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For this child of the Sixties, ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ became a serious inquiry

Jane Brown, 2011 Massey Award winner
Jane Brown, 2011 Massey Award winner

When Jane Brown left the family dairy farm for the University of Kentucky, something she once thought unimaginable happened: She came to believe she could change the world.

A real metamorphosis was going on inside her.

It was the Sixties, after all, and the former country girl became an anti-war activist and a “second-wave feminist” (the first wave were the Suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote) and hung out with other students in the movement who “didn’t worry much about what our future jobs were going to be.”

“We saw the university as part of the military-industrial complex,” Brown said, and twice during her undergraduate years the students boycotted classes in protest.

Brown joined a group of radicals who formed “Free U,” an alternative university – with a double meaning of personal liberation, where students taught themselves.

She grew up in Rising Sun, Md., a bucolic area settled by the Quakers in 1702. “I say I went to the University of Kentucky because it was the only new college catalogue my high school counselor had,” Brown said.

But the real reason was that she could major in journalism and science – both early passions that Brown, James L. Knight Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a fellow in the Carolina Population Center, eventually fused into a successful career.

For more than 30 years, she has conducted leading research on how the power and scope of media affect – often negatively – the sexual attitudes and behavior of adolescents.

Looking back on the young rebel she once was, Brown sees that she discovered purpose while looking for a new identity and a community to belong to. “It turned out to be fun, too.”

She has never stopped believing in the power of community, or that it is possible to change the world, or at least part of it, a little at a time. During her 34 years at Carolina, Brown has put those beliefs into action as a generous teacher, renowned scholar and selfless mentor.

Because of her many contributions, Brown was recognized with a 2011 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award on the cusp of a phased retirement that begins this summer.

Finding your bliss
She still remembers the day when former dean Jack Adams hired her as “a wet-behind-the-ears 27-year-old,” and a male faculty member gave her a camellia corsage during her job interview.

“The feminist in me was not happy about that, but the country girl was delighted,” she said.

Despite the warm welcome from male colleagues, Brown felt something missing – female colleagues. In 1977, there were only two other women on the journalism faculty, and Brown had to look outward to find the familiar camaraderie and companionship of other feminists.

That search led her to join the Association for Women Faculty (now the Association for Women Faculty and Professionals) and the Faculty Council’s Committee on the Status of Women.

It was James Peacock, a colleague on Faculty Council and a former chair himself, who suggested to Brown that she would make a good chair. With his encouragement and that of others, she ended up serving as chair from 1994 to 1997 – something she finds deliciously ironic.

At Kentucky, while editor of the student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, Brown covered the Faculty Council meeting in which members debated whether to join the students in their anti-war boycott.

“It was so dull, so confusing and so never getting to the point,” Brown said. “Journalists have to say, ‘I know enough to write right now,’ and I didn’t have enough self-confidence to feel I knew what they were talking about well enough to write a story. I found that very frustrating – and daunting.”

So as Carolina’s faculty chair, she said she tried to conduct meetings in a very different way.

After leaving that position, Brown served as director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ Academic Leadership Program and chaired the UNC Task Force on Future Promotion and Tenure Policies and Practices, the University Child Care Committee and the Faculty/Staff Development Campaign.

She organized a writing group that met weekly to provide feedback, advice and encouragement to assistant professors whose work had stalled – the kind of initiative that earned her a Faculty Mentoring Award from the Carolina Women’s Leadership Council.

Through the years, she has mentored doctoral and post-doctoral students in journalism, public health, education, sociology and psychology.

“I got to this wonderful place in my career where I had done everything I thought I would do individually and didn’t need any more lines on my vita,” Brown said. “That allowed me to be generous with my time and expertise, and it was a lot of fun.”

On her wall is an adage from folklorist Joseph Campbell: Follow your bliss.

“I think about that when I meet with people,” Brown said. “As I listen to them, I wait and watch for that point in the conversation when their face lights up – when they find their bliss. The only thing I have to do after that is to give them permission to follow it.”

Contradictions of youth persist
Brown has never lost her playful spirit or seriousness of purpose. Both are revealed in the video clip on her faculty Web page that begins, “I’m Jane Brown and I get to study sex, drugs and rock and roll.”

Then there is a short giggle, followed by a detailed explanation of all that entails. But as she talks, Brown’s face glows with a mirthful smile that underscores the “happy gene” family members insist she was born with.

She is the co-editor or co-author of five books on adolescents’ health and the media and author of more than 60 book chapters and articles.

She has served on the Institute of Medicine’s Board on Children, Youth and Families, and currently on the research advisory board of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

For the past five years, she joined with faculty from the School of Information and Library Science, Gillings School of Global Public Health and Department of Psychology to develop a program to award a graduate certificate in Interdisciplinary Health Communication. The program, Brown said, speaks to the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial thinking.

The thread that runs throughout her work is the quest to understand the issues she faced in her youth.

“My research comes totally from the challenges and conflicts and excitement of that time when my parents were still saying ‘Wait until you are married,’ and my feminist friends were saying, ‘You are never going to get married,’” Brown said.

“All these years later, young people still face the same contradictions and mixed messages about how and what they are supposed to be.”

Coming full circle
Brown’s mother was a liberal Democrat and former journalist who stayed home to raise Brown, her twin sister and older brother. It was not until she won the Massey this spring that Brown realized how much she was like her mother.

Her mother’s involvement as head of the PTA, secretary for the hospital auxiliary and a member of the League of Women Voters inspired Brown’s willingness to serve on so many University committees here. “It actually came to me when I got this award that she has been my role model, and that Carolina has become my town, just as Rising Sun had been for my mother.”

Although her parents once doubted it would ever happen, Brown eventually did get married, in 1987, to James Protzman, an alumnus of the journalism school and former Chapel Hill Town Council member. She has a 33-year-old stepson and a 21-year-old daughter.

It is because of Protzman’s good parenting of their son and daughter and his unwavering support of her, Brown said, that she has been able to have the career she has enjoyed so much.

Her mother died in 1972, but she said her 94-year-old father has only recently started to slow down. He was still riding his motorcycle at 90 and has just relinquished running the dairy farm to Brown’s twin sister, Judi.

In part, Brown wanted to begin phased retirement so she could return to Maryland and help out.

She remains part feminist, part country girl, and sees less need to reconcile the contradictions. Asked how her views on feminism have moderated over the years, she smiled and said, “I shave my legs in the summer.”

Originally published by University Gazette: May 11, 2011

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