BROOKE THAMES; Editor-in-Chief; email@example.com
Rae Linda Brown was born Oct. 7, 1953 in Hartford, CT. Brown earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Music Education from University of Connecticut. She went on to earn a Master’s of Arts degree in African American Studies and a Ph.D. Musicology from Yale University. Brown worked as Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education at Loyola Marymount University from 2008 to 2016.
In August 2016, Brown becoming Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Pacific Lutheran University. She served the PLU community for approximatelynine months before succumbing to leiomysarcoma Aug. 20, 2017. She leaves behind a son, three siblings and a host of colleagues and friends.
Pacific Lutheran University staff used words like “catalyst,” “thoughtful” and “partner” to describe former Provost Rae Linda Brown, who died Aug. 20 after an aggressive and swift battle with cancer. Brown joined PLU as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs in Aug. 2016 and served approximately nine months before succumbing to leiomyosarcoma.
Colleagues described Brown’s period of service, though short, as passionate, intentional and focused—especially surrounding topics of student success, scholarship access and equity in education.
“I’d say [she was] tenacious,” Acting President Allan Belton said. “She knew what we needed to do as a university to really [create] a reality of belonging. She would not hold back in challenging us in ways that are often uncomfortable, but necessary. That’s what I absolutely loved about her.”
Brown’s work focused largely on student success, ensuring that all PLU students not only persisted to graduation but gained sufficient support along the way. She worked closely with other members of the President’s Council, a collective of the PLU president and vice presidents, to push agendas forward that would increase student retention following its drop from 82 percent to 79 percent in 2016.
Aspects of that work included increasing student support through more direct access to access scholarships and assistance services. Acting Provost Joanna Gregson said “students” is the first word that comes to mind when characterizing Brown and her work to better student success.
“That’s the first word that would come out of her mouth no matter what we were talking about. Her interest and dedication to students was unparalleled,” Gregson said. “[Brown] said once, ‘People are going to give me a hard time this
semester because I’m going to be talking about student retention and student success every chance I get.’ She lived that.”
Prior to her passing, Brown was involved with the planning and initiation of the Center for Student Success, which will be featured in Mortvedt Library when completed. The Center combines student assistance services into a single space to ease navigation for students seeking help, as well as to provide a welcoming environment for students to find support. Theorized services for the Center of Student Success include Academic Assistance, Academic Advising and the Writing Center.
Colleagues agreed that CSS grew directly out of Brown’s passion for the student experience and persistence to realize effective solutions.
“The Center for Student Success is Rae Linda—that was her idea,
Belton said. “She looked at this place and she recognized that we have wonderful people working on behalf of students here, but—in her words—our retention rate is ‘freakin’ unacceptable.’”
Gregson said Brown often took a no-nonsense approach to initiatives focused on bettering student achievement. Brow
n’s persistence manifested in the way she didn’t entertain excuses, but inspired action.
“She said so many times, ‘That’s not an excuse.’ She found it inexcusable that all students don’t succeed,” Gregson said. “She made it very clear that we’re not going to excuse this, we’re not going to justify it—we’re going to fix it. She held us accountable.”
Belton said Brown’s candid, unabashed style made her a prime candidate for the Provost position during the nationwide search last year. He recalled being impressed by Brown’s authenticity during the interview process, as Brown was the only candidate whose application reflected who she was in person.
“She knew what we needed to do as a university to really [create] a reality of belonging. She would not hold back in challenging us in ways that are often uncomfortable, but necessary.”
-Allan Belton, Acting President
“She was the one person who, when she arrived, was everything she said she was on paper. That was really unusual,” Belton said.
Brown’s honesty, which colleagues praised, added to her sense of boldness in working not only to make PLU more equitable, but also accountable to its promise of inclusivity to students and faculty. Diversity constituted another of Brown’s concerns, and she worked closely with a variety of staff to brainstorm a path to a more diverse institution.
Brown crafted the Dean for Inclusive Excellence position in partnership with Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Justice, and Sustainability Angie Hambrick and Center for Gender Equity Director Jennifer Smith. The dean’s function is to ensure educational equality for students across campus and promote diversity initiatives in admissions, academia and faculty among other areas. Smith begins working as the first Dean for Inclusive Excellence in January 2018.
“[Brown] would say the fact that our faculty diversity does not reflect our student diversity is unacceptable, period. She would say it repeatedly,” Vice President for Student Life Joanna Royce-Davis said. “Dedicating [this] position speaks to the priority of the university in real ways.”
Brown’s urgent persistence, while positive, also added challenge to her efforts to push PLU forward. Gregson described
Brown as someone who moved quickly, counter to the typically slow pace of higher education.
“Universities can be pretty slow to change. Rae Linda came in and saw things with her outside perspective,” Gregson said. “[Brown said], ‘We’re going to do this, now.’ She had a personality that made other people listen.”
Brown began experiencing medical issues in March 2017 and underwent surgery in April, during which doctors discovered Brown’s condition to be cancerous. Brown stepped away from her position in July on sick leave to begin radiation treatment. The illness progressed rapidly, and Brown succumbed to cancer in late August.
The news came via phone call from Brown’s sister, Carlene Brown, to Belton. Belton then called various administrative members to personally relay Brown’s passing. Royce-Davis said shock characterized the initial effect of Brown’s death, followed by a period of deep grief.
Vice President of Advancement Daniel Lee, who worked closely with Brown on fundraising, said he was stunned by the swiftness of Brown’s death.
“When she went out on sick leave this summer, she was so private that none of us really knew how bad things were. I never had an opportunity to say goodbye. I never had the opportunity for closure,” Lee said.
Gregson, who had temporarily stepped into the Provost position in July, recalled her last moment with Brown. Brown invited Gregson to visit her sister’s home in mid-July, where Brown had been staying during her last few weeks. Gregson described the environment of their visit as light and warm, reminiscent of Brown’s home territory of California.
“Rae Linda had moved from southern California, so all last year she complained about the rain and the dark. To just see her in this light-filled, warm space was just so good,” Gregson said. “I feel really blessed that I was able to see that and have that be my lasting memory.”
Following her death, Belton said it’s the hope and responsibility of the administration to uphold and progress Brown’s vision for a more equitable, successful and diverse university. Brown’s legacy in part, he said, lies in the way she challenged PLU to live up to its mission.
“I think she saw a wonderful place with a wonderful mission. But she saw a place that wasn’t as diverse as it claimed it was and maybe not as welcoming as it claims to be,” Belton said. “That’s what she was here to do. It’s up to us to carry that on.”
Lee said Brown called PLU to be a better version of itself and lauded her steadfast vision for big changes. For Gregson, Brown’s legacy manifests in a model of leadership that Gregson carries forward in her work as Acting Provost.
“Now that I’m sitting in this role as Acting Provost and I’m sitting in her office surrounded by her things, I have a greater depth of understanding about her legacy,” Gregson said. “For me, her legacy is one of determination, persistence and leadership.”
Brown’s legacy is visible for students in the Dr. Rae Linda Brown Access Scholarship, which will work to further Brown’s passion for equitable student access and financial aid in the coming years.
“She’ll still be present with students here in the ways that she invested when she was here,” Royce-Davis said. “She was an awesome partner. She still is.”