The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.

Three things you might not know about Interim President Bonita Brown

February 24, 2023

Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Bonita Brown was approved as Northern Kentucky University’s interim president at a January Board of Regents meeting, following Dr. Ashish Vaidya’s departure last December. She will be steering the university until the next permanent president has been found.

Brown is best known for her work on the Success by Design strategic framework, focusing on programs, procedures and partnerships to drive student success. However, there are aspects to her life, career, interim position and outlook that might not be as well-known. Three of those aspects are listed below.

Emory Davis

Here, there and everywhere

Bonita Brown grew up in a small town called Welcome in North Carolina. “We literally had a sign that said ‘Welcome to Welcome,’” she laughed. She majored in history then studied law at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, but quickly realized that she did not want to pursue the courtroom attorney path.

“It was not for me, but I liked the skill set that the law degree gave me, so I can read, I can analyze, I can research, I can write,” Brown said, “ It really helps strengthen all of those skill sets and I thought that would do me well in whatever career I decided to go.”

She practiced law as a staff attorney at a Washington D.C. corporation, negotiating contracts, website terms and conditions, patent law, trademark, employment and all manners of corporate legal work. She was in D.C. during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and decided to move back to North Carolina where she would feel safer. It was there that she was selected for an interview at Livingstone College, a small, private, historically black institution, with its first female president.

“At the end of the interview, she said, ‘I’m not going to hire you as the attorney’ and I was like, ‘okay, I must have done something wrong,’” Brown recalled, explaining that the president hired her as an assistant to help her strategize, execute and manage the leadership team. “And I did that and I fell in love with higher ed, absolutely fell in love with it.”

From there, Brown served as chief of staff at the University of North Texas, then moved back to North Carolina to serve as chief of staff, vice chancellor and assistant secretary to the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. When she returned to D.C., she directed Higher Education Practice with the Education Trust, creating and leading a national network of institutions that enroll low-income students and students of color. She did not know much about Northern Kentucky when she got a call about a job at NKU, but the job description appealed to her with the strategic plan singularly focused on student success.

“I have [been back and forth everywhere], but I’ve learned a lot,” Brown said of her journey. “That’s the thing you will learn when you travel, move and live in different places. I learned a lot about higher ed in my industry, but you would also learn a lot about different cultures and people and perspectives.”

Day in the life

Brown is the first black individual and first woman to hold the president’s seat at NKU.

“Definitely quite an honor, something that was definitely not expected or planned. But it is a very unique position to be in,” she said, recalling accolades and shoutouts from women who were glad to see a woman in the seat and African Americans who never thought that they would see the day when they have a presidential leader representing them.

As interim, Brown would not be considered a candidate for the permanent president position per a Board of Regents resolution. She occupies a uniquely transitional space, tasked with navigating the day to day while still keeping an eye on the future.

“My days are full of meetings and talking and discussing the plans for the future,” she said. “I had a lot of meetings at Frankfort and CPE (Council on Postsecondary Education). Right now I’m still very much in the information gathering space, learning, assessing, trying to really just get my arms around everything that is NKU while at the same time looking for the future and trying to prepare things for the next leader.”

The official presidential search committee has been formed, though so far nobody quite knows when NKU’s next president is going to be found. When the next president assumes office at NKU, Brown will apply the insights from her interim period to strengthen Success by Design, with which she has found her favorite memories at NKU.

Working on Success by Design means she is not managing a division, but working alongside and with people across the university. Her broad network of contacts greatly helped in her consideration for the interim position, according to Board of Regents chair Rich Boehne.

“I already knew a lot of people across campus, I knew what their work was, I helped some of them remove some barriers. I think that just really gave me an insight to the campus that most other positions probably did not have,” Brown said.

Emory Davis

Anything is possible with a can-do attitude

Brown approaches NKU’s interim position and $23.7 million deficit with optimism and defined priorities, even when she is not entirely sure she could pull the university out of its budget shortfall during her interim period.

“The budget situation is challenging, but it’s not permanent. That’s what I’ve tried to tell people,” Brown said. “It’s daunting, it feels heavy, but it’s not permanent. If we do the right thing, if we get our enrollment up, we can get out of this and still be the regional university that this region needs us to be.”

The right thing for Brown involves increasing the rates of student enrollment and retention. At a Student Government Association meeting earlier this month, when asked about the causes behind the deficit, Brown pointed in particular to the declining number of undergraduates at NKU over the years, driven by a thriving job market, competition from other universities, and shifts to online and hybrid delivery following the COVID-19 pandemic.

For now, her presidential strategy consists of three core pillars: stabilization, community building and purpose for student success.

“We have to stabilize our budget, we have to stabilize our processes and procedures, we have to stabilize the campus,” the president said. “I do think we need to do some community building, so I will be meeting with the colleges and divisions and students, just to generate that sense of community, get people talking and engaging again.”

When asked what advice she would give to the next permanent president, she has this to say, without hesitation:

“Get out on the campus and meet everybody. You have to. You can’t lead a campus you don’t know. If you get out and meet everybody, you’ll hear the passion. You’ll hear the concern, you’ll hear the historical stories, and I think hearing that helps you know how to take all those threads and build the future.”

What do people say?

“I think of her as a very holistic and professional person. She’s got a good mixture of straight up business savvy, also a lot of understanding of all the human decisions and the human emotions that are involved in trying to run a very complex organization like a university.” — Rich Boehne, Chair of Board of Regents.

“I think Bonita will bring the change that this school desperately needs. We’re clearly not doing the greatest and I hope she’ll make a change for the good.” — Jamie Mays, biological sciences major.

“She’s an open-minded person so she’s willing to do new things, open her mind to new opportunities that have been given to her.” — Lei Wydman, undeclared major but looking forward to entrepreneurship and business management.

“I love her energy. Getting to meet her, she seems like a really invested person. She seems like she really wanted to be invested in the students and I’m looking forward to seeing what she’ll do.” — Ryan Price, communications studies major.

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