throughout the funding period to inform me of the need for any changes.

Since our McNair Scholars were required to be involved in “graduate-level” research to get prepared for doctoral studies, faculty mentoring was also a key element of the program. Therefore, as the Director it was important to be familiar with numerous faculty members’ research interests from a variety of disciplines across the institution. It was my responsibility to match these undergraduate students with faculty mentors whose research interests matched those of the participants. Since some research faculty were inexperienced in mentoring undergraduates through research, it was my responsibility to assure that selected faculty were prepared to mentor the undergraduate students on a research project. Therefore, I conducted mentor orientation sessions and followed-up periodically with the faculty mentors to provide them with the support they needed.

Finally, annual reporting, specifically within the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education, was required. The annual reporting was important because it allowed me to see whether UNC Charlotte was meeting the goals of the McNair program. This reporting period also allowed me to review the accomplishments of current and past participants in the program. We were required to track their progress up until the Ph.D. degree was obtained. Even though we no longer have an existing McNair Program, I still follow many of our McNair alumni and take pride in their chosen career paths.

Cameron: What positions/experiences had you had prior to becoming a director that best prepared you for that position?

Brown: I feel that two primary positions best prepared me for the McNair Program Director position. The experiences I gained from both positions helped me develop skills that were important for fulfilling the purpose of the McNair Program. First, as a tenure-track faculty member in the Chemistry department, I had been a faculty research mentor to numerous undergraduate and graduate students since the beginning of my career. The concept of undergraduate research was not foreign to me. It is actually typical of the Chemistry discipline. So, as a faculty member, I viewed undergraduate research as an important part of the educational experience and wanted to be able to provide this opportunity to other students.

In addition to UNC Charlotte chemistry majors and master’s students, I mentored high school students and other visiting students, including McNair Scholars from the partner institution, Johnson C. Smith University. In addition, I participated on various faculty panels as an invited workshop participant for the McNair program. Through these experiences, I became familiar with the McNair program and its overall goals. Second, I was appointed as the Chemistry Master’s Program Coordinator in the department for two terms. The duties of this position included recruiting applicants, reviewing graduate student applications, targeting faculty to serve as Master’s thesis advisors, allocating Graduate Teaching Assistantships, and making student funding decisions to form an entering cohort of Masters’ students each year. This experience allowed me to form connections with the UNC Charlotte Graduate School Admissions Office as well as other administrative personnel in the Graduate School. These relationships became beneficial when I became the McNair Director and planned the graduate school-related activities of the McNair Program.

Cameron: You are currently the Associate Dean for Academic and Student Success at UNC Charlotte. What are your major responsibilities in this role and what skills are necessary to be successful in it?

Brown: I oversee all aspects of an undergraduate student’s academic life cycle in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences (CLAS); therefore, my main responsibilities are wide and varied. The academic life cycle includes new student recruitment, new student orientation, new student convocation, academic advising, student services, academic engagement, and finally, graduation. I primarily spend my time problem solving for not only students but for department chairs, undergraduate coordinators, academic advisors, and other faculty members as well. My favorite part of the job is leading various enrichment opportunities and events for students and for faculty/staff members that promote student engagement and academic success. Other major responsibilities include working with other Associate Deans on university level student success initiatives and creating or modifying academic policies and procedures, among other duties as assigned.

There are multiple skills that I think are necessary to be successful as an Associate Dean. Key skills include: strong communication, organizational, problem-solving, and decision-making skills; the ability to multitask; the ability to interact with diverse groups of staff (from faculty to academic affairs administrators to student affairs personnel); and the ability to interact with a diverse student population (various demographics, ethnicities, sexual preferences, etc.). It is also important to apply academic policies and procedures in order to govern all decisions made. Other important skills which are important in this position include creativity, strategic thinking, and time and people management skills.

Cameron: What have been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of academic leadership for you?

Brown: I have found that the most challenging aspect of academic leadership has been building consensus among diverse opinions and diverse standards. To me, it is very important to gain buy-in from the various constituents without using a top-down approach. However, facilitating a bottom-up approach when opinions vary and resources are limited has its difficulties. But, for the most part, progress is made. So far, the most rewarding aspect of my academic leadership has been starting some new traditions within CLAS. The CLAS New Student Convocation afternoon events, although in its second year, have been beneficial for both new students and CLAS departments. The college’s “Mining for Majors Fairs” at the UNC Charlotte Admitted Students Days help departments recruit majors before the newly admitted students intend to enroll in UNC Charlotte. Finally, working with the college’s student advisory group (CLASS-ACT) on special projects and events becomes more interesting each year. Hopefully, this year’s group will implement the plans of last year’s group to host a faculty/staff talent show. I hope that these events will continue in the college even after I am no longer in this role.

Cameron: For graduate students and junior scholars who may be interested in academic administration and leadership, what advice would you give? What skills are most beneficial in a successful academic leader?

Brown: The advice I would give to graduate students and junior scholars who may be interested in academic administration and leadership is as follows:

Build your reputation as a faculty member first. Tenure-track faculty appointments primarily require meeting a range of expectations in the areas of research, teaching, and service. These expectations vary depending on the type of institution. It is important to find a balance and utilize your strengths so that you build the respect and trust of your colleagues and the administration.

Take advantage of leadership opportunities. Leadership opportunities may come in the form of small tasks such as serving as a faculty advisor for a student organization in the department, leading a department program, or chairing a department committee. Your success and experience gained at the department level may lead to future opportunities at the college and/or university levels.

Take advantage of professional development opportunities. Your institution or professional organization may periodically host leadership development workshops or seminars. Attending these sessions prior to becoming a leader will help you determine if academic administration align with your future professional goals.

The most beneficial skills in academic leadership include the following:

  • Strong written and oral communication skills are needed since most faculty need to understand the what, the why, and the how.
  • Sensitivity to differences is another beneficial skill. It is very important to work cooperatively with others amidst the varying forms of diversity. Students, faculty, and other academic leaders possess varying opinions, standards, and even disciplinary backgrounds that inadvertently govern to the way they function.
  • Creative problem-solving sometimes leads to the desired progress. It is better for an academic leader to recommend solutions and not create problems.
  • Transparency and trustworthiness are important traits. A leader must be able to justify and document any decision made.

Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. His first book is entitled To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on “Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Banita Brown

  • Yes.. a fellow Rock Hill native and graduate of Northwestern High School. She represents us well. So proud of you Banita.

  • Awesome job Banita! The only thing they left out of the article is how sweet of a person you are!😜 Keep up the great work!

  • Banita, this is a wonderful biography and interview. Your mom and dad were serving as pastor of our church, Shady Grove Baptist in Gaffney when you were born. We are thrilled to hear of your accolades and success. Asking for continued blessings for you.

  • CONGRATULATIONS BANITA BROWN ,JOB WELL DONE . YOU FLY HIGH IN EVERY POSITION OF YOUR LIFE ,FROM BEING A WIFE ,MOTHER, TEACHER AND A TRUE FRIEND ,YOU OR ORDERED BY GODS STEPS . LOVE YOU MUCH !!!

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