Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On June 15, fifteen days before Swarthmore’s 2013-2014 fiscal year ends, Gregory Brown will be taking Suzanne Welsh’s place as Vice President of Finance and Administration of the College. Currently the Chief Operating Officer at Barnard College in New York, Brown has earned distinction among his peers and the student body, earning the “Administrator of the Year” award in 2012. The Daily Gazette talked to him about his transition to Swarthmore.
Isabel Knight: Why Swarthmore?
Gregory Brown: It’s a great institution, that’s the starting point. I’m a Wesleyan alum, so I’d say there’s a fair amount of parallel between Wesleyan and Swarthmore.
When I went down to campus, I met President Chopp, and representatives from pretty much every sector of the community. I really liked the people that I met and their commitment to the institution and to education. So I just liked everything about it. Liz Braun introduced me to two of the student leaders and that was one of the really great parts of the experience. Generally, I was ready for something new and this was just a great opportunity for me.
IK: Can you give me a brief overview of what you did as the COO of Barnard and what you’re going to do here as VP of Finance and Administration and highlight any differences?
GB: Sue Welsh, as you know, is the current VP of Finance, and she will be retiring in June. So they’re changing the job a little bit when I come in so it will be VP for Finance and Administration. So I’ll handle almost all financial and administrative aspects of the college, which is pretty much what the Chief Operating Officer job is at Barnard.
So from that perspective, it’s very similar; they include many of the same areas, all of the financial issues, the investments, the facilities, public safety, dining services, etc. Barnard does not currently have a bookstore, so I’ll be overseeing the Swarthmore Bookstore, which is something I have not done in many years. And the financial aid office is actually under the financial function [at Swarthmore] – at many colleges it’s actually under the person who handles admissions – so that will be a role that I don’t currently have, and I’m excited about that. There [will be] those pieces of the job that are new for me, but every institution is very different and learning the culture is going to be as important as the skills.
IK: So what have you done at Barnard and what are you most excited about when you come to Swat?
GB: As the COO, one of the things I’ve done at Barnard is help the institution through the ‘08-‘09 financial crisis which was a challenging time where we had to learn to do a lot with fewer resources. One key way in which Barnard students are like Swarthmore students is they ask really good questions of the administration, so I need to be able to answer those questions.
A good example of that is I have a Financial Advisory Council from the Student Government at Barnard and they brought up the issue of a couple of science departments that charge lab fees. At the time I didn’t even realize that they were still being charged those fees, but those fees had been in place for like 20 to 30 years. They were 25 dollars per course and the students were like, “Why do we pay these?” and I was like, “Frankly, I don’t know,” and I looked into it and talked to the Provost and she and I agreed that there was no reason to continue those so we discontinued them. So I love having constant contact with students so that I know what issues, both small and large, are bothering them.
I really love working with our students. The Financial Advisory Committee that we formed a few years ago [at Barnard] meets with me at least once a month during the semester, sometimes a couple times a month just for me to help them understand our issues. Financial aid is always a good topic to talk about because it’s always confusing, and they can help me get the word out about what it means, and they can bring things to me that just don’t make sense or that they’re hearing and they want to know more about. So we have this wonderful two-way conversation, which, as I said, can result in policy change.
We changed the structure of the meal plans one year just because there were student service issues with it. So we worked on a lot of things together and that was really fun and frankly for an administrator, it’s really helpful to be constantly talking to the people who matter a great deal, like faculty and students. Talking to those people is a really good way to know what’s going on and make improvements and realize things I wasn’t previously aware of.
IK: So you feel connected to the students at Barnard? I know you created the “Taking Care of Barnard Fund”…
GB: One of the things about the Financial Advisory Council is we have a very small endowment – about 30,000 dollars – that the students spend the income off of every year. So they have worked out the process by which the money gets spent. This year they did an open proposal process, and they have been evaluating the proposals together with me. So if there is something that sounds like a good idea but might cost additional money, because there are operating fees or whatever, I can sit down with them and go over the numbers with them and share with them what I see. I don’t make the decision for them but I’m a part of the conversation.
I think it is particularly helpful to talk about financial aid issues. When the Affordable Care Act on the health insurance side came in, we had to change how our student health program looked, and I had a lot of conversations about those issues with our students because the premiums went up. The issues that we were particularly focused on were what to do about the students who were on the most financial aid, people who would be least likely to be able to pay for these changes, and also international students who would be required to buy the insurance no matter what. We really worked through those issues and I was able to work with financial aid to make sure no one was harmed by that change. Having the student input on that gave us a way to talk about the change in a way I wouldn’t be able to because I’m not sitting in the dining halls with them, talking with other people who are actually being affected by these changes. It also gave me perspective on how they saw what I was concerned with on the administrative side. It was really good in that case because our interest happened to align but that’s not always the case, so it’s always good to have those conversations.
IK: What are you most apprehensive about?
GB: There’s a lot of construction ahead – so there’s the Inn that should hopefully be breaking ground this summer and there’s also the science building coming up. I would say those are probably two big worries, but they’re things I’ve worked on before. Construction is not that hard if you’re just building but if you have to maintain campus life while you’ve torn up the soccer field to build an Inn or if you’re building a science building near other classrooms, those are really tricky issues, so getting the community involved will be really important.
So I’m going to need to get up to speed fast but [Vice President for Facilities and Services] Stu Haine is terrific so I’m not worried about learning from him. It’s going to be great. Those are going to be big deals. Learning more about how the institution works and how the people work is also going to be a big part of it.
IK: Can you tell us something interesting about yourself? Do you have any favorite books, movies, animated characters, ice cream flavors, whatever?
GB: One book that I do like a lot is a book called The Power Broker, a book by Robert Moses who remade New York and politically he did it in a very bad way. So I use him as an example of how not to do things, but the man had an interesting life.
I was a music major undergraduate, which is sort of an interesting background for a finance person, and being a Wesleyan music major, I spent a fair amount of time doing different kinds of music, both ethnomusicology as well as early American music. So I really do love just about any kind of music, particularly if it is not overly popular.
And one of the things that is crucial in a work environment is, although one has to take their work seriously, one has to have a sense of humor. I wouldn’t succeed if I didn’t have one, and particularly if I didn’t work with people who had one. And one impression I got of Swarthmore was that they care very much about being serious, but they also know that sometimes you have to relax a little bit.
Featured image taken by David Brann//Columbia Spectator.