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In public service, Irene Brown
practices what she preaches
February 15, 1999
Irene Q. Brown is rushing across campus for her last meeting of the week. A yellow and silver bag of Absolutely Divine Lemon Cookies bounces precariously on top of the pile in her arms as she picks up her already clipped pace.
The bag manages to stay put as she briskly climbs several flights of stairs inside the Student Union. When she reaches the fourth-floor conference room there's no time to catch her breath; the lunchtime session of the University Senate Executive Committee begins almost as soon as she takes her seat.
Brown carefully arranges the contents of her arms - her meeting survival kit, consisting of a black vinyl agenda, pad and pencil, and a sack lunch in the recycled cookie bag - on the table, while listening attentively to the speaker.
Among the topics discussed is the proposed move to an electronic-only version of the academic catalogue. Brown suggests they examine the issue from the perspective of both undergraduates and graduates: she wants to make sure everyone is included in the process.
The Senate Executive Committee is but one of the many university committees that Brown, who holds a joint appointment as professor of family studies and history, has sat on since joining the full-time faculty in 1978.
"Everyone wants her on their committee," says health services director Michael Kurland, also a Senate Executive Committee member. "When she sees a need for something to be fixed, she wants to do it. She doesn't seem to know the word no."
Brown insists she does have a threshold: "I do say no ... sometimes."
She's known for the boundless energy she brings to her service work. Yet Brown isn't an extroverted cheerleader. Rather, say colleagues, she is able to inspire people through her commitment to community service.
"She always brings the same perspective of caring about issues that will humanize things rather than bureaucratize them," says Peter Halvorson, Senate Executive Committee chair, who has served on various committees with Brown during the past 20 years. "People look to her for that perspective," adds the professor of geography. "It's what makes her contributions so important."
Diane Wright also has worked closely with Brown. Wright heads the Center for Community Outreach, established five years ago to coordinate placements for students and faculty at community service agencies.
The two women were active on the University's Service-Learning Council, which Brown co-chaired from 1994-1996. "Her ability to network and pull people in is remarkable," says Wright. "I don't know where she finds the time."
Brown isn't sure either. It's a juggling act a bit like keeping the cookie bag from falling. But somehow she manages it all: teaching, research and service - the three pillars of UConn's mission as a land grant university.
She is active on numerous committees and councils, including the UConn Honors Program, the Connecticut Campus Compact, the American Association of University Professors (UConn chapter), the Judaic Studies Program, and the University Senate.
Over the years, promoting community service for UConn students and faculty has been a top priority for Brown. Now she would like to incorporate service-learning into the curriculum, a growing trend in higher education.
To that end Brown and a group of other members of the university community are preparing a proposal on service-learning to be submitted to the vice provost of undergraduate education and instruction, Susan Steele.
The program wouldn't be a requirement. Rather, says Brown, it would encourage faculty to adopt service- learning into their curriculum. "People are already doing it," she explains. "We want to encourage more of it."
One of Brown's goals is to help the university become of greater use to the larger community. In turn, she suggests, the research generated in the community could be linked back into the university, creating essentially a learning loop.
"Service-learning," she explains, "is not only learning by undergraduat es but it's also the research agenda by faculty that would lead to long-term integrated research projects with community institutions."
Brown uses the concept in her own classrooms. Recently some of her students transcribed 19th-century family letters archived in Waldo House, an historic home in Scotland, a town not far from Storrs.
"The experience benefited everyone," says Brown. "The students can do something of service and learn something at the same time." The letters were transcribed onto computer disks, which were given to the historical society.
"She's a model for other faculty interested in incorporating service learning into their classes," says Wright.
The driving force behind Brown's commitment to the idea of service isn't altruism. "It's interaction," she says. "When I do voluntary work I feel connected with people ... I feel rooted."
And that's important for Brown. Before she and her husband, history professor Richard Brown, came to the Storrs area in 1971, she had lived a fairly peripatetic life. Born and raised in southwestern Germany, she immigrated with her family to Southern California in 1953. Her experiences during and after the second world war, she says, profoundly affected her. "My life was shaped by my post-war experience and immigration."
During World War II the lights of neutral Switzerland glittered just across Lake Constance from where Brown lived. The lights loomed so near but were a universe away from the war and the ensuing French Occupation of her town.
The hatred that, she says, she observed between the French and the Germans during the occupation of her town motivated her to study French history. "I wanted to better understand the hate," she explains.
Brown was a teenager when she entered a large, public high school in the post-war '50s era of American boosterism. It was there she recalls sampling her first taste of democracy.
In high school she became a leader in student government. She also participated in a number of extra-curricular activities, including the biology club, of which she became first female president.
"Dewey's idea that high schools are a place where citizens learn democracy and citizenship was not my experience in Germany," she says.
"The committee work I do," she continues, "is a validation that I'm living in a community. We talk a lot about community but unless we do it, community doesn't exist. It's fiction."
This is the first article in a series on outstanding service and outreach.