By Andrea Dawn Clark
In the midst of a pandemic and a transition to remote-learning, Brian Kerr, Ed.D., uprooted himself from a job he had for almost 17 years to join the John Jay College community as the Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs. “I’ve always known that John Jay was a leader in so many things,” says Kerr, commenting on why he made the career transition from Queensborough Community College to John Jay. “We’re really a world-renowned institution and senior college, and I truly believe in the mission of educating for justice. It’s something that I’ve believed in my whole life and I felt really connected to supporting it. The idea of justice has been intertwined in the work that I do and how I live my life for a very long time—not just because my dad was a cop, but because it’s in the framework of who I am. I’d say that justice is in the DNA of who I am as a person.” We sat down with Kerr to learn more about who he is and what he hopes to accomplish here at John Jay College.
What was life like growing up for you?I was born in Manhattan, lived in Brooklyn for about two years, then my parents got a little concerned about the neighborhood, and they moved us all the way out to the suburbs in Suffolk County. It was interesting because I grew up in an area where there were probably only two or three Black families. There just wasn’t a lot of diversity.
I grew up in a little hamlet on Long Island called Sound Beach. It’s right on the North Shore by the Long Island Sound and Rocky Point. When I moved out there, you could lay down in the middle of the road and a car might not pass by for half an hour. There were peach farms, potatoes, and lots of cornfields.
Sometimes there was heartbreak dealing with things like, who are you going to date if you’re the only Black person in school? I remember vividly having a white girlfriend and her basically saying to me, “I told my parents about you and I can’t date you anymore because you’re Black.”
Growing up in Sound Beach I think there was a quick understanding about the difference of races, and also recognizing that you could learn to get along with different people. I think that’s where my understanding and quest for justice started. I became invested in changing the unfair stereotypes that people had about others. I learned that we all are more similar to each other than different, and color doesn’t define everything.
What made you want to enter the higher education field?
When I was in college I was running a painting business with a friend of mine. It was actually very lucrative, but my parents were like, “We sent you to college and you’re painting?” I actually really liked what I was doing because it made people feel better about their houses, and I was always interested in helping people.
That first semester at college I thought about becoming a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I figured out quickly that the M.D. route wasn’t going to work when I got a C in general biology and general chemistry. Then I started thinking about different types of human services—my parents helped people because my dad was a State University of New York police detective and my mom was a social worker. So, I became a Sociology major with a minor in Psychology.
After I graduated, my father introduced me to the director of EOP [the Educational Opportunity Program] at Stony Brook University. When I started working there in a counselor position, many of the students were close in age to me. I didn’t have all the right criteria—I didn’t have a master’s degree—but the students loved me. They kept writing petitions saying, “You have to keep Brian. He understands us.” I was supposed to work from October to January, and in December there was a petition with over 300 signatures saying, “You can’t let him go.” The EOP director was like, “Look, you have to enroll in a master’s degree program.” That’s what I ended up doing and I kept that role for three and half years. Then I became an assistant director, one of the youngest in the state. After a while I felt like I was missing working with another population of students. The calling was really trying to get into the CUNY system to work more closely with students who I thought needed more help.
So far, what’s your experience been like at John Jay?
When the Fall 2020 semester started, and we had some students back on campus, some of the best stuff I did was just helping the students feel welcomed. During those first few weeks, Michael Sachs [Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students, Enrollment Management, and Student Affairs], Daniel Matos [Interim Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management] and I were walking along the 11th Avenue entrance just engaging with students. At times there were 150 people in line and it was 90 degrees outside. Michael, Danny, and I were handing out water and snacks, and there were all kinds of giveaways. Little things, like handing a student a bottle of water and some peanut butter crackers, can make such a big difference. You could feel the John Jay spirit. We were giving everyone a proud Bloodhound welcome and I was really happy to be part of it.
What are you hoping to accomplish in your time at John Jay?
In EMSA [Enrollment Management and Student Affairs] we have a really good team of people who truly care about our students and believe in our students. I see my role as being a cheerleader for the division. I see my role as being able to shepherd their progress and ensure that the President, and other senior leaders, are aware of all the good work that we’re doing. I’d also like to build on the College’s already successful student success and retention efforts.