University News

In Simmons’ wake, financial challenges loom

By
City & State Editor
Monday, March 5, 2012

Christina Paxson, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, will assume the University’s presidency following a 25-year tenure at Princeton, where she was known for the leadership she displayed in her overhaul of the school’s undergraduate program and for her high-profile research. Her impending presidency comes as the University looks to simultaneously expand its research profile and adhere to its university-college model, all while facing the realities of its funding constraints.

“Brown’s dedication to maintaining a terrific undergraduate program — first-class with a lot of dedication to undergraduates — while focusing on the creation of new knowledge is something very special and something that is very important to protect,” Paxson said in an address to the University community. Paxson told The Herald her primary priority will be to identify opportunities for the University to grow.

Paxson will succeed President Ruth Simmons, the historically popular University leader whom Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 described as “the standard against which others are judged.” Simmons’ presidency was marked by the Plan for Academic Enrichment, which outlined a road map for the University’s advancement through investments in financial aid and the University’s infrastructure.

The University has made a great deal of progress in the past decade under Simmons’ leadership, said Chung-I Tan P’95 P’03, chair of the Campus Advisory Committee and professor of physics. The transition period offers “a time to pause and assess what is the next step,” he added.

Paxson told The Herald she would examine the Plan for Academic Enrichment — both its accomplishments under Simmons and the goals it has yet to achieve — to determine the University’s next steps.

“What the Plan for Academic Enrichment has done is helped us build up capacity,” Schlissel said. “The challenge for the next president in the next decade is to figure out how to apply this capacity to (increase our) value to society.”

During her presidency, Paxson will be charged with the task of determining the best strategy for moving the University forward while bolstering its brand locally and internationally and expanding its financial power to fund its advancement, Simmons told The Herald.

 

‘A learning curve’

Paxson is currently seeking input to inform the vision she will bring to the presidency.

“She won’t be slow, but she does want to be careful that she knows enough to make decisions,” Simmons said.

“There is a learning curve for her to know the specific needs of Brown,” Tan said. In his address to the University Friday, Tan said the search committee focused on finding a candidate with a “clear vision, one that embraces the University’s core values and emphasizes the liberal education in a contemporary setting.”

Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior advisor to the president, said he would be surprised if Paxson already had a definitive plan. “I’m sure she has a lot of questions and probably some instincts,” he said. Spies announced last week his intention to step down from his University position at the end of the calendar year.

In an interview with The Herald, Paxson emphasized that she would not seek to recreate Princeton in Providence.

“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,” Paxson told The Herald. “What develops here has to come from here, and importing things from elsewhere is usually not a very good idea.”

Jared Crooks, a student in the masters in public affairs program at Princeton, lauded Paxson’s ability to connect with students and teachers to improve academic quality.

“Don’t expect anything radical, but if you’re talking about fundamentals and more efficiency, she’s the person for it,” he said. Many of Paxson’s colleagues at Princeton also praised her for her effective leadership.

“She just goes in there, and she’s very practical,” said Sara McLanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton.

 

Making changes

Though Paxson has much to learn, Tan said she already “understands the culture (and) the core values” of the University. “She certainly shares the basic value of the importance of undergraduate scholarship and teaching.”

Paxson told The Herald she aims to maintain the University’s distinctive university-college model, while focusing on the goal “to become, or continue to grow, as a first-class research institution while maintaining that very distinctive undergraduate character.”

Paxson founded the Center for Health and Wellbeing — an interdisciplinary research center focused on health — within the Woodrow Wilson School in 2000. She has been actively involved in conducting research through the National Institutes of Health and recently co-authored a study examining the mental health of Hurricane Katrina survivors.

Reconciling research objectives with the University’s mission of instructing undergraduates has been a decades-long challenge that Paxson will confront. Last year, Spies told The Herald that the University’s increased emphasis on research has raised concerns about negatively impacting the undergraduate experience.

A majority of the faculty said research is the most time-consuming aspect of their jobs, according to a poll The Herald conducted last October. In a 1976 curriculum report, former Professor of Political Science Erwin Hargrove wrote that the University’s movement away from the small, liberal arts college model placed stress on faculty as they worked to meet the demands of both undergraduate and graduate teaching and research, The Herald reported last November.

Paxson has already demonstrated the ability to reshape curricular engagement with research. As dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, Paxson drastically altered the undergraduate public and international affairs program, allowing open admissions and increasing the school’s emphasis on interdisciplinary studies and independent research. Many professors and students pointed to the changes as a testament to her effective leadership. McLanahan said her changes were met “with a minimum amount of angst.”

Stanley Katz, faculty chair of the school’s undergraduate program, said the reforms altered the character of the program. “I thought the (former) program was a traditional liberal arts program better suited to undergraduate education, and the new program was more pre-professional,” said Stanley Katz, professor at the school.

He said the reforms forced the students to focus on one discipline to meet the program’s rigorous standards at the expense of a multidisciplinary education.

“The basic problem was that the senior faculty weren’t teaching,” he said. “They were more interested in the graduate students and students in their own departments. They were insulted by the fact that the people taking their classes and their advisees were not well-trained enough, or at least so they thought, on the disciplinary end.”

But he said that overall “she put together a wonderful center” at the Woodrow Wilson School.

 

Finding a role

Paxson will face “huge financial pressures” as president of the University, Simmons said.

“We are still in discussions with the city about the fiscal challenges,” Simmons added, referring to the University’s ongoing discussions regarding increasing payments to the cash-strapped Providence. “She’s very keen to help.”

“I’m looking forward to building a strong relationship with the city and state,” Paxson said in her address to the University. “Brown, like all universit
ies, has a larger role to play, locally and globally.”

It is unclear how negotiations between the University and the city will proceed over the coming months, and Paxson told The Herald she could not comment on how she will tackle the relationship when she takes office in July.

 “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,” Paxson told The Herald, adding that she finds such a close relationship between a University and surrounding area “attractive.”

Paxson was largely responsible for building Princeton’s health program, though the university does not have any schools of public health or medicine. She told The Herald she is excited by the prospect of overseeing the Alpert School of Medicine and the University’s public health program and that she expects health care to become an increasingly important issue in light of national health care reform.

“I hope Brown can play a large role in health care in the region,” she said in her address to the University.

 

Dollars and sense

Paxson faces “a tremendous challenge on the fundraising side,” Simmons said, noting an issue that has been a major focus of her own administration.

“We can’t get enough revenue from tuition,” she said. “It’s too much of a burden for our families and our students,” she added, stressing the importance of accruing revenues. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, recently announced a 3.5 percent hike in tuition and fees.

Simmons stressed the importance of financial aid — another top priority during her presidency — to reduce this burden and “make sure that Brown continues to attract people irrespective of their financial circumstances.”

Paxson recognized the importance of access to financial aid to the University’s academic and social climate. “Brown celebrates the individual,” she said in her speech. “It creates a diverse community that enhances the education experience for everybody.”

Maintaining the University’s financial strength and ensuring that education is accessible for qualified students of all economic backgrounds are main concerns facing the president of any university, Paxson told The Herald.

Simmons also expressed concern about the recent political perception of higher education as a specifically “elitist” endeavor. “I hope she’s going to be a great spokesperson nationally in making known the significance of education,” she said. “She has so many of the qualities that a leader needs, and I think she’s going to be a great leader for Brown.”