Longtime HDFS Professor and Researcher Brian Vaughn reflects on 34 year career with the College of Human Sciences

Graham Brooks | Communications Editor

After more than 34 years of service to Auburn University in the College of Human Sciences, it’s safe to say Dr. Brian Vaughn left quite a lasting legacy in a career that featured a wide array of research and teaching interests, courses taught and lives positively impacted during his time spent as a professor in the department of Human Development and Family Science.

In January 2023, Vaughn decided to officially retire from a college that has seen quite a bit of changes, but more importantly, vast improvements since he arrived on campus in 1988.

“I was pleasantly surprised to find the college to be incredibly supportive of me and my work,” Vaughn said. “I’ve had an opportunity to help recruit some of the most productive faculty in the university and I’ve also been very fortunate to participate in the tremendous advancements made by Auburn University over the last three decades, and that gives me great pleasure. The size of the faculty hasn’t grown a great deal but the quality of the faculty has changed. Our faculty in terms of their ambition and accomplishment is nothing like it was when I first arrived on campus.”

With no ties to the Deep South or Auburn University, Vaughn said the only thing he knew about Auburn before arriving on campus in 1988 was that “they had a football team.” Vaughn initially noted he “couldn’t really imagine himself living and working in the southeast” but that all changed when then Human Development and Family Science Department Head and now retired Professor Emeritus Marilyn Bradbard personally recruited him to Auburn.

“Marilyn is the person who recruited me and she brought my nomination to the dean,” Vaughn said. “She was as smart a person as I’ve ever encountered, and politically extremely savvy. She said what she wanted to build with this program and she asked would I be willing to mentor and help serve? I said ‘Sure, this looks like an interesting prospect.’ When I was recruited there were no full-time professors in the department and the Ph.D. program had just been approved and had just accepted their first students the year that I arrived. They wanted a person with some national visibility which I had achieved because I had more than 10 years of research experience when I came here.”

When speaking of Vaughn, Bradbard said his prominence in research helped shape the future of the Human Development and Family Science department for years to come.

“When Brian came to Auburn it marked the beginning of a new era in HDFS,” Bradbard said. “With the approval of the new Ph.D. program, the department was also given approval to hire a preeminent scholar, with the aim of attaining national prominence in research and grant funding. Brian’s was not only instrumental in reaching those goals, he helped to shape the next several decades of the program by attracting and recruiting a cadre of scholars of his caliber, placing HDFS graduates at top universities across the nation, and developing international collaborations that took the department to a new level of prominence.”

Prior to Auburn, Vaughn’s educational background had taken him to universities across the U.S. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Arizona State University in 1971, a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Child Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1974 and 1979. His work at the University of Minnesota focused on early infant-parent attachment. He was recruited to the University of California, Los Angeles as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA in late 1979, where he studied the development of young children with handicaps and learned how to conduct research on behavioral regulation and its development from birth to five years of age. This work showed that in the infant years, the caregiver is the primary regulator of the child’s emotional and behavioral states. As that research revealed, the regulation of behavior turns out to be associated fairly consistently with early attachment relationships as well, so there is a logical connection between these two branches of his research.

With an impressive educational background, Vaughn spent the majority of the 1980s gaining national visibility through his research. In 1981 he moved to the University of Illinois at Chicago where he initiated developmental studies of young children with Down syndrome and initiated studies of preschool children’s social competence. While in Chicago, he served as assistant to associate professor in the Departments of Psychology, Pediatrics, and Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities.

Throughout his career, Vaughn’s research interests included social and personality development during infancy and childhood, the development of social competence, social organization and affect expression in young children's playgroups, atypical trajectories of social development, and socialization and environmental factors affecting the development and maintenance of children's attachments and peer relationships.

As Auburn University moved into the new millennium, the focus on research continued to grow as the higher administration continued to make commitments in research excellence, including the College of Human Sciences.

“Research became a much more integrated part of all graduate programs and became emphasized,” Vaughn said. “The progress was relatively slow but after 2000 there was a dramatic increase where we went from roughly $40 million to externally funded projects with half of that coming to the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station to today somewhere around $304 million of externally funded research. That was because the upper level administration refocused the faculty and the programs on research productivity. Auburn has become an outstanding regional university and we’re certainly far ahead in terms of our funding.”

In addition to his research contributions at Auburn, Vaughn taught several courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels including Child Development in the Family, Advanced Social Development, and Advanced Undergrad Seminar and Development in Infancy. In 1998, Vaughn became an endowed Human Development and Family Science professor within the College of Human Sciences in a position where he would serve until his retirement.

Summing up his time at Auburn and considering his top accomplishments, Vaughn pointed to changing the expectations of the university and his work on children’s attachments and peer relationships.

“The changes and the expectations of the university for high quality, meaningful research has been one of my favorite things to see,” Vaughn said. “We’re becoming a known research university as a result of that and that makes me feel really good and proud of the institution. Professionally, I worked with many, many different people and much of this work has resulted in scientific publications but I am probably most proud of the research focused on the importance of family relationships. I would say my favorite is the work integrating attachment in early childhood, peer social behavior in early childhood and the social structures in peer groups that arise from individual social behaviors. This work links two of the most important aspects of human development.”

Following his retirement from Auburn, Vaughn recently traveled to Lisbon, Portugal where he worked with a team on data collection and attachment research disorder, completing two new manuscripts. Although officially retired, Vaughn continues his research on children's behavior and social relationships.

For more information on the Human Development and Family Science department in the College of Human Sciences, visit humsci.auburn.edu/hdfs.