University News

From dean to president, Paxson’s rapid ascent

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2012

President-elect Christina Paxson’s resume shows a rapid advancement through the academic ranks. In the last five years, she has served as a dean at Princeton and chaired the university’s nationally renowned economics department, serving at one point as the department’s only tenured female professor. And starting July 1, she will begin her term as Brown’s 19th president.

Paxson herself never forecasted that she would be at the helm of a university so soon. “I was not looking to be a university president,” she said. “I had expected to be at the Woodrow Wilson School for at least another four or five years, but Brown is such a special place, I couldn’t turn it down.”

In 2008, Paxson was named economics chair at Princeton after having served as associate chair of the department for a brief four years. Just one year later, she was appointed dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a prestigious position within a renowned university. 

After serving as dean for three years, she was named Brown’s next president in March. The previous two permanent Woodrow Wilson School deans had both served for seven years. 

“I think people have just recognized that she’s really good. It’s not as though she pushed to have these things,” said Nannerl Keohane, visiting professor of public affairs at Princeton. “People came to her and said, ‘We want you to be dean. We want you to be president.'”

“It was not surprising to me at all. I knew that she would be a college president sooner rather than later,” said Bo Honore, professor of economics at Princeton, who chaired the department before Paxson.

A knack for being in the right place at the right time, coupled with a remarkable ability to translate ideas into solutions has catapulted Paxson onto an ascent that is “not unprecedented but certainly very quick,” Keohane said. Paxson has consistently been the most qualified candidate when positions have become available, she said.  It is also hard to predict when top positions open up in higher education, she added. 

Paxson herself acknowledges the role chance has played in her career path. “I’ve been fortunate to have really good opportunities,” she said. “Some of my transitions from post to post haven’t really been planned but have been the consequence of positions opening up when they did.”

 

Presidential potential

Brown was not the first university to vet Paxson as a potential president. In 2009, Paxson was one of two finalists in the running for the presidency at Swarthmore College, her alma mater. The college’s presidential search committee did not choose her because “she didn’t have prior presidential experience,” said Robinson Hollister, a professor of economics at Swarthmore who spoke with members of the committee at the time. The committee ultimately selected Rebecca Chopp, who previously served as Colgate University’s president. 

“Remember that in 2009, we were just entering into a recession. We wanted someone who could handle a college in a time of recession,” said Alan Symonette, a member of the search committee who graduated from Swarthmore in 1976 and has served two terms on the college’s Board of Managers, its highest governing body. “Chopp was a prior president, and given where we were as a college, that experience was invaluable for us.”

“But I don’t remember (Paxson) having too many, if there were any, shortcomings,” he added.

Pieter Judson, a Swarthmore history professor and member of the search committee, believes Paxson will make a capable president. “I think Brown will be very lucky indeed with Christina Paxson as its new president,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

But a stellar resume can only go so far in predicting the magnetism and personality of an incoming university president, and it is hard to avoid comparisons to President Ruth Simmons, known for her ability to inspire and connect with students. 

“Certainly Christina Paxson brings a lot of verve and personality, as well as competence and great charm and humor. I think you’ll like her a lot if you take her on her own terms,” said Robert Keohane, professor of international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, warning not to bandy about comparisons between her and Simmons. “If you expect her to be Ruth Simmons, or if you expect Ruth Simmons to be Christina Paxson, of course you’ll always be disappointed.” 

“To set up a set of standards that are defined by one person and to apply them to somebody else would be, I think, the height of unfairness,” he said.

But Paxson’s peers said one thing is certain – she is “cool.”

“She drives a BMW. She used to drive a Porsche. She’s even open to drinking a beer every now and then. So what I’m trying to say is, she’s not stuffy at all, and that can be rare in academia,” Honore said.

 

An uncommon efficiency

Paxson was a faculty member in Princeton’s economics department for 26 years and was the first female tenured professor in that department. 

When running faculty meetings as the department chair, she displayed an uncanny ability to accommodate a variety of opinions, Honore said. She had an efficiency uncommon in the world of academia.

“What she’s really good at is taking a vague idea and turning it into a concrete proposal and implementing it,” he said. “Most academics like to talk and not get stuff done.”

Paxson ascribes a part of her success to a passion for academic administration. “I like to do this,” she said.

Soon after assuming her position as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, she created and charged two committees to review both the undergraduate programs and the master’s programs offered at the school.

The undergraduate program review committee recommended the school modify one of its core policies, selective admission, among others. Navigating such a revision, as Paxson was attempting to do, promised to be a difficult path riddled with setb
acks – it was hard to gauge how faculty would look upon such a significant change, Nannerl Keohane said.

Paxson displayed “strong leadership,” in guiding the committee’s proposal through a series of faculty meetings, by the end of which the proposal was “fairly heavily supported,” Nannerl Keohane said.

“She clearly advocated a number of our recommendations, but she wasn’t going to force them down the throats of the faculty,” Nannerl Keohane said. “Some were controversial.”

Paxson was willing to compromise on some of the recommendations, particularly those regarding prerequisites to enter the undergraduate program. But on others more central to her vision, such as abolishing the application process for undergraduate public policy majors, she held firm.

Nannerl Keohane said Paxson’s ability to tackle “fundamental questions,” and update and streamline programs is one of her strongest assets and what she will likely be most remembered for from her time as dean.

Stanley Katz, professor of public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and faculty chair of the undergraduate public policy program, was critical of Paxson’s reform of the program, stating that it would make it less distinctive and lead to curricular changes that would make it too akin to the social sciences. But disagreements aside, Katz believes that Paxson, with her record of advancing from one position to the next, has the makings of a successful university president.

“I think experience matters, I think it helps, but there’s reason to believe that someone with just a lot of talent could make that jump,” Katz said.

 

Research that relates

During her time as chair in the economics department, and even prior to that, Paxson had cemented her reputation as an efficient, articulate and thoughtful administrator.

In 2000, Paxson founded the Center for Health and Wellbeing, a center within the Woodrow Wilson School that focuses on health policy, according to the center’s website. Paxson served as director of the center until 2009, authoring several papers dealing with the socioeconomics of health, focusing mainly on children. One of her papers, published in 2004, focused on how childhood health impacts educational achievement, earnings, health and social status in adulthood. Another study published in 2004 investigated the economic causes of infant mortality in Peru, concluding that the “collapse of public and private expenditures on health played an important role.”

“After she founded the center, I knew she would go on to do even bigger things,” Honore said.

The center offers an example of Paxson’s ability not only to turn a vision into reality but also her tendency to pursue research with socially beneficial applications. 

She studied economics because it seemed the perfect balance of theory and practice, wrote Stephen O’Connell, a professor of economics at Swarthmore, in an email to The Herald when her selection was first announced. 

“Some people’s research is very abstract. Hers is tied to health, development,” Honore said. “Every human being can kind of relate to those questions.”