Dean Bryan Brayboy

The power of possibility

Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy didn’t often question authority as an under- graduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So when he received a C+ in organic chemistry and his academic adviser told him to forget about medical school, he did just that.

Today Brayboy, a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe, considers that one- sided conversation a major turning point in his life. Why didn’t he challenge the advice? Why didn’t he consult with his older brother, who also had earned a C in organic chemistry and still went on to become a doctor? Why wasn’t he more curious about the advice and the reality of it?

“It was a huge lesson,” says Brayboy, who became dean of the School of Education and Social Policy last June. “The role of curiosity is fundamental and key. It’s also one of the things I love most about higher education.”

An anthropologist and the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Education and Social Policy, Brayboy is happy with his trajectory, which was strongly influenced by his parents and an elder in their Lumbee community who suggested he become a teacher. But he worries that others—who could have been any- thing they dreamed of becoming—were unnecessarily dissuaded by a comment or grade. 

“I knew the rule about paying attention to my elders, but I didn’t know the ones about how to do college, or that I could question an adviser,” Brayboy says. “I learned that a single adult can have a profound ability to set someone’s future.”

Now a world-renowned scholar on race, diversity, and Indigenous experiences in education, Brayboy is leading what he calls the best school of education in the nation and, arguably, the world. Sensing a touch of Midwestern modesty in Evanston, Brayboy wants the SESP community to stand tall for being part of such an accomplished school.

“Social policy isn’t the only thing that makes us unique,” he says. “It’s also the political scientists, economists, computer scientists, and sociologists. It’s learning scientists, teacher educators, psychologists, and those studying human development. What would it mean to put our collective shoulder to the wheel? That’s our opportunity—and responsibility."

Many of Brayboy’s views can be traced to his parents, who worked in education and healthcare and strongly believed in the power of possibility. They were activists who didn’t march at protests; instead, they were both employed by the federal government at various times and used its structures to help Native peoples start clinics, access resources and educational opportunities, and become teachers, doctors, dentists, and nurses.

“They saw systems that had been historically—and remain—oppressive as also offering possibilities to change the future of communities,” he says. “They taught me there are a lot of ways to push back against unequal structures. They taught me to push back."

While at the University of North Carolina, Brayboy began wrestling with a question that would later drive his research: “What happens when you don’t know the rules?” He was studying 40 hours a week, grinding like crazy, when a classmate said, “You work all the time. Why aren’t you thriving? Do you understand how to read a syllabus?”

He didn’t. “My future was framed because I didn’t know how to ‘do’ college,” he says. Brayboy switched to political science; he also started asking questions. He took on campus leadership roles, serving as president of his fraternity, and ran for student government and joined a Native American student group.

After graduation, he pursued teaching after a chance encounter with an elder from his Lumbee community; later he applied to graduate school.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Brayboy drew on his own undergraduate experience. Curious about whether other Native students knew how to navigate the higher education system, he spent two years essentially living with American Indian undergrads at Ivy League schools.

In his dissertation, he found that those students learned the rules from one another or didn’t learn them at all. They also sought spaces where they could be themselves and committed themselves to developing skills and earning credentials to serve the needs of their tribal nations. It felt familiar to his own experiences.

“Everybody who does really good work in social science finds topics that have a personal life connection,” says Brayboy’s doctoral adviser, Frederick Erickson (PhD69), professor emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles. “There’s a little bit of autobiography in what any of us do. Bryan is a perfect example of that.”

Since then, Brayboy’s work has focused on building programs to help those who often aren’t welcomed into institutions of higher education. His most influential research is Tribal Critical Race Theory, or TribalCrit, a groundbreaking framework he developed in 2005 to help explain Indigenous peoples’ complex experiences with education, colonization, and racism.

“Tensions aren’t going away,” he says. “I’m not terribly hopeful that the federal government and institutions of higher education will be as open as they need to be for people who have vast differences. Institutions, by their very nature, are conservative; they change very little. But I’m hopeful about what we can change at SESP.”

Prior to accepting the SESP deanship and coming to Evanston, Brayboy was the President’s Professor in the School of Social Transformation and vice president of social advancement at Arizona State University. He also served as senior adviser to the university’s president, director of the Center for Indian Education, and coeditor of the Journal of American Indian Education.

Gretchen Buhlig, CEO of Arizona State University Foundation, describes him as “a disruptor, but one who does it in a way that brings people along.” Other close colleagues praise his commitment to inclusivity and equity, his administrative and leadership skills, and his ability to home in on people’s strengths and use them for good. 

“To Bryan, people matter, and matter deeply,” says Marlene Tromp, president of Boise State University. “He can intelligently, creatively, and courageously make truly difficult decisions, but he always does so while honoring the humanity of all. This is why he is such an extraordinary leader.”

Brayboy recently received the George and Louise Spindler Award from the Council on Anthropology and Education for a lifetime of work shaping the educational anthropology field, K–12 schools, and higher education. In 2018 he was elected to the National Academy of Education and named a fellow of the American Educational Research Association.

Though he is the first Native American dean in Northwestern’s history, he has stopped seeing firsts as special.

“For me, there’s a sense of responsibility, which is to not be the last,” he says. “What does it mean to be second or third? It connotes a different kind of success than being first. Now I am interested in seeing whether we can create the conditions for a second.”