Brown was born on a farm in northern Ohio in 1847. He started teaching school as a teenager, and taking an interest in pedagogy, enrolled at the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio, with the intention of becoming an educator. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and then taught at Northwestern Normal in Ohio where he also earned a Bachelor of Arts in Classics. Desiring to open his own school, Brown came to Valparaiso in 1873 to look over the dilapidated and defunct Methodist college, and sensing the possibilities, persuaded his friends and fellow young teachers, Samantha “Mantie” Baldwin, B.F. Perrine and Martin Bogarte to follow him. Brown opened the Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute in the fall on 1873 with 35 students. Brown aggressively marketed the school as a populist, low-cost, “no-frills” institution. Within one year, enrollment shot up to 300 and the Valparaiso city council and Porter county government donated money to build up the campus. By 1875, enrollment was at 900 students, making Northern Indiana
Normal School the largest of its kind in the nation. The school was originally organized into three departments: preparatory, teaching, and business. By the late 1870s, Brown added additional programs, including a law school.
Believing that God ordained the virtues of thrift and sobriety, Brown cultivated an ethos of hard work and discipline on campus. Classes began at 6:45a.m., chapel was at 8:30a.m., formal dress was required of all students, no matter how poor, and students could be instantly dismissed for gambling, visiting a saloon, or even for unexcused absences. As his school became increasingly successful, Brown himself became more prominent in the Valparaiso community; in 1886 he married Geneva Axe, who came from a wealthy local family, and became an elder of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
In 1900, with an enrollment of 2,500 students, Brown rechartered the Northern Indiana Normal School as Valparaiso College, and then in 1907 as Valparaiso University. The University continued to expand, adding medical and dental school programs in Chicago. By 1910 Valparaiso University was one of the largest American universities, second in size only to Harvard, which earned it the popular description “The Poor Man’s Harvard.” During his long presidency, Brown achieved remarkable success in providing educational opportunities to poor but ambitious young Americans. In 1912, Brown suffered a stroke while in Boston that rendered him unable to govern the University. Though he retained the title of president, Brown’s leadership duties passed to O.P. Kinsey. Henry Baker Brown died on September 16, 1917.