University News

‘People person’ leaves mark on Princeton

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News Editor, Science Editor and City & State Editor
Monday, March 5, 2012

Christina Paxson and her brother, William Paxson ’75, grew up near Pittsburgh.

From a Quaker upbringing to her selection as Brown’s president-elect, Christina Paxson has led a life marked by community involvement and strong leadership. She comes to Brown from Princeton with a reputation as a collaborator, an attentive listener and an efficient organizer. After graduating from Swarthmore College with an economics degree, she embarked on a career as an economist and landed at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In 2009, after 23 years of teaching, she became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School. That same year, she was one of two final candidates for Swarthmore’s presidency, said Rob Hollister, professor of economics at Swarthmore.

She was named the 19th president of Brown Friday.

Early influences 

It was the end of the baby boom era, so Forest Hills, Pa. — the Pittsburgh suburb where the Paxson family lived — always had several children running around the neighborhood. And always running behind her two older siblings was the youngest child, Christina.

“She decided at a young age that she wanted to do everything that we did,” said William Paxson ’75, Christina Paxson’s brother. “Whatever we were doing — running around the backyard — she was there, doing exactly the same thing, and it didn’t matter to her that she was two years old and not six years old.”

The Paxson family had been in Pennsylvania long before Christina’s birth in 1960 — the family had come to America to escape the Quaker persecution in England, journeying with Pennsylvania founder William Penn in 1682.

Though she is no longer a Quaker, Paxson said her upbringing — particularly the Quaker model of consensus decision-making — greatly shaped the person and administrator she is today. There were also several academics in the family, William Paxson said, which may have influenced his sister’s later career.

“The people in the family that we really looked up to — we looked up to them because of their ethical behavior, their academic pursuits, their professionalism,” William Paxson said. “That was sort of part of the fabric of the family.”

Studying at Swarthmore

After high school, Paxson enrolled at Swarthmore College, where her parents first met as students. In her freshman year, she met Ari Gabinet, whom she dated through college and married shortly after graduation.

Swarthmore was also where she collected fond academic memories, Paxson said. At the end of her freshman year, Paxson had to write a final paper on Saint Anselm’s proof of the existence of God.

“It was the first time I’d ever written a paper where I really — I don’t even know how to describe it — I really got into the material where I could really analyze it, really grasp it, really write about it in the right way,” Paxson said.

As an undergraduate, Paxson also produced student theater, a managerial role that would in some ways foreshadow her future career. She said she most enjoyed “getting together the sets and actors and directors and costumes.”

Swarthmore was where Paxson got her first taste of economics. Though she started freshman year as a pre-medical student, Paxson said she “stopped pretty quickly,” realizing chemistry was not one of her strengths. It was not until her junior year that she took her first economics course, but when she did, she said she “fell in love.”

“The goal of economics, the way I see it, is to develop a strategy for improving human welfare,” Paxson said. “That combination of logic with a purpose seemed perfect for me.”

“She went at it with amazing purpose, basically doing an entire honors major in economics in two years and graduating with high honors,” wrote Stephen O’Connell, professor of economics at Swarthmore, in an email to The Herald. Though O’Connell was not yet at Swarthmore when Paxson was an undergraduate, he has known her throughout her professional career, he wrote.

Professor Paxson 

Paxson first started at Princeton as an economics lecturer in 1986 while pursuing her PhD at Columbia. As a professor of economics, Paxson participated in collaborative research with fellow faculty members, working on several papers with Angus Deaton, professor of economics and international affairs.

“Neither of us started out knowing very much about development economics, so we learned together as we worked,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. Deaton wrote that Paxson has always been a great economist with an ability to bring together different academic disciplines while still pursuing her own research agenda.

Paxson became an associate professor of economics and public affairs in 1994.

As a professor, Paxson “doesn’t teach to the top or the bottom or the middle,” said Emily Sands, a 2009 Princeton alum who took Paxson’s seminar on writing research papers her junior year. Instead, she involves as many people as possible in the classroom, then follows up with students to provide more specialized attention, she said.

Paxson would essentially lecture from notes in her class, but her students “were still hanging on her every word because it was so informative,” said Kristin Mammen, assistant professor of economics at Barnard College and one of Paxson’s former PhD advisees.

“Her accessibility, her dedication to each of the students … was really memorable,” Sands said.

Woodrow Wilson School graduate students granted Paxson five annual teaching awards, according to a University press release.

In 2005, Paxson was promoted to associate chair of the department of Economics under then-Chair Bo Honore. Honore has known Paxson personally and professionally since 1994 when he first came to Princeton, he said.

Paxson has the personality of an efficient leader, Honore said. “She’s a people person. Most economists are not,” he said, adding that she can remain calm in the face of disagreements. “I don’t know anybody that doesn’t get along with her,” he said.

As associate chair, Paxson planned curricular reform in the undergraduate economics program. Paxson reorganized the way juniors at Princeton, who are required to write an approximately 20-page thesis, tackled independent study.

Before the changes, ju
niors were assigned graduate student advisers to help them organize a plan for their independent studies. The reforms grouped juniors into groups of 10 to 12 students and created an organized system of lecturers that would meet with the group to discuss the methodology behind writing a thesis.

The change better prepared students to write their mandatory senior theses, which is usually around 100 pages, said Markus Brunnermeier, professor of economics and Paxson’s colleague since 1999. “She cares a lot about the students and about the curriculum,” he said.

Paxson became chair of the department in 2008. She was an effective leader in this administrative position, Brunnermeier said. One of the challenges of being chair is prioritizing the desires of multiple academic interests while also identifying areas of weakness, Brunnermeier said.

Honore said he thought Paxson would have been a strong candidate for the future Princeton presidency if she had not been selected as Brown’s president.

Advocacy and advising

During Paxson’s time as associate chair and chair of Princeton’s economics department, she developed a reputation as an advocate for student interests, said Sands, who had Paxson as her undergraduate adviser.

Paxson made great efforts to resolve course scheduling issues for students in the economics department, Sands said. Professors within the department often scheduled their courses in the same time window, making it difficult for students to enroll in all of the courses they wanted, she said.

“Chris literally went faculty member to faculty member, and encouraged them … to amend their schedules, when feasible, for the sake of the undergrads,” she said.

Sands and Mammen both said they had great experiences with Paxson as an adviser.

When Sands’ original senior thesis adviser left Princeton, Paxson contacted Sands of her own volition and offered to take over. “She still stayed in close contact with each of the students that she worked with and made sure the rest of our undergraduate careers were as rewarding as they could be,” Sands said.

“Your graduate student advisees are kind of last on your list of priorities,” Mammen said. “But when she was advising, she was always giving you 100 percent of her attention.”

Paxson offered Mammen the opportunity to co-author a paper with her on women’s work in economic development when she was her dissertation advisor. The byline on an early draft listed Mammen’s name before Paxson’s. “When I suggested she put her name first, she was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Alphabetical order!” Mammen said.

“It’s not like she’s all sweetness and light,” Mammen said. Paxson has a “sardonic” sense of humor, she said.

“She is excellent, and she expects that — it’s just that she is not pushing it in your face all the time,” she said. “Her sense of humor is one of the many things that makes her easy to work with.”

Sands heard the news of Paxson’s presidential appointment on Friday and sent her a congratulatory email. Paxson responded right away, she said. “She’s one of those professors who develops real lasting personal relationships with students,” she said. When Paxson recently visited Harvard, where Sands is currently an economics PhD candidate, she took Sands out to dinner. “She has a unique view of young people as whole people,” Sands said. “It’s very clear that she works hard to nurture all of who we are.”

Administrative accomplishments 

When Paxson began as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs in 2009, she followed a leader who had prioritized lifting the visibility and external reputation of the program, said Nannerl Keohane, visiting professor of public affairs at Princeton. Paxson has sustained that visibility but has also focused on building the internal strength of the school, Keohane said.

A number of curricular reforms defined Paxson’s legacy at the Woodrow Wilson School, wrote Stephen Kotkin, vice dean of the school, in an email to The Herald. Paxson reviewed and reformed the school’s PhD, master’s and undergraduate programs, “making them even more multidisciplinary, in line with our faculty and even more rooted in service and experience in the field,” he wrote.

Among those changes was a revamping of the undergraduate concentration to increase requirements and make it more rigorous, said Sara McLanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton. Paxson also changed the PhD program to diversify the degree options and connect curricula more closely to non-public policy departments.

Under Paxson’s leadership, the faculty voted almost unanimously to eliminate the selectivity of the undergraduate public policy and international affairs program, Kotkin wrote. Before the change, which will be instituted next academic year, Princeton undergraduates hoping to major in the program would have to apply for admission to the school during their sophomore year.

“Students who had been trying since they applied to Princeton to major in public policy couldn’t,” said Keohane, who sat on the committee Paxson led during deliberations. “It may sound like a little thing, but it was not a little thing, and she was crucial in getting that done,” she said.

“She’s very much open to change and actually changing to suit the students,” said Omar Muhsin Usman, an undergraduate at Princeton.

The elimination of selectivity will help the school “really attract students who have a genuine interest in policy work,” said Shannon Brink, a current master’s student in the Woodrow Wilson School.

At Woodrow Wilson, Paxson has also been “enormously dedicated” to fundraising to increase the school’s endowment through an expansion of the donor network, Kotkin wrote. The success of her efforts in this area allowed her to create more professor and student internship positions, expand the offerings for the junior year policy task force, an independent study program integral to the school and to establish a new center for financial policy that will open soon, Kotkin wrote.

Dean Chris

Paxson, affectionately known to faculty as “Dean Chris,” has “quite a significant number of relevant skills” to hold a university presidency, said Keohane, who formerly served as president of both Duke University and Wellesley College.

As an administrator at the Woodrow Wilson School, Paxson has led with a “deliberative, consultative style” while instituting governance changes like the addition of an elected faculty council, Kotkin wrote.

In working with a faculty of diverse backgrounds, Paxson has fostered a “good, cooperative atmosphere,” said McLanahan.”She’s really created much more consensus.”

As dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, Paxson has demonstrated the abilities to delegate clearly, follow through and accept compromises, Keohane said. “She’s a leader, she gets things done, but she doesn’t do it only in her own narrow way,” she said.

Paxson is “very articulate, very good at describing the benefits and advantages of the school,” she said. When Paxson speaks, “everybody goes away inspired and delighted to have been there.”

Paxson is a “calculated risk-taker” who is ready “to encourage people to open up to their imaginations, to risk changing the way things have always been done,” Kotkin wrote in an email. She has a “quirky side” that comes through with her openness to other people’s ideas.

 

lass=”p2″> Students at the Woodrow Wilson School echoed Kotkin’s and Keohane’s praise of Paxson.

“She’s an all-star. Brown is really lucky,” said John Monagle, an undergraduate who knew Paxson from serving on the Woodrow Wilson Student Advisory Committee. “She’s down-to-earth and in touch with student needs,” he added.

As dean, Paxson also oversees a small group of students in a program called the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative. Students from across Princeton departments apply to the program as juniors and receive a scholarship for graduate study in public administration. Students must also work for the federal government for two years and are encouraged to travel abroad during the summer.

Marlise Jean-Pierre, who entered the program as a non-Woodrow Wilson student, said she was thankful to be welcomed into the school community by Paxson. She added that she admired Paxson’s ability to manage community engagement and family life with strong leadership at the school.

“When she comes into the room,” Jean-Pierre said, “she’s just someone that you know is a leader.”

“She’s extremely personable with students,” said Jared Crooks, another student in the program. “It’s really easy to approach her. She doesn’t let her title get in the way.”

Others admire Paxson for her investment in students’ projects. Kim Bonner, a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School, said she was especially impressed with Paxson’s investment in the success of a charity event she and other graduate students planned to benefit a nonprofit that provides after-school activities for teens. Paxson helped to coordinate an auction and followed through by contacting faculty and staff and encouraging them to attend, as well as donating items herself, Bonner said.

“Everybody who meets her leaves being in awe of her, but at the same time admiring her humility,” Usman said.

“We’re losing a genuinely incredible person,” Kotkin wrote. “As we rue our loss, we tip our hats to our colleagues and friends at Brown.”

— With additional reporting by Mathias Heller, Shefali Luthra, Alexandra Macfarlane, Kate Nussenbaum, Eli Okun and Aparaajit Sriram