University of Pittsburgh

alumni hall

Community Man

Written by Niki Kapsambelis



As the plane descends into Pittsburgh International Airport on a soggy night, a recent high school graduate peers through the window and sees a world of smoke and furnace-stoked flames. “It was rainy, it was dark, and all I could see was fire,” recalls Douglas Browning about that night, his freshman-year arrival in Pittsburgh. “I was wondering what I got myself into.”

“At the time, the steel mills were pretty active,” says the Chicago-bred Browning, who began his undergraduate years at Pitt in the late 1960s, when the city was an industrial powerhouse in the worldwide steel industry. The smoky-city reputation was evident as he traveled the 20 miles or so from the airport to the University’s campus in Oakland. Before long, he entered the Tower residence hall where he had shipped his belongings in advance. Unfortunately, nothing had arrived. His room was empty and quiet. He couldn’t even relax, because he couldn’t figure out how the slide-out bed worked.

Like many first-day freshmen, Browning was flustered by his new surroundings, so far from home. “I was wondering, ‘How do you sleep on something like that?’ and I was about two minutes away from going back to the airport and back to Illinois.”

Just then, the door to his room swung open, and his roommate burst in. “What are you doing here?” said the roommate. “Everyone’s over at the Commons for a party.” Browning followed his roommate out the door and soon became part of an active student community. He was a resident assistant in the Towers and an officer with the Black Action Society.

After earning a degree in political science from the School of Arts and Sciences in 1972, and working briefly as a management trainee at Procter & Gamble, Browning studied law at Hoftstra University and became an attorney, then accepted a position with the U.S. Customs Service’s Office of Regulations and Rulings. He intended to stay for a few years before joining a private firm. But what he didn’t count on was how much he would enjoy working for the government, where he rose steadily through the ranks, as a senior attorney, district director, and then assistant commissioner of the Office of International Affairs with the customs service. He also served for two years as deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In May 2005, Browning became senior vice president of global customs modernization and border security for Sandler & Travis Trade Advisory Services, where he helps governments and multinational businesses modernize their customs and security procedures. He also is affiliated with the Miami-based international law firm of Sandler, Travis, & Rosenberg.

At Pitt, Browning is scholarship chair for the African American Alumni Council, a role that connects him with fellow alumni and potential students and gives him opportunities to tout the virtues of a Pitt education. Among those who hear his pitches is his own daughter, Rachel, who is entering her senior year in high school. Another family member, too, already has found his way to Pitt.

A few years ago, Browning helped his nephew Justin Lovett move to campus. Even though Pittsburgh has moved far beyond its industrial past to become a leader in technology, education, and advanced health care, the bustle of students with their move-in carts brought him back to his undergraduate days.

“The thing I noticed was how diverse the student body is,” says Browning. “It was visible to me. I think that’s important. That’s part of what living in the real world is about. It teaches you a level of understanding that allows you to value those differences. … That’s the beauty of a campus like the University of Pittsburgh: You’re part of a bigger community.”