New Dean Aims to Move Lang Forward
One of new Lang dean Stephanie Browner’s self-described passions is anthropology. The woman charged with guiding The New School’s liberal arts college into the future takes pleasure in absorbing the diverse intricacies of the world around her, the product of an intellectual curiosity cultivated by exploring a wide variety of personal and scholarly interests.
“I like observation,” Browner explained. “I like to look and gather information.”
While visiting The New School last spring, her “anthropological research,” as she put it, even involved tagging along on a campus tour under the guise of a parent of a potential Lang student.
“I have a kid who’s going to be a [high school] senior this coming year, so I wasn’t telling any lies,” Browner said.
Browner’s observational nature, and knack for quickly understanding her surroundings, was a key reason why The New School chose her to succeed Stefania de Kenessey, who was dean on an interim basis last year. The hope is that she will not only bring stability to a position that has been in flux since the departure of Neil Gordon in April 2010, but that she will also work closely with President David Van Zandt and Provost Tim Marshall to outline a distinct academic vision for Lang’s future.
“It’s pretty clear that she is a very quick study. She’s done a lot of research about Lang,” Marshall told the Free Press.
“She’s somebody who understands the various dimensions that go into providing a high quality educational experience,” Marshall added. “From understanding the experience of being a faculty member, to understanding how a university runs - and in this case the future of the liberal arts in a national context.”
Though Browner’s primary field of study is American literature, she devoted her summers in college to working as a medical volunteer in Central America. After graduating from the University of Chicago, she taught high school English and Spanish before starting a seven-year career as a professional modern dancer. She toured around the country and worked in Merce Cunningham’s famed New York dance studio one summer.
After obtaining both her master’s and doctorate in American studies and American literature from Indiana University, Browner joined Kentucky’s Berea College in 1994. After nine years as a professor, she served as dean of the faculty and academic vice president for the past eight years - positions she left to join Lang.
“Dean Browner is someone dedicated to a liberal arts vision who will really, I think, improve the student experience at Lang,” wrote Nicholas Birns, Lang associate professor, in an email to the Free Press. “I also know her to be a fine scholar; I have used her writing in American literature courses I have taught. So I think she will bring both academic leadership and overall inspiration to Lang.”
In making the move from Berea to Lang, Browner is now part of a considerably different community. Like Lang, Berea College is a small liberal arts school with an enrollment of around 1,500 students. Unlike Lang, it is a tuition-free institution nestled in a intimate, rural community; it also maintains a non-denominational Christian identity, and has an endowment of approximately $900 million, according to Browner.
Browner said she was not intimidated by the economic realities of a tuition-driven institution like Lang.
“I have looked at the finances,” she said. “They don’t scare me. [Berea] was frozen with fright when Wall Street crashed in 2008; it was like watching people not pay their tuition bills,” referring to the fact that most of the Kentucky college’s finances are based on contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Academically, Browner claimed that she is going into her new role as dean with an open mind and no specific plans for any future projects at Lang.
“I’m not coming in with a particular academic agenda in terms of programs, and I think it’s important that I not do that,” Browner added. “But I’ve been reading the catalogue online, cover to cover, every word, so that I understand every program.”
One aspect of Browner’s tenure at Berea, which excited some in the Lang faculty, was the college’s emphasis on social justice as an academic principle. Her husband, who still teaches at Berea, helped start the Peace and Social Justice major there.
“Things that spoke to me personally were Berea’s commitment to social justice,’” said Lang science professor Katayoun Chamany, who is on the Unviersity Social Justice Committee. “I look forward to seeing how [Browner] will bring her experience and expertise surrounding education, class, and privilege to Lang.”
Browner spent some time during her visit to The New School in the Lang Cafe, taking the opportunity to strike up conversation with students and hear their thoughts on life at the college. She said this helped her develop an understanding of both the institution she was about to lead and the minds that populate it.
“Lang students are very friendly. I would make eye contact with the person sitting next to me, and say ‘Hi, are you a student at Lang?’, and ask questions,” Browner said. “Every time I’d ask, ‘What do you love about Lang?’, the first thing out of the student’s mouth would be, ‘I love my teachers.’”
For Browner, it was the kind of feedback that would have a considerable impact on her decision to leave Berea.
“As much as Lang was interviewing me, I was also interviewing the school, asking if this was good move for me,” she explained. “And that was the most reassuring answer; I couldn’t manufacture a better answer.”
Browner, who has made her home in New York only half a block away from the Lang Building, on West 11th Street, said she is excited to join an institution with a storied intellectual past.
“What I see is a school that has, embedded in its being, a vision. Everyone knows about The New School,” Browner said.
But, she added, “I want more people to know about Lang.”