Fairbrother brings wide-ranging experiences, desire for innovation as new Auburn University College of Education dean

Published: December 18, 2020
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Jeffrey Fairbrother, the new dean of Auburn University’s College of Education, has hit the ground running since beginning his tenure on Oct. 1.

The veteran educator succeeded Betty Lou Whitford—who recently retired after 10 years in the position—and has brought a wide range of experience and goals for the future with him to the Plains.

Fairbrother grew up in the coastal areas of Los Angeles County in California, living in Palos Verdes and San Pedro. Like many others in the area, Fairbrother’s father was involved in the burgeoning aerospace industry.

Working as an engineer at Hughes Aircraft, he was the project director for NASA’s first-ever soft landing on the moon.

“I actually made my first trip to Florida when we went there for a launch at Cape Canaveral,” Fairbrother recalled.

Growing up, Fairbrother joined his many friends and two brothers in activities that are closely linked to California’s coastal culture: skateboarding, mountain biking and surfing.

“Later, after my college graduation, I also got into open-ocean paddleboard racing,” he said. “My brother was on the race committee for the Catalina Classic, a well-known event that dates back to the mid-1950s. This is very different from the stand-up paddle boarding that is so popular now.

“The race is basically 32 miles of lying on your belly and paddling a long board with your hands. It cuts across open supertanker lanes in the rough, cold Pacific water. It was grueling but rewarding to finish it. I did it twice before realizing that was enough.”

High-mountain exploring was another adventure for the Fairbrothers. Their father grew up in a small town in western Colorado, and the boys returned every year for a few weeks of wilderness camping in the Rockies.

“Those, too, are great memories,” he said. “I came face-to-face with a bear and later had the unique experience of waking up inside our tent, at 9,000 feet altitude, to find a live skunk standing on my chest looking at me. That’s a story in itself, but suffice it to say that it worked out well for both me and the skunk.”

Fairbrother enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, following his high school graduation and spent the next decade in and out of classes as he worked in the hospitality industry.

“I washed dishes, bussed tables, served as a waiter and a cook and a bartender, about everything you could do in bars and restaurants,” he said. “I hadn’t really found my academic focus at that stage and enjoyed the different jobs and people. A few years later, I met my wife when we worked at the same bar in Hermosa Beach.”

Although he graduated with a degree in English, Fairbrother’s lifelong love of sports and adventure led to an interest in nutrition and fitness training. He earned his master’s in exercise science at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, while overseeing staff training for student employees in the campus recreation center.

“It was in that job that I first began to see that serving others is an important way to provide leadership,” he said. “It is close to what I later learned is called servant leadership. The idea of serving others and helping them be successful led me to the idea of leadership in my career.”

Alive with a love of motor learning and a desire to support the success of others, Fairbrother and his wife packed up the U-Haul and headed to Tallahassee, where he earned his doctorate at Florida State University. After three years on the faculty at Towson University in Maryland, Fairbrother joined the kinesiology faculty at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he rose to the rank of full professor and served in a number of administrative roles, including interim dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.

Fairbrother’s scholarly portfolio includes dozens of publications in premier journals, a book, several book chapters and invited papers, technical reports and professional publications. A distinguished scholar who has given more than 100 professional presentations, Fairbrother is also president-elect of the American Kinesiology Association.

While in Knoxville, Fairbrother led several initiatives to increase interdisciplinary research and engagement, strengthening the college’s academic partnerships with K-12 schools and broadening faculty teaching opportunities.

Fairbrother’s wide-ranging experiences across the country have made him uniquely qualified to lead the college in these challenging times.

Innovation, adaptability critical in a changing world

“We live in an increasingly complex society, but our college’s culture is focused and strong,” he said. “We emphasize that all of our graduates will in one way or another live a life of service to others, but how we serve in the world is changing. Thirty years ago, the average school teacher had been on the job for more than 10 years. Today, the average teacher has been on the job less than half that long.

“Our graduates might teach for a few years and then move on to something else. While we still want to serve those who will be career-long teachers and prepare them to be the best teachers they can be, it is also important that we give them the tools to adapt and be equally capable of serving in whatever capacity they find. We can help them thrive if we give them interdisciplinary opportunities.

“Teacher education students might do well to take a course or two in entrepreneurship, and business majors might be helped by taking education courses. Our graduates must be prepared to thrive under a myriad of circumstances.”

Fairbrother pointed out that a strength of the College of Education is its broad academic diversity. In addition to teacher education, graduates serve as counseling psychologists and counselor educators, mental health and health care professionals, higher education administrators, rehabilitation counselors and researchers and applied practitioners in kinesiology-related fields.

“As we send our graduates into the world in so many different professions, how do we help them succeed?” he said. “They all have in common that they will serve others, and we are very proud of that. But I want to see us prepare our students for the changes they will experience.

“You see exercise science graduates later earn degrees in higher education administration and become athletic directors. Technology will change how we provide counseling and rehabilitation services. Telecommunications will influence the future of health care delivery.”

While Fairbrother is still learning about Auburn, he knows he wants to develop a shared vision within the college, even as it prepares its graduates to be innovative and adapt to a rapidly changing world.

“When challenges arrive that require us to be innovative and be leaders, whether in outreach or research, let’s remember that the fundamental role of the university is to discover and share. Let’s translate our research and create intellectual properties so we can share ideas and discoveries to help others. I think we should consider new avenues for sharing what we produce.”

As the country moves toward a stronger awareness of the need for social justice, Fairbrother wants the college to ask how it can live its shared values every day.

“We want to advance society by improving people’s health and expanding educational and economic opportunities,” he said. “As we prepare our students to contribute to our changing world, we must be mindful that this requires all of us—at Auburn and beyond—to dedicate ourselves to providing increased access to health, educational and economic programs for all. The College of Education can and should be a major force in expanding those opportunities for others.”

Founded in 1915, the Auburn University College of Education enrolls 2,800 undergraduate and graduate students. Four academic units offer 60 degree options in teaching, special education, educational leadership, kinesiology, counseling, adult education, educational technology and educational psychology. The College is committed to diversity and inclusion and maintains a focus on outstanding teaching, consequential research and solution-oriented outreach in order to fulfill its mission of making a better world for all, including those most in need.