Professor faults Naval Academy on response to minority concerns

Q&A

December 28, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

Marlene C. Browne is the first black woman to be hired as a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, arriving at The Yard in 1978, two years after women were admitted to the brigade of midshipmen.

An associate professor in the English department, with a doctorate from Brown University, the Providence, R.I., native, who is 54, also directs the academy's Writing Center, which assists midshipmen one-on-one with writing assignments.

While at the academy, Dr. Browne has taught writing, fiction, Shakespeare, as well as world literature and American black literature.

She also chairs the Black Studies Committee, composed of black and white faculty and officers, which advises the superintendent on curriculum, outside speakers and the recruitment of minority faculty.

QUESTION: You came to the Naval Academy in 1978, when women midshipmen were still a new concept and minority faculty was almost nonexistent. What was the atmosphere like?

ANSWER: Most of the women were in the history and English and humanities departments. There were some military women in chemistry and engineering.

Periodically, a midshipman would tell me that life in the dorms wasn't so wonderful, that there were jokes. There were racial jokes going around. I think it was hard for the girls and for minority students.

Q: How have things changed?

A: Five or six years ago, a study on women was done at the academy. The result was that a lot of things changed.

I can remember having one female in a class. That's no longer the case. Whoever sets up the schedules no longer puts just one female in the class, because it's just too difficult for the young women.

There are avenues to deal with discrimination, but it's hard because it's the military, and the procedures are a little different from those in a civilian college.

Q: What more needs to be done in the area of racial discrimination?

A: For the last couple of years, faculty, staff and midshipmen have had to be involved in what are called "Total Quality Leadership" programs that, among other things, deal with issues of discrimination. At least for me, these meetings weren't very provocative. Somebody lectured at us.

What we should have done was put people in real-life situations and try to resolve the issues so we can see how complicated it is to deal with racial problems. We should make [the experience] more practical and real so that it's more relevant.

Q: How has the Black Studies Committee helped to deal with the issues of minorities at the Naval Academy?

A: Every year, we start with really terrific goals, to deal with social situations for minority midshipmen and try to deal with some of the issues. We never quite get there. I'm not very happy with the committee. We're not able to get much done.

Q: What would you like to accomplish that you're not accomplishing now?

A: For example, I've been wanting us for years to set up a roster of people we wanted to invite to come here and speak. I'd really like to get Toni Morrison here. I'd like our committee to have the authority to set that up.

Q: Are many black speakers invited to the Naval Academy?

A: Not that I know of. [Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman] Colin Powell was here last year.

Q: The academy said that two black speakers -- TV talk-show host Montel Williams, a 1980 academy graduate, and U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove -- will be here next semester to address midshipmen. Do you still think blacks and woman are under-represented?

A: Sure. I'm going to get in trouble, but yes, I do.

Q: Should the committee make a stronger push for more minority representation at the academy across the board?

A: We've tried in a number of ways. One of the issues we've been dealing with for a number of years is how to get more minority faculty.

Everybody thinks that you need minority faculty for minority students. But the majority of black kids here have seen black role models -- their mothers and fathers, professional people, doctors and lawyers, teachers.

You need minority faculty for white students, who probably function under lots of assumptions about black people. They need to be dispelled of assumptions. White students from Nebraska or Minnesota or Wisconsin have no notion. And they'll tell you this is the first time they've ever been in a community with any black students or any black people at all.

Q: Academy officials note that the number of minority faculty has increased about 75 percent since 1989, from 12 to 21 among the estimated 600-member civilian and military faculty. They say they are continuing to push for minority faculty. Do you think that's good progress? What grade would you give them?

A: We don't think they're doing very well. I'd probably give them a D.

The Black Studies Committee made some suggestions -- let us do some recruiting, give us some money, let committee members pick out five colleges and universities and talk to Ph.D. students.

Q: What's the response been?

A: No money. I'm talking about a day trip. Nobody's giving us any support to do this.

Q: How many courses are there now that deal with African-American issues?

A: We offer one in my department -- one course on black authors. There were 21 or 22 students. I think I had five white students; the rest were black. The political science and history departments each offer an African politics course. We need enough courses in English and history and political science so all of our students can take advantage of the subject.

Q: But academy officials stress that the school is geared toward the physical sciences, which are race-neutral. Even English majors must take numerous courses in engineering, physics and chemistry.

A: It is a science school, but they can offer more courses that deal with minority people. We're not just talking about black people.

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