A photo of four people standing in front of a terrace with plants
McKenna Brown (second from left), shown on a recent visit to Guatemala, served as the founding director of VCU’s School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. He retires this year after 28 years on VCU’s faculty. (Courtesy McKenna Brown)

R. McKenna Brown, founding director of VCU’s School of World Studies, retires after 28 years

An expert in Maya culture and language, Brown expanded global learning and international partnerships for students and supported faculty development.

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McKenna Brown, Ph.D., first knew Richmond was the perfect place for him during his on-campus interviews in early 1996. While he waited for his next appointment, the hotel concierge recommended that Brown take a walk down West Franklin Street through Virginia Commonwealth University, then down Monument Avenue, before winding his way back through the Fan.

“I saw the wrought-iron handrails and the brick sidewalks. People were jogging and walking dogs – in February! At the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, where I was teaching at the time, it was still tundra-like conditions!” Brown said. “Before that walk was over, I said, I think I’m falling in love.”

Indeed, VCU proved a good match. Hired in fall 1996 as an associate professor in what was then the foreign language department, Brown is now retiring after nearly three decades at VCU highlighted by his leadership in creating its School of World Studies.

“I loved the diversity of VCU. I loved its urban mission and its commitment to community engagement. It was everything that we still love about VCU today,” Brown said. “It had an openness and flexibility to things. You could really fly with an idea.”

A man wearing a suit standing at a podium speaking while holding a small piece of paper in his left hand.
McKenna Brown, Ph.D., led what is now the VCU Global Education Office, developing international partnerships and encouraging faculty development through travel abroad. (Courtesy McKenna Brown)

This ability to fly with an idea led Brown to create the international studies major in 1998, a degree that uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine global issues. This new major was the ideal synthesis of Brown’s experience and scholarship. As a young man, he had served in the Peace Corps and spent two years in Ecuador.

“I studied several languages as an undergrad. However, I almost never used any of those languages outside the classroom or with a native speaker until I went to Ecuador. The language immersion and, perhaps even more so, the cultural immersion were a revelation,” Brown said. “The degree to which it expanded both my understanding of the wider world and of myself was immeasurable. Adapting to other ways of being and other modes of expression is something that enriches us as humans and citizens.”

The program was extremely successful and inspired the creation of VCU’s School of World Studies in 2003, of which Brown was founding director. Today, the school within the College of Humanities and Sciences offers degrees in foreign language, international studies, religious studies and anthropology, as well as a certificate in Spanish-English translation and interpretation (SETI).

“The creation of the school was an exciting application of our academic expertise and, at the same time, strived to meet real-world urgent needs,” Brown said. “In those early years, we hosted a lot of exciting public events – speakers like Hans Blix, who was the United Nations inspector for mass weapons, and Óscar Arias Sánchez, the Nobel-winning former president of Costa Rica. We created a curriculum for a film studies program and the SETI certificate. We also expanded the languages taught beyond the Eurocentric, adding Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Zulu.”

Robert Godwin-Jones, Ph.D., a professor in the School of World Studies, hired Brown at VCU and knew from the start that Brown had leadership capabilities.

“McKenna was so organized, so articulate and so reasonable in everything he said in his interview that I thought he would be great in a leadership position – and that was backed up by the glowing letters of recommendation for him. He was personable and easy to talk to, yet businesslike at the same time,” Godwin-Jones said. “Those are qualities he amply demonstrated when he was director of the School of World Studies. In administrative positions, he was also a strong voice of reason and a relentless advocate for fairness and equal treatment, an effective voice for inclusion and diversity before that was widespread. I will miss his genial temperament and humor, as well as his grounded, common-sense attitude toward the roller coaster ride that academia often is.”

Brown would later head the Office of International Education – now the VCU Global Education Office – and help create the first living-learning communities on campus. He also traveled extensively, expanding VCU’s network of international partnerships to enrich students’ global learning. He initiated Faculty Development Seminars, leading interdisciplinary cohorts of faculty on thematic explorations of teaching and research to Spain, Morocco, South Africa, China, Mexico and Guatemala.

In the classroom, students flourished under Brown’s teaching. He taught a wide variety of classes –   undergraduate and graduate, every level of Spanish and many topics courses on Latin America.

A photo of four people standing next to eachother in a room filled with chairs and a projector screen behind them on the wall.
McKenna Brown (right), who is retiring this year, created the School of World Studies and the international studies major in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. (Courtesy McKenna Brown)

“I enjoyed all of it, even the language courses because they require such a creative pedagogy,” Brown said. “Students have to make themselves vulnerable to learn a language, and part of the instructor’s work is breaking down the barriers so students can relax and have fun.”

Along the way, Brown brought into his classroom Maya scholars, writers and poets – his particular area of scholarship – including the famed Maya writer Gaspar Pedro González.

“He came to VCU several times and spoke directly to the class. He was able to witness projects that students had done inspired by his writing, and their work would astound us and even bring tears to our eyes,” Brown said.

Brown’s impact is felt not just by students but colleagues as well. When VCU recently hired several faculty members as part of a migration studies cohort, Brown quickly became a mentor for the group.

“McKenna advocated for many years to raise the visibility of Latinx and migration studies at VCU and to increase the numbers of Latinx faculty,” said Gabriela León-Pérez, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and one of the migration studies faculty hires. “McKenna is an amazing mentor, cheerleader and supportive colleague. He's the kind of person that, after talking with him, you always feel good about yourself and your work.”

Antonio Espinoza Ruiz, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of History, agrees. “McKenna is extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, and at the same time kind and humble. He is always willing to share information and to connect people. McKenna is somebody who builds community, both locally and abroad.”

Though he is retiring, Brown is not settling down.

“Over the years, I have been involved with the Sacred Heart Center, a nonprofit organization that supports the local Latino community, but my involvement has been limited by my other commitments,” he said. “I’m excited to be more involved with the center and help expand their outreach to more effectively serve the growing numbers of migrants arriving from Indigenous communities in Latin America.”

Of course, Brown will miss VCU – the students, the classes, the faculty. But he’s excited for what’s next.

“Being at VCU has been like a long voyage by train. It’s constantly moving forward, and there is always a new landscape. But I’m ready to switch trains at this point,” Brown said. “I have no regrets.”