It’s a body of work that highlights a dynamic life that never became saddled as “just a professor” or “just a researcher.” Instead it exposes a more complicated and subversive figure -- the likes of which is not often found in higher education in the face of budget cuts, unsure tenure, administrative retribution and a fear of doing anything beyond the status quo for fear of losing one’s position.
Brown defied these constraints, whether real or perceived, and each case shows homage to the breathtaking amount of work he accomplished in four decades.
This includes focusing on Brown’s activities in the areas of teaching German studies: a quarter-century of directing study abroad programs in Germany; four decades of research and publications on the German author Oskar Panizza; anti-nuclear activities during the 1970s; editing over 120 books since 1985 on modern German literature, women’s studies and German Jewish history; various Humanizing Humanities projects since 1998; union work for UUP and advocacy for part-time and contingent faculty during the past decade.
While the scope of the work is astounding, Brown par contre is quiet and unassuming saying that the reason he was compelled to put this exhibition together was “yes, to reflect on what I’ve done throughout my career” as he is retiring this spring.
“But most importantly to show students and particularly younger colleagues that in addition to teaching and researching they can also take oppositional stances they believe strongly in, challenge the administration, the government, the president whomever,” he said. “It’s okay to take unpopular positions. I did and I survived.”
To that end, he points to a case that displayed his deep commitment and “no nuke” activism in the 1970s when there were four nuclear power plants being proposed just six miles from campus.
After educating himself on the pros and cons of nuclear power, he came out as a strong opponent to nuclear power, particularly here in the Hudson Valley and such a short distance from SUNY New Paltz where they were slated to be built in the Town of Lloyd.
He, along with others, organized a Mid-Hudson Nuclear Opponents organization that had 2,500 dues-paying members and were able to raise money to help put the proposition of a nuclear power plant in Lloyd on the ballot. It was defeated by a 71 percent majority, as it was in other neighboring towns where plants were being proposed.
That same group rallied even harder when Con Edison proposed to build four plants in the Town of Red Hook. They organized a lawsuit that was supported by their congressman and worked to raise funds by hosting a “no nuke” concert in Madison Square Garden with the help of John Hall, Tom Petty, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springstein and a dozen other rock figures.
On the scholarship side, Brown focused on the controversial German playwright, Oskar Panizza, who was jailed for a year on 93 counts of blasphemy for his play “The Love Council,” which was a satire on the history of syphilis dating back to the 15th century.
It included heaven, hell, the Vatican, same-sex encounters and basically asserted that syphilis was a virus concocted by the gods as punishment for human behavior.
“My parents first told me this story as they had seen the play while living in Paris and asked me if I’d heard of the author,” recalled Brown, who spent childhood across the seas as his father was a member of the Foreign Service. “I hadn’t. When I looked into it more, I found it fascinating. He suffered more than any other artist in Germany at the time and in my mind was a champion of free speech, someone who challenged authority and did not run from the consequences as he easily could have.”
Brown’s passion for the author, the play and the drama surrounding the author, led him to research and publish two books: “Oskar Panizza -- His Life and Works,” as well as “Oskar Panizza and The Love Council,” published in 2010 with intricate illustrations.
As for his love of Germanic studies, Brown explains that he was raised overseas and began his education in Holland, where he was enrolled in an elementary school in the Hague from kindergarten age to second grade.
“I spoke Dutch better than English at the time,” he said.
His family then moved to Germany where he was enrolled in a prestigious gymnasium, a rigorous educational program for ages 9 through 18, which he completed and to his knowledge, was the first U.S. citizen to go through and successfully complete a German gymnasium.
He then enrolled at Columbia wanting to major in English studies, but found that his German was much more fluent than his colleagues and his professors and thought it might make more sense to enroll as a German major.
“I wanted to be an artist, a writer, a musician, but my path took me where it did and what can one do with a doctorate in German studies other than become a professor in German studies?” he said with a smile.
He was a kid that “loved to read” always. I hope I’ve been able to impart my love of literature to students,” he said.
He is not a “Germanophile,” he’s quick to point out.
“I have no German ancestors, my ancestors are Lithuanian, Polish, Irish -- many of whom were killed in the Holocaust -- so while I appreciate so much about German literature, culture and history, I’m also extremely critical of their darker periods in history and find it interesting how this current generation is attempting to face those dark periods, confront it, pay retributions and also, not get involved in adventurous wars as part of foreign policy, but only as a last resort.”
Although he is retiring, Brown will still remain an active member of the UUP, where he is currently vice president for academics and is actively running for president of the local union chapter.
“We’re at a critical moment right now with the administration poised to announce its budget reduction plan and the UUP has advocated strongly that they not make any cuts to programs and personnel.”
Brown also founded a nation-wide organization that supports equal pay for equal work for all adjunct faculty and new faculty members.
“They make up two-thirds of our faculty and yet are paid a pittance for what they do, a non-livable wage,” he said. “And then they’re afraid to say or do anything that could jeopardize job security, which is unacceptable.”
Brown has and continues to lead a fascinating life, one full of academic and civil service and there are many lessons and inspirations to be drawn from his body of work now on display at the Sojourner Truth Library.
The public is invited to a gallery talk with Brown at the Sojourner Truth Library foyer on Wednesday, April 27, at 4:30 p.m., followed by a reception.