This fall, Thomas Brown will step down as executive director for Physical Plant Management after 15 years in the position and about 30 as a member of the CSUN community.
“I love this place, it’s been awfully good to me,” Brown said. “But it’s a good time for me personally and professionally to move on. And it’s a good time for the university too.”
Physical Plant Management is the office that oversees all grounds and facility upkeep on campus. Their tasks include custodial and landscaping maintenance, as well as repair of mechanical systems, according to their website. The office also undertakes large-scale projects that improve the efficiency and quality of the university’s function, such as the CSUN Orange Grove and Pond Project.
Brown began his time at CSUN as an engineering transfer student in 1982. He vacillated between school and full-time engineering work, serving as an operating engineer in the Navy and as an account engineer for private firms. Brown, who describes himself as “not a patient person,” appreciated the different on-the-job experiences.
“I loved every job I’ve ever had,” Brown said.
His desire to finish his education brought him back to CSUN, both as a continuing student and an engineer. In 1995, having “slipped under the radar” according to Brown, he was named interim executive director of PPM, a title later made official. Over that time, Brown has also filled other roles, such as special assistant to the vice president after the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
“Tom provided excellent leadership, the best I’ve ever seen,” said Lynn Wiegers, engineering services director. “He was never afraid to make risky, career altering decisions.”
One such decision was the PPM Fuel Cell Project, completed in January of 2007. The construction is the world’s largest fuel cell plant at a university site, according to the Student Design Project “Uniting Technology and the Environment” report. The plant produces electrical power 50 percent more efficiently than a conventional utility power system.
“That was a process of analyzing the risk and opportunity and moving ahead to do the best job and get the most from our money,” Brown said.
PPM completed several projects that emphasized sustainability during Brown’s tenure, though Brown is quick to point out that functionality matters most.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a green-nik,” Brown said. “These projects are done because of a business perspective, from looking at the bottom line. Does it make sense because it’s efficient? We want to use our energy wisely. If you don’t need it, don’t use it.”
Projects such as the fuel cell and a photo-voltaic system in student parking areas were designed in conjunction with CSUN engineering students. Brown worked hand-in-hand with student design teams in developing and implementing innovative and effective ideas. In 1995 a student-lead team replaced analog clocks in Sierra Hall with digital versions, saving over $100 per clock. Today, students still measure how late to class they are by those clocks.
For Brown, melding his day-to-day responsibilities as director with his role as a mentor to students was one of the features that separated his position at CSUN from other industry work.
“Maintenance and facility operations come first, but we always wanted to support the academic goals of the institution,” Brown said. “When the opportunity arises, why not do both?”
When Brown steps down, Wiegers will take over as interim executive director. Maintaining the status quo is one of his goals, he said.
“Our desire, hope and intent is to continue the processes and successes from under Tom’s leadership so that nobody notices a difference,” Wiegers said.
Brown will be transitioning to a new position as vice president of a private engineering design firm run by a friend. He will keep an eye on CSUN as a volunteer to student design teams, consulting on future projects. Wiegers jokingly said that Brown will also be No. 1 on his speed dial in case of emergencies.
“I’ve been in this role longer than most in this field,” Brown said. “Lynn will bring different positive perspectives and approaches, enhancing the operation. That’s one of the advantages of new blood.”