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Al Brown Set to Become UC's First African-American PhD Recipient in Philosophy

Al Brown, for 27 years a police officer in Cincinnati and currently the executive director of the Mallory Center for Community Development, will reach a long-standing goal on June 13, when he receives his PhD in Philosophy at UC's Doctoral Hooding and Master's Recognition ceremony.

Date: 6/9/2008
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Lisa Ventre
Al Brown has traveled a long road to the distinction he will earn during UCís June All University Commencement ceremonies: the first African-American to receive a PhD from UCís Department of Philosophy.

It has been 22 years since he first started his graduate studies at UC, which will culminate in his receiving his doctorate during the Doctoral Hooding and Masterís Recognition Ceremony at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, June 13. It was an even longer journey back to his first inclinations that philosophy was going to be a field of interest for him.

Al Brown
Al Brown

Brown enlisted in the Navy in 1962, in part to get away from troubled circumstances his friends as a teenager where starting to engage in. He recalls vividly being in a bookstore at the Great Lakes Naval Base and seeing a pair of books whose titles intrigued him enough to purchase them Ė "Psychology Made Simple" and "Philosophy Made Simple."

He says now, "If you had told me that day that one day I would be teaching one of those subjects, I would have told you that you were crazy. That was far beyond my wildest imagination. I would have settled for just understanding it. I knew that they were powerful subjects, but I just didnít know what they were."

Today, he knows about philosophy at the highest levels. He also has a rich assortment of real-world experience to back up his learning.

His path to his PhD was so long because Brown was engaged in many other things: 27 years as a Cincinnati Police Officer, and then executive director of the Mallory Center for Community Development in Millvale, a position he still serves in today. (He gained wide acclaim in the Cincinnati community for pioneering the Computer COP program, which is an arm of community-oriented policing that gives access to the local population to computer training by pairing them with police officers as instructors).

Along the way, he also taught courses at UC, survived a heart attack and opened a pizzeria in Walnut Hills.

Often times, he would try and juggle three endeavors at a time, each of which on their own could be a full-time matter: teaching, pursuing his graduate work and working.

"I was always just running out of time," Brown says. "I remember a number of years ago having a student that I taught at UC who was working at a social service agency, and she was working on her dissertation. She said to me that she was quitting (the agency) that week, because you just canít do both things at the same time. I havenít seen her in a while, so she probably got her degree well before I did," he laughs.

Brown earned a bachelorís degree from Xavier University in Psychology in 1974, then added a Masterís in corrections from Xavier in 1982. After starting his graduate work in Philosophy at UC in 1986, he had wrapped up nearly all his coursework by 1990. But finding the time to research and write, while also still working on the police force and, by that time, leading the Mallory Center, proved to be too much.

He retired from the Cincinnati Police Department in 2001, which freed up enough time that he could spend several hours a day working on his dissertation. A change in the faculty created one more hurdle, as he went from having Ted Morris as his faculty advisor to Larry Jost. Since Jost had different interests, that led to an adjustment in the material that Brown would be drawing from for his work.

Al Brown
Al Brown at the entrance to McMicken Hall

Eventually, he settled on the topic of particularism, as it related to the topic of criminal sentencing and could be related to his law enforcement experience. Brown applied an Aristotelian approach to the subject, looking in particular at the concept of mandatory sentencing guidelines.

"I wanted to take a concept presented by Aristotle 2000 years ago and show that his concept provides a better solution to the issue of mandatory sentencing than what we are using today," Brown says.

"What he primarily was saying was that laws are written in universal terms and are never designed to be very specific, so that you charge someone based on the universality of the law. But in order to sentence someone, you have to deal with the spirit of the law. To deal with the spirit of the law, you have to consider the particulars of the case. But how can that come about, if you've created a situation where the judges have no discretionary powers?"

Obviously, mandatory sentencing guidelines work in the opposite direction that Brown was looking at, by stipulating strong punishment no matter the circumstances of the case. Working as a police officer and with an underprivileged population at the Mallory Center, Brown has developed a strong sense that circumstances are important in understanding the full picture of what someone did and what direction they may be headed.

"I had been working in Psychology," says Brown, "but I found what I was really interested in was the theories behind that kind of thought, and you need to turn to Philosophy to get that. But what I really wanted to do was deal with the human aspect of things. If I could take what I was learning and relate it to the human aspect and help someone else, that was my goal. That is, to take the theories and put them into practice."

Now at age 63, Brown has reached the end point of his education. Among those expected to celebrate the occasion at Hooding with Brown is former Ohio House majority leader Rep. William L. Mallory, for whom the Mallory Center is named.

Brown plans to continue leading the Mallory Center, but hopes to combine it with more teaching.

"One of the great things about completing (this degree)," says Brown, "comes when youíre telling kids you work with that they have to get their education, and now youíre setting a positive example. Another thing is that I had a scholarship, and you can not waste a scholarship Ė to me, it would be immoral not to have completed my work. What kept me going at the end was the thought that I had sat all those days in class and written those 20-page term papers for each class. I needed to get this done."

Brown still is finding at the end of his educational odyssey that the curiosity that drew him to those introductory books back in 1962 still motivates him.

"This is almost like something that has been going on in my heart and mind since I was 17," says Brown. "Itís almost like a hobby Ė this is what I like to do."

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