News

UNC Charlotte Professor of Special Education Receives UNC Board of Governors Highest Faculty Honor

April 8, 2011

CHAPEL HILL – Diane M. Browder, Lake and Edward J. Snyder, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, received the O. Max Gardner Award today (Friday, April 8) from the Board of Governors of the multi-campus University of North Carolina. Recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on academic instruction and assessment methods for severely disabled children, Browder’s work is fundamentally changing educational expectations for disabled children and impacting educational policies and practices at the local, state, and national levels. 

The awards, given annually since 1949, were established by the will of Gov. Oliver Max Gardner to recognize faculty who have “made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race.” It is the only award for which all faculty members of the 17 UNC campuses are eligible. Recipients are nominated by their chancellors and selected by the Board of Governors. The 2011 award carries a $20,000 cash prize and was presented by Board of Governors Chairman Hannah Gage and Gardner Award Committee Chairman John Blackburn of Linville.

A member of the UNC Charlotte faculty since 1998, Browder’s interest in working with children with special needs began at Duke University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology in 1975.  She then earned master’s and doctoral degrees in special education from the University of Virginia before joining the faculty of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania in 1981. During her 17-year tenure at Lehigh, Browder focused on creating new and innovative services for children and adults with severe developmental disabilities. She helped the university-based Centennial School found a program for children with autism spectrum disorder and later received federal funding to demonstrate how to serve such students in inclusive schools, created one of the first community-based adult services for individuals with profound disabilities, served as coordinator of the teacher-preparation program in special education, and founded Lehigh’s doctoral program in special education.

Since being recruited to UNCC, Browder has helped dispel the long-held belief that children with severe disabilities could not learn cognitive or academic skills. Her research has shown that such expectations set the bar far too low and demonstrated that these students can and do learn academic skills when provided appropriate structure and opportunity. She has developed and scientifically tested standards-based curricula in reading, math, and science for severely disabled children and designed alternative assessment systems to gauge their learning gains. As a result, disabled students, who had previously been excluded from state testing programs because no one could figure out how to assess them, are now included in standardized assessments specifically modified according to Browder’s research and recommendations. She also led the development of UNCC’s doctoral program in special education and continues to serve as the program coordinator.

Browder’s Early Learning Skills Builder, a specialized reading program for severely disabled students, has been implemented in over 800 schools systems and 3,000 schools nationwide and is helping more than 20,000 disabled students learn to read. These materials also have been translated and incorporated into special education classrooms in Egypt and the Ukraine. Twenty-seven states have adopted her assessment system.

A policy expert who has had significant impact on other professionals in the field of special education, she has served on numerous national panels and workgroups, including the U.S. Secretary of Education’s National Technical Advisory Committee, the National Center for Education Outcomes technical work group, and the Advisory Committee on Testing and Accountability for Students with Disabilities. She also has served as president of the Research Division of the Council for Exceptional Children.

The author of more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and books, Browder has generated more than $12 million of competitive research funding and presented at scores of conferences both nationally and internationally. Over the course of her career, she has received numerous awards and accolades for the impact of her work on special education students, their teachers, and special education research. Her many academic and professional honors include Lehigh University’s Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Junior Member of the Faculty, the American Association on Mental Retardation’s national Presidential Award and NC Service Award, the American Education Research Association’s Special Education SIG Distinguished Research Award, and UNC Charlotte’s First Citizen’s Scholar Award.

Associate Professor Michael Green, chair of the UNCC committee that nominated Browder for this year’s Gardner Award, said of his colleague: “By all accounts, the most disadvantaged among us are not the minorities, nor the poor, nor the aged, nor the immigrants. They are the disabled. And their lives have historically been marginalized by meager school instruction that emphasized custodial care, by minimal incorporation into labor markets, and by very limited social accommodation afforded those who live in a shadow world. Dr. Diane Browder has done more to impact the quality of education and the quality of life for severely disabled children than any other individual in the past half century. She has changed the professional landscape of special education; she has raised the educational expectations for disabled students; and she has dramatically improved the quality of life for these students, their teachers, and their families.”