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Meet David S. Brown, PhD, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

By Sarah Hojsak


October 14, 2022

The College of Arts and Sciences is pleased to welcome our new dean, David S. Brown, PhD. Dean Brown joined Drexel from the University of Colorado Boulder where he served as Divisional Dean for Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. We spoke with Dean Brown about his political science research, the purpose of liberal arts education and what he loves about Philadelphia so far.

Q: Welcome to the College of Arts and Sciences! What drew you to Drexel?

A: Like a lot of people who are west of the Mississippi, I had heard of Drexel but didn’t know an awful lot about it. When I dug in and started looking at what it was about, I could see a real willingness to embrace experiential education in an authentic way.

The other thing is the connection between the university and the community. At a bigger research institution, there's not always much intentional interaction between the university and the community. When I saw that already happening at Drexel, I thought, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ And I think there's a lot more that can be done. Drexel's doing some exciting things, and they're very oriented toward what I want to do. This is a very exciting prospect.

Q: What has surprised you about Drexel?

A: This may sound corny, but everyone's just been incredibly friendly. They certainly understand the constraints and the limitations and the challenges that Drexel faces, but there is an underlying spirit. I think people do realize that there's a lot of important things that can be done here. That's coming out loud and clear in the conversations I’ve had. It’s exciting. It's nice to see that it exists here at Drexel, because it doesn't exist everywhere.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in your first year here?

A: Meeting everybody. That's why I got into this business, because in academia there are a lot of interesting things that students, staff and faculty are doing, and from the vantage point of upper administration, you get to see all of it. You get to interact with all of it.

Q: What sparked your interest in higher education?

A: I was asked to be chair of the strategic planning committee for the College of Arts and Sciences at CU Boulder and, as a part of that, I got to go around and meet with all the departments in the college. It was so energizing to talk with them and to think about what we wanted to do as an organization. That's when I realized I really liked doing this, seeing the broader picture of what's going on in a university.

What I've come to learn from an administration vantage point is that it's a position that allows you to help people. And when you go from a chair to a divisional dean and now dean, you're simply increasing the number of people that you can help. That's what motivates me to be in this position.

Q: Tell us about your research in political science.

A: I'm a political scientist who was very much interested in economic development and the impact that democracy has on how countries function. What was interesting to me was why some countries succeed and other countries don't, in a variety of different ways. Not only economic growth, but in education, human capital formation, that sort of thing. That's how I started out.

I started working with my brother on issues that had to do with deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. I had the chance to work on an NSF grant with my brother and another colleague, looking at the impact politics had on deforestation. In the Amazon, a number of organizations take over land that's not being used. It's a very contentious and violent situation. Land use becomes really key. That research was something I thoroughly enjoyed. It's important work.

After that, I started on the administrative train and wasn't able to go to Brazil as much. I went back to my roots of looking at democracy and authoritarianism and their impact on different things. I just had a paper come out on the impact that democracy has on the number of hours people work in an economy. I've looked at democracy and its impact on homicide rates in the world. I'm working on a paper now about democracy's impact on how productive people are. Not just how many hours they're working, but how much income they generate for each hour that they work.

My question has always been, how does being democratic, involving a larger part of the population in the decision-making process, impact people's lives? As a dean, I take what I've learned with democracy and say, “Well, it turns out that the more people, the more ideas you listen to, the more accountability there is, and the organization actually does better.” In many respects, the research rolls into what I've done in higher ed administration.

Q: In your view, what is the value of a liberal arts education?

A: A liberal arts education offers a number of different tools that can be used to solve problems, to ask questions. With all the big problems we have—climate, hunger, poverty, violence, war, the pandemic—it takes more than just one discipline to provide solutions to these problems. There's not one magic bullet for any of these things. A liberal arts education gives students the facility to understand that you need many tools to address these complex problems.

That’s hard to put on a resume. We need to be more focused, disciplined and explicit about what we want our students in the College of Arts and Sciences to get with a liberal arts education. If we're more purposeful about that, it will make for a much better experience, and students will learn more.

Some people [tell liberal arts students], “in 20 years you'll be making more than an engineer,” and “employers really want people who can think critically,” and so on. Yeah, that's probably true, but I think there's more to it. I think the more people we have in this world that have a libearl arts education, and who are focusing on solving some of our world’s larger issues, it makes our communities better. That part is lost in terms of what you normally hear.

an apple dumpling with ice cream from Dutch Eating Place at Reading Terminal Market
An apple dumpling from Dutch Eating Place in Reading Terminal Market, one of David's favorite treats.

Q: How can institutions like Drexel improve access to education?

A: Well, the easy answer is that we get a 50-gazillion dollar grant, and then we can let everyone come here for free. But short of that, I would argue that if we articulate what we do, if we have a good value proposition where we're very clear as to what you get from a college education or a liberal arts degree specifically, it doesn't put dollars in people's pockets in terms of scholarships, but it makes very real and concrete in people's minds why it's so important. That way you're creating access by creating more demand, rather than building more buildings and more classrooms. I think we can get more access to folks by convincing them how valuable this type of education can be.

Q: You’ve only been here a few weeks, so I'm sure you still have a lot of exploring to do around the city, but what is your favorite thing about Philadelphia so far?

A: Every day people say to me, "The restaurant scene here is really, really good." No matter where I go—whether it's Wawa or a higher end restaurant—it's just really good. It seems like Philadelphians decided that we're going to have good food here and it doesn't matter what kind it is, but it's going to be good. It's the care, it's the pride that I think goes into it that might explain it, but I'm enjoying it. I just had the chicken sandwich down the block, CM Chicken. Try the waffle fries there. I've been asking people about the food trucks. Kim's Dragon over by Main is really good. There hasn't been a place that I haven’t liked.