Years ago, Executive Vice Chancellor and COO Kennard Brown would walk important visitors through the decrepit and abandoned Mooney Library Building in the heart of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Memphis campus, showing them its peeling paint, scarred wood, and falling plaster.
He wasn’t airing the campus’s dirty laundry for no reason. He had a plan, more of a vision, for what that building and the others adjacent to it could be, if he could convince these legislators, donors, and community leaders that something so bad could become something great.
As he retires from the university after more than 25 years of leadership, that vision is now a reality, and it is truly great. The renovated Mooney Library Building and the adjacent Crowe, Nash, and Nash Annex Buildings, which opened in the spring of 2021, stand as a testament to his imagination, inspiration, perseverance, and dedication to the university he has served for most of his career.
The Quadrangle, along with so many other buildings on the Memphis campus – the Center for Healthcare Improvement and Patient Simulation, the Pharmacy Building, the Cancer Research Center, the Translational Science Research Building, The Plough Center for Sterile Drug Delivery Solutions – bear witness to Dr. Brown’s tenure at UTHSC. However, the way he sees it is that buildings are one thing, but the campus he leaves is much more than bricks and mortar.
“The implications of these buildings are far reaching,” he says. “But the magic is what happens in the buildings.”
Dr. Brown grew up in Chicago, and after a short time at Illinois State University, he joined the Marine Corps, serving a four-year stint in an intelligence unit stationed in Rota, Spain. “I think that was probably that maturation phase in my life,” he says. “I’m not so sure I’d be the person I am or see the world the way I see it or be driven like I’m driven, had I not done that.”
What followed was what he describes as “school, school, school.” First, he attended what is now Southwest Tennessee Community College. He remembers walking across the park to get to his apartment on Cleveland Street, seeing the UTHSC campus, and never dreaming that one day he would be one of its leaders.
He completed his undergraduate degree and a law degree at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis, a master’s degree in public administration there, and ultimately a PhD in Health Outcomes Research at UTHSC in 2008, after joining the university in 1998.
He credits his grandmother, who raised him, with instilling in him a love for education, even though she couldn’t read or write. “I think about my grandmother all the time,” he says. “She always said, ‘go to school, you are never going to go wrong going to school.’”
Dr. Brown joined UTHSC as a clerk in the General Counsel’s Office, after graduating from law school. His trajectory toward the top administrative offices was not planned, but it was steady.
He became the director of Affirmative Action, after then-Chancellor Bill Rice asked him to consider the role to address discrimination issues before they became court cases as a more effective strategy for the university. After serving three years in that role, and becoming familiar with the campus culture, he was named chief of staff for Chancellor William Owen. When Hershel Wall, MD, was named interim chancellor in 2007, Dr. Brown became the executive vice chancellor in charge of the campus operations. He has held the position ever since.
As the executive vice chancellor and chief operations officer, Dr. Brown has led the daily operations of the campus for the better part of two decades.
Early on, he says, he realized that if he did not have a plan for its growth, he would be constantly putting Band-Aids on its aging buildings,
He led the launch of UTHSC’s 2014 Master Plan for Growth, which outlined new buildings to meet expanding academic, research, clinical care, and support needs. It also included improved pedestrian routes, well-designed green spaces and landscaping, prominent signage, renovated buildings, demolition of obsolete buildings, and updated housing options.
The focus was to enhance UTHSC’s stature as an urban academic medical center and secure its spot as the nucleus of the Memphis Medical District.
“In five years, we’re either going to all be talking about what a wonderful job we did, patting ourselves on the back about what we did to take this community into the next millennium, or we could all be looking at each other ashamed of ourselves for squandering the opportunity that we had,” Dr. Brown said in unveiling that plan. “We are looking to the former, as opposed to the latter.”
The opportunity was not squandered. An update in 2019 added to the long-term vision for the campus, linking it to the university’s future strategic and academic plans, facilities planning, and capital appropriation requests.
With the Master Plan, $10 million to $15 million in demolition, as well as up to $400 million in construction has been accomplished, including the new $45 million Delta Dental of Tennessee Building set to open in April. Additionally, there is strategy for the future, including a new home for the College of Medicine.
“I’ve been fortunate because every administration, every governor, we’ve had in the 25 years I’ve been here has made an investment,” he says. The return on that investment, he adds, is a more robust health care workforce for generations to come.
“Dr. Ken Brown has been the constant on the UTHSC campus for over 20 years,” says Phil Wenk, DDS, CEO of Delta Dental of Tennessee, chair of the UTHSC Advisory Board, and a UTHSC College of Dentistry alumnus. Delta Dental of Tennessee is the largest donor to the UTHSC College of Dentistry and provided financial support to make the new dental building possible.
“Whether a dean or a donor, you could always rely on him for answers, as well as follow through,” Dr. Wenk says. “Ken was also an exceptional leader, and his legacy will be that he ensured not only the Memphis campus was run in top condition, but also projects at the extended campuses, like UT Medical Center and the speech pathology campus in Knoxville. Ken has been a great friend and, while I know UTHSC will miss him, he has certainly earned this retirement, and we wish him all the best!”
Beyond buildings, Dr. Brown has contributed much to the culture of the university and to the community and state it serves.
Shelley White-Means, PhD, a professor of health economics in the Department of Interprofessional Education at UTHSC, was Dr. Brown’s adviser for his PhD. “Ken has been a champion of health equity/health disparities research, both via his dissertation work and in campuswide efforts at UTHSC,” she says. “His motivation and passion have been to improve health and access to health-producing resources for Memphis community residents, especially those who are vulnerable due to limited economic opportunities.“
It is difficult to imagine UTHSC without Dr. Brown, she says. “On a personal level, I will miss Ken’s presence on campus. I appreciate and value a person who sees a challenge that needs to be addressed in order to improve the UTHSC environment and then contributes to the solution in whatever way possible, whether or not those efforts are written as part of their job responsibilities.”
Edwin Jeffries, who came to UTHSC in 2018 as a superintendent for custodial services and today is the director of operations, says, “My tenure here at UT Health Science Center has been phenomenal, all due to the leadership of Kennard Brown. His leadership requires and demands excellence, and because of that, I have been able to capitalize on so many different things like leadership development and career development.”
What Dr. Brown has accomplished is phenomenal, Jeffries said. “His vision is impeccable,” he said. “He’s one of the few leaders that I know that knows something about everything.”
Dr. Brown says he has talked with his family about retiring for a few years. He made a commitment when Chancellor Emeritus Steve Schwab, MD, retired to stay for a year to help the new chancellor during the first year of transition to the university, he says. Chancellor Peter Buckley, MD, joined UTHSC in February 2022.
“I wanted the next leadership to get stable,” Dr. Brown says. “This was kind of the time for me.”
Dr. Brown says he feels “privileged and very, very proud” to have contributed to creating a campus that is “light years away” from the one he joined in the late ’90s.
“Dr. Ken Brown’s service to UTHSC and Memphis spans decades, UTHSC Chancellors, UT Presidents, and Memphis Mayors,” Chancellor Emeritus Schwab says. “The architect of the UTHSC Campus Master Plan, he oversaw development transforming our Medical District campus. Perhaps even more lasting, was his unfailing action and commitment to fairness, equity, and opportunity for everyone at UTHSC and Memphis, regardless of race, gender, religion, or social standing. He acted while others debated, influencing administrators, students, faculty, and staff.”
For his efforts, Dr. Brown has been the recipient of numerous faculty, student, community, and civic awards, including a 2017 Health Care Heroes Award for Administrative Excellence from the Memphis Business Journal, inclusion in the Memphis Business Journal’s Power 100 four years in a row, a commendation from the Tennessee Legislature, and the 2018 Visionary Leadership Award from the Common Table Health Alliance.
Anthony A. Ferrara, senior vice chancellor for Finance, recalls that Dr. Brown chaired the search committee when he was being considered for the finance job. “The two of us hit it off from the minute we met,” Ferrara says. “We’ve been each other’s counselor, partner, friend. There isn’t anybody more passionate in my mind for the betterment of the Health Science Center.”
Chancellor Peter Buckley, MD, said he recalls coming to UTHSC approximately 17 years ago to give Grand Rounds, and noticing that some areas on campus were in bad shape. That is no longer the case.
“The institution has been transformed by Ken,” Chancellor Buckley said. “It will be our resposibility to continue the passion, pride, and commitment he has shown to UTHSC.”
The Next Chapter
After leaving his day-to-day role with UTHSC on February 28, Dr. Brown will continue working for the university on several projects through the end of the fiscal year. First, though, a two-week trip on his Harley is planned. It could last longer if he feels like it.
“I think there will be a next thing,’ he says. “I have no idea what that is, but I’ll know it when I see it.”