SPOKANE, Wash. – WSU Spokane started the new year with a new leader. After a 20-year career in the Washington State Legislature, Lisa Brown assumed the post of chancellor of WSU Spokane on Jan. 1.
I sat down last week to talk to Brown about her transition to WSU Spokane and her plans for the future, both immediate and in the long term. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: What prompted you to exchange your career in the Legislature for one in higher education?
Brown: “Actually, I’ve always worn a higher education hat — I taught at Eastern and Gonzaga throughout and preceding my legislative career. It was a tough decision to step away from the Legislature, but I felt that there was going to be another chapter for me in either higher education or public policy. So I took a leap of faith that the right position would emerge for me. Then President Floyd contacted me, and we started talking about possibilities for working with WSU on the Spokane campus, and it just seemed like a great fit.”
Brown: “The most important piece is the relationships I’ve built over the years. During my political career, I’ve met hundreds of people who have a connection to this campus. As I’m learning all the multifaceted aspects of being the chancellor of WSU Spokane, I keep running into people that I encountered through the Legislature, in one capacity or another.”
Q: What has the transition to your new position been like?
Brown: “Leaving Olympia has been bittersweet. It’s nice to have a 10-minute commute from my home to the campus — compared to moving to Olympia every January and spending several months there. Although I enjoyed it and enjoyed the people I worked with, it’s physically and personally challenging to live in two different cities. What’s also unique is that, for 20 years, I’ve always had two jobs [both as a legislator and as a university faculty member], and now I just have one. It’s pretty big multifaceted job, but it’s just one. And that feels good.
As for my move onto campus, what really stands out is how friendly and welcoming everyone has been. People who recognize me stop and introduce themselves and tell me what they do. What’s also striking is seeing that building (Biomedical & Health Sciences Building) going up. As a senator, I played a role in helping to realize that and was part of the groundbreaking ceremony and that was really fun. Usually, life goes on after that, but now I’m sitting here watching the building being built, knowing that I’ll be intimately involved in the transition as pharmacy and medical sciences move in.”
Q: What are your plans for the next few weeks and months?
Brown: “I’m engaged in what I’m calling ‘At least 100 conversations.’ I think I’m up to 58 or 59—Patti (Petersen) is keeping track.”
Q: What are your long-term goals for the campus?
Brown: “I hope to work with the academic and administrative leadership team on creating a set of strategic initiatives for the campus that will highlight the top 10 things we’ll be working on. We’ll create teams around each initiative — some would be internal to WSU Spokane, others would involve community and higher education partners.
“There are a lot of exciting ideas. Solidifying the strategy for biomedical education and research. The medical education piece is clearly a number one priority. Some other things we’re discussing include a community clinic presence and the potential use of the Jensen-Byrd building — I believe there will be an exciting conclusion to that at some point. Those are some of the main issues that I can talk about right now — I want to formulate the rest of them in collaboration with our community partners.”
Q: What do you envision this campus will look like in 10 or 20 years?
Brown: “There will be many more students. I presume that the activity within the University District and the health sciences mission of the campus will be much more fully realized. I’m also hopeful that, as the connectivity between the campus and surrounding neighborhoods develops, we’ll have more of the types of activities that support a vibrant, full-time campus — everything from cultural activities to retail to student activities.”
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing WSU Spokane and what do you think the solution is?
Brown: “I’ll just quote James Dalton, (vice chancellor of finance and administration) who said ‘The kinds of problems we have are the good kinds of problems to have, and they’re coming about because we’re growing and changing and unique.’ Talking about collaborating among institutions is easy, but doing it requires a lot of work. As I said at the recent campus kickoff event, the C isn’t just for Cougar. It also stands for communication, collaboration, and coming up with creative solutions. That’s what we have to do in order to walk our talk.”
Q: What do you see as our greatest assets on this campus?
Brown: “It’s the high quality of the people here and their commitment to the mission and the vision. That’s clearly our biggest strength. It’s easy to see the buildings, but buildings don’t do anything. It’s the people in them.”
Q: You were born and raised in Illinois. How did you end up in Washington state?
Brown: “While studying for my Ph.D. in economics in Colorado, I visited some friends in Spokane and happened to get the opportunity to teach at Eastern (Washington University) while writing my dissertation. I was a part-time associate professor there. I thought that might be a temporary assignment, but one thing led to another and I stayed.”
Q: What do you like about living here?
Brown: “I like that Spokane has four-season recreational opportunities. That ‘Near Nature Near Perfect’ slogan really does capture our quality of life, that combination of recreational opportunities and cultural amenities.”
Q: How do you like to spend your free time?
Brown: “I enjoy outdoor activities, such as hiking, cross-country skiing, and biking. I like to travel, too. I’m interested in the economic and political empowerment of women in the world, and that has taken me to some really exciting locations. I’ve been to Morocco and Vietnam with the Center for Women and Democracy. Last summer, I traveled to Zambia with Gonzaga students. And recently, a Spokane Peace Corps volunteer invited me to present on leadership and women in Azerbaijan.”
Q: Do you have any children?
Brown: “I have a son, Lucas (20). He is an Evergreen State College student, and music and sustainable agriculture are his two main interests. He has a guitar and plays in a band. I should also mention another member of my family: Lucas and I have a big dog named Maverick. He’s 12 years old, so that makes him older than most of the buildings on this campus!”
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