Dr. Joyce Brown was appointed the Fashion Institute of Technology’s sixth president in 1998 and now, almost 20 years later, her legacy can be tracked by the innovations she has implemented. As the first African-American and first woman president in a college were 85% of students are female, Dr. Brown has made diversity, sustainability, globalization and innovation the focal points of her tenure and strategic planning for FIT.
And yet for some reason, after all these years, she remains as a mystery for a large part of the students and faculty of this institution. I sat with her in her office (delightfully decorated with row after row of the confections made by the unique Toy Design major, which she feels particularly proud of) to get a sense of who she is and what she truly cares about. What I discovered is someone that is deeply passionate about education, the future, and most of all, her students (if you go to her refreshingly colloquial FIT blog, On My Mind, you’ll see that her most used tag is, unsurprisingly, ‘students’). Keep reading for more of her thoughts.
Andrea Navarro: I understand that next year will mark 20 years since you became president of FIT. Do you consider that was a goal or an opportunity? And when I say opportunity, I mean that many FIT students start their careers here thinking they know what they want to be, and then graduate and have decided on a completely different path. How was it for you?
Dr. Joyce Brown: To tell you the truth I didn’t think about how long I would be here. I just thought about getting things done while I was here. What I saw was a lot of opportunity for growth and for change and that’s kind of the path that we set on. Each year we did something big, and that kind of makes time go fast, you know? You have a big project every year and that kind of builds into next year’s project and then one day I looked up and all this time had passed! So we continue to identify what the next step is for the strategic direction and the goals of the institution, while also taking into account how so many things in the world are changing— we have to figure out a way to be a part of those changes.
AN: So innovation is important to you?
JB: Yeah. I think there are many things happening in the world that will impact what happens with our graduates and we need to prepare the students for those things. Innovation is just a word until you start to figure out how to apply it to your day to day life. So we need to be innovative in our curriculum, in how we teach, in how we prepare students for a changing industry and market. All those things are innovation. And then you take a look at what are the threats that really impact how the industry is going to be. Technology is a big one, but technology doesn’t stand alone. So how does it integrate with how we position the college to interact with the world? Another thing is sustainability. It’s a very big issue in the world. But it certainly has been a very big issue from the point of view of the students. A big portion of them want to work on these things. So if you combine sustainability and innovation with a forward-thinking direction you start to think about what are some of the ways in which we can impact the world and protect the planet and still send our students out in the industry to put to use their expertise and knowledge so we can began to shape the next generation of leaders. So it’s about being current and energized by what the currency of the day is; we have to master that in order to prepare our students for what’s coming.
AN: You speak about change, and I’m thinking about how rapidly the world is changing and all the things that are happening. Terrorist attacks, DACA, travel bans, etc. As students and faculty we look up to you for encouragement, for the right words to say in hard times, but I imagine that must be a lot of pressure. How do you find what to say on these situations?
JB: I think what’s difficult is living through these times where all the boundaries are getting pushed back. One of the things we talk a lot about here is civility—the impact of words and language and behavior. So it’s not difficult finding the right words, what’s difficult is living through these times. And I think we have a particular responsibility as educators, intelligent people, and as the place which is sending out the next generation of leaders—whether that’s on politics or industry or education. We are all very privileged to be in this environment and we need to use what tools we have to send a message and hopefully make a difference. We can make a difference with 10,000 students if 10,000 students listen. There’s a responsibility and an opportunity to really make an impact on people’s lives.
AN: You were talking about how time passes and how every year there is a project that has inspired a new project. In those terms, what keeps you inspired? Why do you want to continue doing the work you do?
JB: Because it’s exciting! Every year we are very fortunate to get a new class of students who are motivated and aspirational and excited about having the opportunity to get prepared to make their impact on the world. What better opportunity than to be able to turn dreams into real life possibilities? I guess the answer is that I really love what I do. I say it often— the best part of my day are the students. I love seeing their excitement and their drive. They are never stopped by people telling them they can’t do something. Students believe they can and then they do it. And there’s nothing quite like that enthusiasm. You are right, in what you said earlier— students come in thinking they know what they are doing for the rest of their lives and then they get here and see there’s so many possibilities to impact with their own talents and creativity and they learn new ways in which they can apply them. So you don’t ever really know what that road is going to be, where life will take you.
“What better opportunity than to be able to turn dreams into real life possibilities?”
AN: Along those lines, how do you think the students have changed in the past 20 years? What would you say is the main differences with students when you began your work here as opposed to now?
JB: First, I want to say what I think hasn’t changed about the FIT students. I think they are creative, artistic and very aspirational—they really want to change the world by creating beautiful things. And I think that’s true for the business students as well as for the art and design students. Everyone here has a contribution that they want to develop and put into the world in a soft-edged sort of way, you know? I think what has changed is the prism in which you see the world. I think young people see the world differently today than they did 20 years ago. I think it has changed in terms of your expectations— technology has a big impact; everything has to be instant, everything is at your fingertips. And you want to see results pretty fast. There’s a diminution of patience for letting something evolve, students want to see results now. And they want to take that and apply it to something else, see what happens next. I mean, we have students now that are in Art & Design working with Science students to develop projects such as an all-natural (algae and fungi) yarn that could be used to create garments for any kind of industry. So that impacts everything! It’s Art & Design, Liberal Arts and Science students, and also Marketing students who will ultimately advertise this new technology. So I think a big thing that has changed is that people think in a more interconnected and multi-disciplinary way. We see the world more holistically and globally and I think there’s a greater understanding of the importance and the impact of other cultures, and how diverse points of view should be incorporated in what we do. So all those things have changed and I absolutely think it’s for the better.
“I think the [FIT students] are creative, artistic and very aspirational—they really want to change the world by creating beautiful things.”
AN: So you consider that making FIT a more international place has been one of your goals in the last years?
JB: Yes, it really has been. All kinds of things happen when you get exposed to multiple perspectives, which I think is very valuable in the classroom, people who come from different cultures can really enrich the conversation which will also be valuable when you go to find work. Also, we introduced having minors—before people would come in to a major and you could spend your entire career with the same cohort of students. But now, we have around 24 minors that really expand the areas for exploration and knowledge.
AN: How do you feel about creating a sense of community inside of FIT?
JB: Well, one of our chief goals in our strategic plan has been to work exactly on that. I think we have come a long way. One of our main goals has been to create a more cohesive community and empower the students in a way that makes them feel like they are a vital part of their community, we want the students to feel a part of something larger than even just the FIT community. We have community service projects which had gotten a lot of recognition. We try building research opportunities for interdisciplinary activities so the students can work together. We have a Design & Tech lab which I think can really create opportunities for students to be involved not only on FIT projects but also an industry that could expand their circle of influence. And I think we just have to really build communication with our alumni so current students can see that there’s a whole network of people out there who went through what they are currently going through and they can end up becoming really successful people. I also think our students work really hard. They work really hard on their academic programs and then outside of FIT, because they are so motivated and they are so inspirational. So unless they are involved in clubs or organizations with people of like-minded interests, it’s easy to become isolated. So we have to keep trying to create enough activities and opportunities that are interesting enough for students that they will go beyond their regular activities to try to become more involved with the community.
AN: I know you are a Psychology major, but if you could choose one major offered by FIT, which one would you choose?
JB: Oh, wow, that’s so funny! (Laughs) Well, first of all, I’m not blessed with the same talent that FIT students are. I mean, I could never be an artist. But I’d love to do something with textiles. I went to see how they do the silkscreening and that was fun; also, the weaving— all the textile stuff, I love it. And interestingly, I think it’s going on an important direction for the world because there’s so much you can do with textiles. I think the whole interaction of Design & Business and Design & Science is really going to see the manifestation of those innovations. There’s a lot of research that has been done and we have a lot of faculty that are involved in terms of using textiles for other industries such as healthcare, where you can embed medications in fabric so they are time-released or for diabetics, when the body interacts with the fabric letting it know when it’s time for medication. You know, there’s so many possibilities.
AN: Clearly, I imagine that fashion is important to you. If it is, how would you describe your style?
JB: I think the most important thing is that you feel comfortable with what you end up evoking as your style. I have friends who I think look really cool with the way they put themselves together, yet I think I would look ridiculous if I wore what they are wearing. So I think I’ll just tell you what’s important to me. First, the line has to flatter and go with the body type. Then, the fabric, which I love to touch and feel the texture of. Lastly, the finishing— I have friends that laugh at me because I won’t buy something if I don’t like the buttons. It’s how the garment is put together. Obviously, jewelry is important and how you accessorize as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.