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NEA News

Meet the 2024 NEA Higher Educator of the Year

Alabama Education Association Susan Williams Brown is an exemplary educator and advocate for her colleagues and students.
susan williams brown
AEA President—and NEA Higher Educator of the Year—Susan Williams Brown with Big Al, the University of Alabama mascot.
Published: May 3, 2024

Alabama Education Association (AEA) President Susan Williams Brown recollects an effort by a state legislative task force  a few years ago to strip Alabama’s community college faculty of tenure and make it more difficult for educators. 

“They called for a vote on December 29,” she recalls, at a time with Williams Brown and her colleagues on the task force would be celebrating the holidays. But they should have known better. Williams Brown participated, of course. 

“I asked for them to table it, and the chair acted like he didn’t hear me. I asked for a roll call, and he just went on and called for an up-down vote. He says it passed and I knew it hadn’t—it was a 6-6 vote, and a tie vote is not approval under Robert’s Rules of Order. So, I asked for the minutes. And then I asked for a recording!”

In other words, she persisted in her defense of Alabama’s faculty. And, eventually, she won. The proposed changes were shelves and the plan postponed indefinitely. 

Persistence is a key theme in Williams Brown’s life. It’s something she learned from her daddy and teacher mother, growing up in northeast Alabama. Today, the message she got from them is the one she gives to her students and former students: “Never give up. I know the key to success is persistence,” she says. “And, if it doesn’t work out, if something doesn’t happen the way you want or hope it to be, I know there will be a new direction to take.”  

On Saturday, Williams Brown was honored as NEA Higher Educator of the Year by the NEA Board of Directors.  She was grateful and humbled, she said. “This recognition is not just a testament to my efforts, but a celebration of the collective dedication of educators across the nation, including my home state of Alabama, who tirelessly strive for excellence in education at all levels.”

“The Epitome of an Outstanding Higher Educator”

Before Williams Brown became a professor of math, she was a high-school math teacher and AEA building rep who took her math students from tiny Gaston High School in Etowah, Ala., all the way to victory at the county math tournament. “We proved you didn’t have to be from a big school to win!” she says. 

But she always wanted to pursue higher education for herself, inspired partly by a maternal uncle who was a professor at the University of Florida. 

Photo of Susan Williams Brown
Susan Williams Brown

“He told me, ‘You don’t have to know everything! You just have to know where to find it,” she recalls. 

In the mid-80s, Williams Brown earned a master’s degree in math education from Jacksonville State University; in 1988, she earned a doctorate in education from the University of Alabama, where she also worked as a graduate student teaching assistant, a graduate student research assistant, and then as an instructor of math. 

After teaching at Auburn University for a few years, Williams Brown was offered a job at Gadsden State Community College. She has taught there for nearly 34 years and has led various campus initiatives to improve the quality and accessibility of higher education for Gadsden’s students. 

Williams Brown has been a pioneer in online instruction, in particular, and led the college’s entire Division of Math and Engineering in transitioning to remote learning during the pandemic. 

Her leadership during the pandemic exemplifies Williams Brown’s commitment to students and educators, wrote Angela Waits, a division chair at Gadsden and AEA Post-Secondary Board member, in support of Williams Brown’s nomination as NEA Higher Educator of the Year. In that difficult time, Williams Brown made sure every student and every instructor had the tools they needed to be successful. 

“Her teaching philosophy is deeply rooted in creating an inclusive and engaging learning environment where every student feels valued and supported,” wrote Waits. “Dr. Brown is the epitome of an outstanding higher educator.”

A Voice for All Educators

For the entirety of her career, Williams Brown has been a leader in her local, state and national association, ensuring that AEA and NEA include faculty and staff in their efforts. Her goal has been to support students and educators, to advance higher education, and shape a brighter future for generations to come.  

Her advocacy on educator salaries is paying off. Just this week, new NEA research showed that Alabama ranks 29th in the nation for average faculty salary at community colleges, by far the highest among Southeast states. “We would not be at that level without our advocacy,” she notes. 

Alabama educators also probably wouldn’t still have a defined-pension plan if not for their advocacy, specifically Williams Brown’s. For 23-plus years, Williams Brown has served on the Alabama Teachers’ Retirement Board, ensuring all Alabama educators can have a secure and dignified retirement after their decades of service to students. She has become such an expert in the state’s defined-pension system that she frequently fields phone calls from baffled educators—and policy makers!   

She also is a tireless and diplomatic advocate in her statehouse and the U.S. Capitol, focused on developing relationships that lead to vital support and resources for educators and students. 

After 44 years with a teaching certificate and decades of teaching college math, it is not uncommon for Williams Brown to run into former students who are now teachers. “It’s rewarding when the students you taught become teachers and you can re-connect with them,” she says. But even more rewarding? “Being able to be their voice at the statehouse or here in Washington, D.C.”

“Never Give Up.”

Susan Williams Brown with Be a Champion Winnters
AEA President Susan Williams Brown with winners of AEA's Be a Champion and Read contest, on the campus of Auburn University.

On Saturday, Williams Brown told NEA Board of Directors members about a few of AEA’s higher-education initiatives. These include:

  • The “Be A Champion and Read Contest,” an AEA partnership with Auburn University and the University of Alabama that encourages K-6 students to read at least six tickets to win tickets to the Iron Bowl, the big football game between Auburn and Alabama. Last year’s contest garnered over 35,000 students reading more than 210,000 books.
  • AEA’s partnership with Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University, during the Magic City Classic, the nation’s second-largest football classic for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). During the classic, AEA sponsors a hospitality tent and recruits and connects with Aspiring Educators, who number more than 7,000 in Alabama.
Susan Williams Brown at Magic City Classic
AEA President Susan Williams Brown with AEA members and supporters at the Magic City Classic.

Williams Brown also shared her gratitude with her NEA colleagues, telling them that her efforts to make things better have always been a collaborative endeavor with her NEA and AEA families—and her own family. 

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