University News

Exclusive: The Herald sits down with president-elect Christina Paxson

By
News Editor
Friday, March 2, 2012

Christina Paxson, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, was named the University’s 19th president Friday morning. After the announcement, she sat down with The Herald to talk about her plans for the future and thoughts about Brown.

 

The Herald: First question, why do you want to be president of Brown?

Christina Paxson: That’s a really terrific question. Brown is a remarkable university, and I discovered very early on that Brown’s values, its character and its spirit really resonate with my own values, so … the most important thing was that it seemed like, from my point of view, just a wonderful fit.

 

Was this something you realized before you before you became a candidate, or once you were more into the process?

Well, I knew a lot about Brown, a fair amount about Brown, before I started the process, but while I was involved in the process and I talked with the members of the Corporation, faculty, staff, students. It was a terrific committee, actually two search committees rolled into one. The distinctiveness of Brown and the specialness of Brown really came through. I think I learned as much about Brown from the committee as they learned about me, and it was a great experience.

 

You spent a lot of time at Princeton. Princeton is a great school, but different from Brown.

It is.

 

Brown has a unique curriculum, a distinctive student body personality. How do you think those differences would affect your presidency at Brown?

Well, one thing that really interests me about … academic leadership is the fun of really figuring out how an organization works and what its character is. Those are not things that you want to change, right? And you know, I loved my time at Princeton — great faculty, great students, great colleagues — but I find the Brown character and the characteristics of Brown students to be very appealing. So I’m really looking forward to moving into something new, and I don’t think people should be concerned that I’m trying to reinvent Brown in Princeton’s image. They’re both terrific institutions and very different, and that’s a good thing.

 

Obviously President Simmons has been a very big figure at Brown, very well-known nationally. What’s that like, coming in after her legacy?

I don’t know yet. No, seriously, I have so much respect for Ruth. She has just been a terrific leader … I think it’s an advantage to come into an institution after a strong leader because you come into a strong institution, and I’m counting on building on her success. I’m happy about it.

 

What do you think are some of the first steps you might take in the position?

Well, that’s a good question. What you have to remember is that academics has its own unique cycle. So when I start on July 1, it’ll be the summer. And in a way, that’s a good thing, because I will need some time to really get to know the senior staff with the students away, and start to … make plans for a number of things, kind of reviewing where we are on the Plan for Academic Enrichment and making plans for the 250th anniversary, you know a number of initiatives that I know are already going to be on the front burner. But having that time initially to consolidate, to get to know people, understand what their priorities are will be really important for me.

 

In terms of specific plans, do you have any idea what kinds of priorities you might be outlining?

You know, I can tell you now what kinds of things I find really interesting and important, but in a broad-brush sense. … The way things work in academics is that leaders have to work in groups, they work in teams, you’re surrounded by smart, energetic, entrepreneurial people who have great ideas and so, while I have things I’m very interested in — I’m interested in international issues, I’m interested in health issues, I’m interested in building very strong interdisciplinary programs that span the humanities and social sciences and sciences — … I think the specifics I am going to have to work out with the people here. And that means spending a lot of time learning, talking.  It’s a collaboration.

 

What kinds of plans or ideas do you have regarding the negotiations (between Brown and the city of Providence)?

Right now, Ruth Simmons and members of the Corporation are very deeply engaged in discussions with the city. They sound like they’re moving in a good direction, I think that’s terrific. It’s so unclear about where things will be as of July 1 that I can’t really comment about what will happen after I assume the position of president.

 

Are there any Princeton programs or policies you’d like to experiment with at Brown?

No, let’s go back to something we discussed a few minutes ago, which is, you know, the broad plans, what I aspire Brown to be, which is a tremendous world-class institution that has the best educational program around for undergraduates and supports world-class research. That’s where I want to be. That’s my major priority for Brown and to do those things while maintaining Brown’s very descriptive feeling and set of values. While I was at Princeton, I developed a large number of specific programs, but are they right for Brown? I don’t know. What develops here has to come from here and importing things from elsewhere is usually not a very good idea.

 

Do you think you’ll work within the Plan for Academic Enrichment, a cornerstone of President Simmons’ term, or do you think you’ll start afresh?

I think the PAE was a great success. It is now in Phase 2, I believe, and I think with a new president coming in, it’s a wonderful opportunity to sit down and take stock, okay, which goals have we accomplished, and I think many of the goals in the Plan are there and then start to think about what comes next. It’s an opportunity for reshaping or at least investigating if reshaping is needed. I expect that will be something I focus on my first year.

 

The Plan for Academic Enrichment: the Sequel?

Maybe a different name, I don’t know. 

 

Would it be a derivation on the existing document or something new?

I think it would be really hard for me to say, because, you know, it may be that going through this we find out that there are areas where the University still has a lot to accomplish in the old plan, and that we want to focus on that. It may be that we decide, collectively, that there are new areas we want to focus attention, and we will find out. It will be interesting.

 

Do you think there’ll be a change in senior administration?

It’s way too early for me to say that. I very much like and respect the people I’ve met so far, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.

 

Given your background in economics, do you have any ideas on how to tackle the discussion about the endowment size and tuition dependence?

Fortunately, Brown completed a very successful capital campaign, we have the 250th (anniversary) coming up and I expect that there’s another capital campaign in the future. It’s very important to keep Brown, maintain Brown’s financial strength, and that’s one of the most important jobs of the President. So, I am looking forward to doing that.

 

One thing that’s been talked about is worries that rising tuition could squeeze out middle-class students who might find more attractive packages at schools like Princeton that have gone loan-free. Is that something you plan to address somehow?

I would love to be able to go loan-free, I would love to be able to increase support for international students, and I realize — anybody who’s in this business realizes — that tuition burden, even with very generous financial aid, is high, and it’s high well up into the upper middle class. So it’s a major concern of, I think, all university administrators.

 

How do you think your health care work would influence your approach to the Alpert Medical School and the public health program here?

Well, I think it’s a very exciting time for health and health care. And I’ve been in an institution that does not have a medical school or a school of public health, and I built the health program there even despite the absence of those two types of schools. So I’m excited to be at an institution that has both of those programs, and I do think that Rhode Island is an interesting place. The health care system is interesting. We’re in for a very interesting period with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about how that will play out. But it’s exciting that Brown will be able to be a part of that in the next two to five to 10 years.

 

How do you think the status of Brown’s university-college model fits into higher education today?

Well, I like the university-college model. Remember I went to a small liberal arts college for college, and I really feel very strongly that undergraduate education is important and that contact with faculty is important, that the opportunities for undergraduates to be involved in research is important. So those are great. I also know that, or believe, that research being conducted by the faculty can, if done correctly, enhance the value of undergraduate education, and one of the … goals of Brown is to become, or continue to grow as, a first-class research institution while maintaining that very distinctive undergraduate character. So the university-college model — I think it’s important to keep that as part of what Brown aspires to do.

 

What kind of role do you think Brown will play with Providence in your term?

I have to get to know the city of Providence, but I can tell you that one thing I really enjoy doing at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton is helping to make the university accessible to the community, so that people who live around it understand its value. They can come to events, they can come to lectures, they can be engaged and also getting students and faculty involved in programs that are valuable for them educationally, but also have a positive impact on the region. So I find it very attractive. It’s very attractive to me to be at a university that is so closely connected to a city because the opportunities for doing that are even greater.

 

 

Fun facts about Paxson

 

Favorite book?

Let’s see. I have to confess, it’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

 

Academic, or otherwise, role models?

So I would have to say some very strong women in academics. I would put my great aunt Carol first, who was a PhD in economics, and people at Princeton who I really admired a lot are Nan Keohane, and Shirley Tilghman, just really terrific people.

 

Favorite Brown alum?

Look, I have to say my brother (William Paxson ’75). How could I say anything else for favorite Brown alum? 

 

Favorite news publication?

Well, I read the New York Times every morning.