When he was named the inaugural Presidential Fellow, social scientist Tyson Brown wasn’t certain what it would involve or what skills would result.
But very quickly he learned that this wasn’t an internship or a training ground for academic leadership, but a means by which he could have a different perspective of the university as a whole, beyond even any university networks he had developed as an interdisciplinary scholar of health and society.
As he completes his work as a fellow – with engineering professor Adrienne Stiff-Roberts taking over the role in this school year, Brown says he leaves it with a better understanding of the complexity of the university which encompasses a nationally known health system, as well as appreciation for his ability to contribute during the fellowship to discussions on major university policies.
“It has certainly offered me a deeper understanding of -- and appreciation for -- what it means to have effective leadership in higher education,” said Brown, an associate professor of sociology and chair of the Center on Health & Society. “It has also given me a lot of appreciation for the importance of faculty voices in leadership spaces.”
In establishing the fellowship, President Vincent Price said he wanted to empower faculty both in university service but also in their teaching and research.
“Tyson is an engaged and thoughtful leader, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him,” said Price. “Through his fellowship project, Tyson is leading the way on refining Duke’s data and analytic infrastructure to support faculty research. I’m also grateful for Maggie Epps’ remarkable efforts to launch and implement the Presidential Fellowship, ensuring Duke’s future success by helping to prepare the next generation of university leadership.”
Below, Brown discusses his year as presidential fellow:
Q: You had regular one-on-one meetings with President Vincent Price. What did you get out of those sessions?
TYSON BROWN: There were so many things about this experience that were unique, and the privilege of working alongside President Price was high on that list. Through our meetings, I gained invaluable experience learning about leadership, especially the particular challenges and opportunities of leadership in higher education. Observing his daily work also helped to demystify some of the “who,” “when,” and “how” questions I’ve had over the years about university governance.
Another big takeaway from this experience was the importance of strategic, long-term planning to address both acute and evergreen issues and priorities. I also saw first-hand the value of clear and transparent communication — both internally and externally — from a leadership perspective, and I learned a lot of skills for more effective communication both from President Price and his team.
On a more personal level, President Price and I bonded over our shared background as quantitative social scientists and students of history — as well as our shared passion for collegiate sports. As a mid-career academic with an ambitious research agenda — while also teaching and serving in various capacities at both the university and national levels — I also really appreciated hearing about Vince’s experience navigating different chapters and transitions in his own career as he has risen through the ranks of both the professoriate and academic leadership.
Another unique feature of this fellowship was the opportunity not only to gain professional skills and experience, but also to provide perspective from a faculty point of view for Duke leadership. One of the aims of this fellowship is for the administration to gain deeper insights into the faculty perspective on a wide range of issues, and as such I was able to provide feedback throughout the year on short- and long-term initiatives, communications, and much more.
Q: In your rotations, you saw inside nearly every major university operation. What struck you the most as you learned about the different operations — and cultures — across the university?
BROWN: As a social scientist who is increasingly engaging in both service and leadership, it was fascinating to get a 360-degree, behind-the-scenes understanding of the university -- a large, multifaceted, and complex organization. I learned that there is a great deal more collaboration among university and health systems leaders than we realize; to function as seamlessly as it does, Duke leadership engages in deliberate efforts to share information and insights on their units and initiatives in a transparent, consistent way.
Additionally, the university is seeking to increase faculty input and partnership; this is a key role that Duke Academic Council plays.
I also observed that there is an incredible degree of coordination across various campus units, between campus and the health system, and the local Durham area community as well. Through this fellowship I was able to visit three local Duke hospitals, and met with their Presidents; these visits were eye-opening for me in terms of how much the Duke health system is doing to serve the campus community and the Triangle area as a whole.
Q: The workings of the Board of Trustees can be somewhat mysterious to the wider community. What were your takeaways from meeting with them?
BROWN: Most people within the broader Duke community don’t get the kind of hands-on, up close view of the board’s activities that I had the opportunity to see during the fellowship. I feel fortunate to have been able to participate in sessions with the Board of Trustees over the last year. I learned that they are really very knowledgeable about a wide range of key university issues, including undergraduate and graduate education, facilities, finances, strategic direction, Duke’s position within the broader scope of American higher education, and the university’s role as an employer and member of the greater Durham community. I also learned that the board plays an active role in assessing university strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities.
As you said, some of what the board does can feel a little remote or mysterious, and for me it was interesting to learn just how engaged they are in the big picture of Duke University as an organization.
Q: How will this shape your role as a faculty member going forward?
BROWN: During the fellowship, I was able to develop relationships and connections across university units that I know will be helpful as I serve in various capacities across campus, such as a faculty theme leader for Bass Connections, directing the Center on Health & Society, co-organizing a large and dynamic writing group for Black faculty, and mentoring students and postdocs. Relationships are so important for building community and helping other faculty, students, and staff grow in their roles -- this opportunity gave me the chance to really see that firsthand.
I also gained valuable experience and knowledge applicable to my own leadership roles outside of the university, including serving on boards of directors and editorial boards, chairing committees of professional organizations and leading cross-institutional, interdisciplinary research teams.
Another highlight of the fellowship was the opportunity to work alongside Vice Provost of Interdisciplinary Studies Ed Balleisen on a project to support faculty research. This has been a valuable experience for learning how to work collaboratively with various university teams and leaders to achieve a common goal, which I’m sure I’ll draw upon as I continue to serve in various capacities going forward.
Q: You said your fellowship project is 85% complete. What can you tell us about your topic and why you selected that focus?
BROWN: One feature of this fellowship is the opportunity to develop a capstone project based on the fellow’s professional interests and university strategic priorities. It’s really exciting to have the chance to develop a project from scratch, especially on a topic about which I’m really passionate.
I chose to focus my project on supporting faculty research through building a more robust data and analytic infrastructure at Duke, which aligns with the strategic goal of enhancing the university’s data science resources. I proposed the project because I think this is an area in which we have an opportunity to create a research landscape that is truly best-in-class.
As part of the project, Ed Balleisen, Leann McLaren (Ph.D. candidate in political science) and I have a) conducted a benchmark analysis of similar models at peer institutions; b) done a landscape analysis of Duke’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities related to the support that faculty receive around the collection, management, and analysis of data; and c) interviewed key stakeholders (such as Vice Presidents Tracy Futhey and Jenny Lodge) and conducted focus groups with faculty.
We also plan to field a survey to get broader faculty input about their specific priorities for supporting research at Duke. Ultimately, we will provide President Price and Provost Kornbluth with an advisory report that includes a set of recommendations to support faculty research through data and analytic infrastructure.
Q: Why do you think this project is valuable to the university as a whole?
BROWN: It is clear that effective leadership is truly vital for the health of any institution, especially one as dynamic and complex as Duke. And effective leadership not only relies on the training of talented, diverse, and forward-thinking professionals, but also on healthy feedback and engagement from the wider community to strengthen the leadership perspective on the experiences of those they serve. This fellowship provides the opportunity for both in a really unique way.
Part of the aim of this fellowship is to identify and invest in current and emerging university leaders. Regardless of whether fellows go on to have careers in administration, this program plants seeds that will grow and pay dividends in the long run, as both faculty and leadership have a better sense of the challenges and strengths of the other, while also training the next generation of effective leaders from right here at Duke.