FAU’s enigmatic and autocratic Student Affairs VP resigned Friday. What does he leave behind? And did he leave on his own accord?
by Michael Koretzky
The first time I met Charles Brown, he wouldn’t tell me his name.
Brown’s first day as vice president of Student Affairs – a position that reports directly to FAU’s president – was Sept. 1, 2006. That was a Friday, when the University Press staff was working late to prep its next issue for the printer.
I was the paper’s adviser. I was chatting with one of the copyeditors when we heard a knock on the newsroom door. We looked at each other with some confusion and surprise. No one had ever knocked before – usually, they just barged in to complain.
I yelled, “Come in!” A bald, 50-something man in silver glasses and a taupe suit took two steps through the door, put his hands on his hips, and slowly scanned the room.
“How y’all doin’?” he said with a big grin.
“Uh…we’re good,” I replied cautiously. “How can we help you this evening?”
“I just have some questions,” he said, grinning wider. I think he intended the grin to be disarming, but it was actually unnerving.
“Sure, my name’s Koretzky. And you are…”
He cut me off: “So how many students work here?”
“Well, we have a core group of about a dozen, maybe another dozen who contribute every so often. Sorry, didn’t catch your name…”
He ignored me again: “So what would you say the mission of the newspaper is?”
“Uh, like most student newspapers, inform the university community and train students how to be good journalists. You a student? Wanna work here?”
This stilted back-and-forth went on for a few more minutes. Finally, the well-dressed older man puffed himself up, put his hands on his hips again, and declared loudly, “I’m Dr. Brown, the new vice president of Student Affairs.”
I feigned surprise and replied, “Really? Wow, nice to meet you!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him we already knew who he was. We had already reported his arrival.
Charles in charge
That strange first encounter foreshadowed all my dealings with Charles Brown, from that Friday night in 2006 till last Friday afternoon, when FAU announced his resignation.
Over those 7 ½ years, I’ve heard similar stories of uncomfortable encounters. Brown had good ideas, but his delivery was off-putting. Best I can tell, Brown thought he was clever and smooth when he was actually obvious and awkward.
For example, a few weeks after he arrived at FAU, Brown learned the school’s Owl mascot had no name.
That had been a joke for years: FAU is such a lazy-ass place, we can’t even christen our mascot. (it’s now Owsley, no great improvement.)
So Brown seized on this opportunity to gin up school spirit. But the way he did it was jarring. I watched him introduce himself to students and, before they could do the same, blurt out, “So do you know the name of FAU’s mascot? Do you think it’s a boy or a girl?”
Usually, Brown was accompanied by an administrator or one of his staff, who would nervously interject, “Dr. Brown cares about school spirit and is asking everyone.”
The unsuspecting student would mumble something, and Brown would stride away, feeling like he had “engaged with the students.” That was his mantra: “We must engage with students.”
But Brown wasn’t hired to engage with students. He was hired to subdue them. And that was the student newspaper’s fault.
Engage and enrage
Brown was hired by former FAU president Frank Brogan, who was later promoted to chancellor of Florida’s entire state university system and now holds the same job in Pennsylvania. Upon his arrival at FAU in 2003, Brogan inherited a Student Affairs VP who did little and rarely ventured from his office.
(I was hired in 1998 and didn’t meet the man until a year later. I’m told he once walked into the Student Government office, and the longtime receptionist didn’t know who he was.)
During Brogan’s first few years, the University Press broke many embarrassing stories about Student Government. University presidents don’t usually give a crap about Student Government – unless, of course, SG attracts mainstream media coverage for its silly antics. When that happens, SG becomes an annoying distraction from the main tasks of fundraising and recruiting.
But the University Press broke several SG stories that made local news. For instance, a year after Brogan became FAU’s fifth president, SG leaders secretly gave themselves 25-percent pay raises – retroactive to the beginning of the school year. Then they tried to shut down the student newspaper for uncovering that trifling fact.
The dual controversies were covered by the local NBC affiliate (in a report that ran more than two minutes, see below) and the local Top 50 daily (under the bad-PR headline of Censorship Charges Loom at FAU.)
Similar investigations and hijinks convinced Brogan to oust the do-nothing Student Affairs VP (who “retired after a long and distinguished career”). He sought an enforcer who would scare SG straight. He found his man in Brown.
The doctor is in
Brown was previously vice chancellor of Student Affairs at the University of South Florida. He told the University Press that he originally wanted to be a social studies teacher. But while working on his education PhD in 1975, he became a residence hall director and changed careers.
When he got to FAU, one of his first moves was to confront Student Government. He didn’t do this directly. He summoned student leaders to his office, often one or two at a time, and always the same way.
My first such meeting happened when Brown decided he wanted the University Press to change its name to Owl Times. The editor got a call from Brown’s secretary, who asked that he show up (with me) at Brown’s office the next morning. When the editor asked what this was about, the secretary said she didn’t know. (This was a common Brown tactic.)
When I took the phone and asked if she could find out, she sounded nervous but said she would check. She never did.
The editor and I showed up at the appointed hour. We cooled our heels in the waiting area for 10 minutes (tactic No. 2) before being summoned into Brown’s office, where he was staring down at a document. He didn’t acknowledge us until he was done, then flashed that weird grin (tactic No. 3).
He said hello and motioned us to the table in his office, where his hand guided each of us to specific chairs (why this was a tactic, I never knew, but he always did it).
Then the student body president showed up a moment later (sandbagging a meeting was Brown’s specialty), and Brown launched into his explanation of how the student newspaper needed to have the school’s mascot in its name.
Of course, the intimidated student body president readily agreed. The editor was polite but hesitant. Brown looked at me and said, “Michael, what do you think?”
When I replied, “I think it’s up to the students,” Brown’s face tightened. He made vague references to how we’re all on the same team, and coaches need to ensure the players are in the right position to win – and although some players need more coaching than others, that doesn’t mean you love those players less.
On our way out, Brown asked – almost as an aside but too forced to be an afterthought – that the University Press make sure to refer to him as “Dr. Brown” instead of just “Brown” on second reference.
“I notice you’ve forgotten that,” he said, the grin returning.
I told him the AP Style Guide (the Bible for journalists) mandates we only refer to medical doctors by that title, just to avoid confusion. He launched into another team speech, but the editor and I didn’t budge.
From meetings to mandates
Shortly after Brown made the rounds and held similar meetings with everyone from Student Health Services to the Homecoming director, he began rewriting their rules. For Student Government, this meant changing statutes, often without conferring with SG leaders.
Instead, Brown would full-court press one or two leaders to force through changes that gave administrators more control over the $5 million-plus SG gets annually from Activity and Service fees – $10 a credit hour that’s tacked onto every student’s tuition bill to fund extra-curricular activities.
And once again, his ideas were mostly sound. Why should a bunch of hormone-riddled and revenge-seeking students be allowed to misspend millions of dollars punishing their political enemies and lavishing their friends with trips to Disney World?
(Seriously, one pre-Brown scandal the University Press uncovered involved SG offering students free “field trips” to places like the Magic Kingdom, but manipulating the rules so they and their pals always got tickets.)
Brown executed his decent ideas in heavy-handed style – by hiring intimidating deans to do his dirty work.
Brown forced the resignation (for “health reasons”) of the Dean of Students he inherited. He hired Corey King. It was the mirror image of Brown’s own hiring. The previous dean was a nice guy who did little, and King is a large man who likes to tower over students and literally talk down to them.
The third of “Brown’s boys” – a term coined by a former female Student Affairs administrator – was Terry Mena, now the SG adviser. (The trio was not known as sensitive to women, and several have cycled through Student Affairs without much good to say.)
All three men made a habit of triple-teaming uppity students until they wore them down. Then again, that’s what they were hired to do. You can’t fault them – and I admire them – for expertly executing their boss’s plan. But now the boss has changed.
Brown goes down
FAU students learned of Brown’s resignation late Friday afternoon. But not from Brown.
Instead, the student body president emailed his student body at 4:41 p.m. “I have recently learned that Dr. Brown is leaving us,” the email began.
The student body president cited no reason for Brown’s departure, although he did “wish him the best in his future endeavors.” FAU’s official position is that Brown is leaving “to pursue other opportunities.”
In university politics, this is revealing stuff…
• Usually, your boss issues the glowing goodbye announcement. Brown reports to FAU President John Kelly. Yet news of his departure was broken by a student.
• Usually, favored administrators leave for greener pastures. Brown is noticeably not leaving for another job worth boasting about.
…which easily leads to the conclusion that FAU’s new president forced him out.
Kelly started in March, and it’s quite common for new presidents to want their own people as direct reports. Kelly wasn’t around for SG’s scandal-headline era, so he may want a kinder and gentler Student Affairs.
In that announcement of Brown’s departure, the student body president added this bit of news: “Although we are saying goodbye to Dr. Brown, we are also very excited to welcome Dr. King as the Interim Vice President of Student Affairs.”
That may prove to be very interim. It’s quite likely that once Kelly’s new VP has a few months on the job, King will also “pursue other opportunities.” And Mena may soon after do the same.
If that happens, don’t expect tearful farewell soirees from students and staff. It’s telling that, before Brown came on board, there was an associate dean of Student Affairs by the name of Lisa Bardill. She was at FAU for only three years before becoming dean for students at Pace University in New York.
When Bardill left, SG threw a party for her in the second-largest room in the Student Union. I was there, watching dozens of students rise to the podium to praise her in front of dozens of others. Several cried, all gave her hugs. She cried. Students showered with her cards and presents. She knew them all by name.
So I wonder: Will there be a party for Brown? How many students will show up? Will there be tears of sadness? Or joy?
UP staffers: You can do long-form journalism online. This particular post isn’t straight news or feature, of course. But you have more room to be weird online than in print. And it doesn’t take long to go long. I wrote and designed this less than 48 hours of Brown’s resignation. If this old-fart adviser can do it, so can you, dammit.