Kelli Brown

Chancellor-elect Kelli Brown addresses Catamount faithful Monday at WCU’s Bardo Center. 

Kelli Brown is itching to take the leadership reins at Western Carolina University on July 1.

Brown knows a thing or two about reins, having been a former Miss Rodeo Ohio and Miss Ohio Quarter Horse. Brown says that rural background, honed in 4-H competition, should help her build connections in largely rural Western North Carolina.

Brown, selected as the 12th chancellor of Western Carolina University by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors April 25, says she’s impressed with what she’s seen of the WCU community to date. “You sense a community and university that have great pride in one another,” she said.

“I met Sylva Mayor Lynda Sossamon at my initial reception, and look forward to having a great working relationship with the town. The more we can work together, the more we can create better things together. How can we do that? It requires communication, making sure that what Sylva’s doing and WCU’s doing are making one another a better place to be.’’

Brown said she’ll have an extensive listening period before diving into the job. “There’s going to be a lot of internal listening in the beginning with the community, faculty and staff, and with the students when they come back. It’ll be integrated, internal and external. We’ll make sure we’re getting out and talking to folks in the community as early as July or August. I can imagine spending six to nine months getting out and meeting people. You know, this is a big area.’’

Brown was selected from three finalists for the chancellor’s job by UNC System Interim President Bill Roper for approval by the Board of Governors. Those finalists were selected by a 21-person search committee comprised of various WCU stakeholders from the community and region and the WCU Board of Trustees. She’ll succeed the late David Belcher, who died in June 2018 following a two-year struggle with brain cancer.

Brown holds a doctorate in education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; a master of science and education in public health degree and bachelor of science degree, both from the University of Toledo; and an associate in applied sciences degree in dental hygiene from Michael J. Owens Technical College in Toledo, Ohio.

She believes her background in public health can be a valuable tool for the university and community.

“My background has really helped me think about prevention, and public health is really about prevention,” Brown said. “It allows me to think about working with communities, not about doing something to a community. Public health is about going into a community, asking what the problem is, asking what can we do to help solve it; the community defines what problem is, and they’re a piece of solving that problem. We’re already engaged with the community here and have trust of community, and I’m looking forward to working alongside community partners.”

In a Friday interview with The Sylva Herald, Brown focused on two key building blocks of her life: Her mother, and her experience with 4-H.

“My mother was a special person. She worked extremely hard her whole life, and gave up a lot so we kids could have things. I didn’t realize until I got older how much she gave up. She was rock solid, always there when we were making achievements or when we were struggling. Her Catholic faith carried her throughout her life, helped her with her children and helped her when she was battling Alzheimer’s.”

Brown’s background with horses began through 4-H after her 13th birthday. “I started showing horses, and started doing really well,’’ she said. 

“My 4-H leader encouraged me to start riding in a circuit. My parents bought a horse trailer and my brother and sister also started showing horses. It became a family event; on Thursday night we’d get the trailer ready and Friday after work we’d travel and show for the weekend.”

Brown credits the experience with instilling a sense of responsibility. “You learn something about yourself when you have a cow, a pig or a horse. You learn about responsibility, about taking care of something else.”

She says her experiences in life and academia have built a path leading directly to Cullowhee. “I know I’ve said this time and again, but I truly do believe that my whole career has helped bring me to where I am today, to be here in Cullowhee. 

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better than being the chancellor at WCU. I really do believe that the stars have aligned, and I’m honored and humbled to have been selected by the system and President Roper.

“I’m just delighted to be here.’’

Coming June 27: A special Herald section profiling Kelli Brown as she begins her service as WCU’s 12th chancellor.