Winthrop presidential finalist considers himself a liberal arts 'poster child'

adouglas@heraldonline.comJanuary 30, 2013 

  • Meet Jeff Braden

    Age: 58

    Current position: Psychology professor and dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North Carolina State in Raleigh. Before arriving at N.C. State, Braden taught and directed school psychology programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, San Jose State University and the University of Florida.

    Education: Graduate degrees from University of California-Berkeley, Gallaudet University and Beloit College.

    Family: Married to wife, Jill, for more than 35 years; daughter is in law school at the University of North Carolina; son is a junior at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

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— Jeff Braden, one of four finalists for the presidential post at Winthrop University, says he has one thing up his sleeve that his competitors don’t: a pink and white scar on his wrist where a chimpanzee bit him in 1977.

Braden was teaching sign language to the chimp in Allen and Beatrix Gardner’s research lab at the University of Nevada-Reno.

“We had some issues, say, from time to time,” Braden said with a smile Tuesday afternoon as he wrapped up his three-day Winthrop visit.

The Gardners conducted research on several chimpanzees including Washoe – a female chimpanzee who became the first nonhuman to learn to communicate with American Sign Language.

Neither the scar on his wrist – nor the job teaching sign language – were part of Braden’s life plan, he said.

Allen Gardner called him with the offer while Braden was still in graduate school earning a master’s degree in elementary education from Beloit College in Wisconsin.

“I left wanting a career doing nothing more than teaching elementary school in Wisconsin,” he said.

“I am a poster child for what a solid liberal arts education can make possible.”

Braden first learned sign language in high school when his mother, a social worker, asked him to help take care of a deaf child in their neighborhood.

He carried the skill with him to Beloit, fulfilling the college’s field work requirement by working for one year in the deaf-blind unit at the Perkins School for the Blind.

He earned degrees in school psychology and developmental psychology from the world’s only university designed for the deaf and hearing-impaired, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Later, he worked as a school psychologist and continued educational psychology research at North Carolina State University, where he serves as a professor and dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

His research efforts at N.C. State provided him one of his first looks at Winthrop about four years ago. He and Winthrop faculty helped support educational psychology development in Lancaster County schools.

Braden’s sign language abilities earned him a spot on stage with President Barack Obama.

During Obama’s campaign stop at N.C. State in 2011, Braden interpreted the president’s speech at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

Sign language has opened unusual doors for him, Braden said.

On Tuesday, he jokingly said the challenge of teaching chimpanzees to sign prepared him for the world of higher education.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Did working with chimpanzees prepare you to teach undergraduate students?’” he said.

“To which I say, ‘No, but it was invaluable preparation for faculty senate.’ ”

In all seriousness, Braden spoke Tuesday on several issues in higher education and what he’d do as president at Winthrop University:

Should Winthrop have a football team?

Braden is a football fan and would support an Eagle football team with some conditions, he said.

Of about 200 NCAA football programs, he said, just five teams “make enough money to support themselves.”

“My goal in bringing football to Winthrop would be, it would have to be the sixth.

“I would not bring football to Winthrop if it would mean that we would have to subsidize it through higher student fees, through re-allocating tuition or other kinds of things.”

How can Winthrop recruit and retain more minority faculty members and students?

Winthrop “does a terrific job at retaining and recruiting students of color,” he said.

Recruiting and keeping on board minority faculty members, he said, is much more difficult.

At N.C. State, Braden used “informal processes,” he said, to ensure that all faculty members had a social circle on campus. He reached out personally, he said, to minority faculty members as part of this effort.

At Winthrop, he said he’d support similar practices including inviting masters or doctoral-level minority students onto campus to give guest lectures. Inviting quality, up-and-coming professors to guest lecture, he said, can be an effective way to recruit minority faculty members.

What do you think about Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to allocate taxpayer dollars to universities based on the college’s performance?

“Frankly, I support it. I haven’t seen the specifics of her package, but I do think it is not unreasonable for the public to say, ‘We want to support you not on how many kids that you get to campus but on how many kids you keep moving toward your degree and how many kids you get out.’ ”

Haley’s plan would base the amount of taxpayer support that universities receive on four criteria: graduation rates, percentage of in-state students served, contribution to the state’s economic development and rate of job placement for graduates.

“Pretty much everything I’ve seen suggests that Winthrop would be at the top of most comparisons,” Braden said.

If chosen as Winthrop’s president, how long would you stay?

“In these kinds of positions, they say you serve at the pleasure. At any time, if the board of trustees decided they felt other leadership was needed, they would have the prerogative to do what they decide.

“I’m looking at making one more move in my life. God bless Jill (Braden’s wife), she’s made a few with me. I’ve kind of promised her that this is it, and I think Winthrop would be an outstanding place for me to finish my career. I hope I have that opportunity.”

If not selected as Winthrop’s president, Braden said he’s happy in his job at N.C. State.

“I’ve had the best job I’ve ever had in my life. I think becoming president of Winthrop would be better.”

How do you rate your development skills and how would you increase Winthrop’s donor base?

Before moving into the dean position at N.C. State about six years ago, his ability to raise funds and solicit donors, he said, “was a big hole,” in his skill set.

Since then, Braden has trained in building donor networks, asking for money and connecting with alumni who have the ability to give big gifts.

“My greatest asset is my passion,” he said.

At N.C. State, he oversees a budget of $66 million and frequently meets with people who can financially support university programs and projects.

At Winthrop, he said, more than 90 percent of outside gifts come from “higher-end” donors representing 10 percent of the people who contribute money. When working on development, he said, he’d focus the bulk of his time on the largest donors, including alumni.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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