About 42 percent of students expressed satisfaction with the choice of Christina Paxson as the 19th president of the University in a poll conducted by The Herald last month, though the majority of respondents, about 54 percent, said they had no opinion or were not familiar enough to answer the question. Only 4.3 percent expressed some level of dissatisfaction with the selection.
“It would be fairly arrogant of me to think that I would be more capable of deciding who should run the University than the board,” said Ryan Roelke ’14, who characterized himself as “pretty uninformed” about Paxson.
In the footsteps of a legend
Andrea McWilliams ’12 pointed to a lack of excitement about Paxson as a possible reason why students had not spent time learning about her.
“Ruth Simmons is this legend – something new and different as the first black woman president in an Ivy League,” McWilliams said. “I don’t want to say Paxson doesn’t live up to the legacy because we haven’t given her the chance to do so yet, but there definitely aren’t those new and exciting feelings that surround someone like Ruth Simmons.”
“I was definitely glad it was a woman, but maybe a minority would have gotten students more excited,” McWilliams added.
“I’m sure there’s also a degree of happiness that she’s not a white male, even though that’s a superficial reason,” said Carolyn Shasha ’13.
University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson said she wondered “if we’ve forgotten how we felt about Ruth’s appointment.”
“We were still smarting from the misfit of Gordon Gee,” she said of the last time the University underwent a presidential transition. “We were yearning for a wonderful appointment in Ruth, and we got it.”
After Simmons’ 11-year term, “people more than anything, emotionally, are thinking, ‘Oh, wow, she’s gone,’” Nelson said.
Nelson said the differences in credentials Simmons brought and Paxson will bring to the presidency may also play a role in community perception.
“I remember how exhilarated we were at the news of Ruth’s appointment, because not only was she someone of consummate abilities, but she had literally occupied every senior position at a University,” she said. “She was someone that many people in the world of education had heard about.”
Meanwhile, Paxson’s experience “as head of Woodrow Wilson School is well-known,” she said, “but it’s a different kind of career.”
“I think most students don’t have a good sense of what kind of president she would be, not because they don’t care, but because she doesn’t have that background,” Shasha said. “When I tried to research her, I couldn’t get a sense of what kind of president she would be because she has mostly an academic background.”
McWilliams also said the lack of palpable enthusiasm might be related in part to “the fact that she’s an economist.”
Nelson said she also wondered whether Paxson’s connection to economics might temper excitement, but she warned that classifying the president-elect as “a corporate type” would be misguided.
“She’s knowledgeable about corporate stuff, but Ruth was on the Goldman Sachs board,” Nelson added. “Presidents have to be fluid and able to go in and out of these different environments.”
Others on campus saw the poll results to be less indicative of a true lack of enthusiasm.
“I don’t think those results necessarily mean students don’t care,” Shasha said. She added that students might not have taken the time to do much independent research about Paxson because they “trust the committee that chose her. I know a professor who was on the committee, and I know how hard they worked in trying to find a good fit for the school.”
Shasha, like many others interviewed by The Herald, expressed recognition of the difficulties Paxson may face because “people have pretty high expectations of her to follow in President Simmons’ footsteps.”
“It’s obviously difficult to live up to Ruth, but I don’t see her getting a lot of backlash unless she does something extremely wrong that people really disagree with,” said Tiffany Hsu ’12. “I think people understand Ruth was a huge figure – they don’t expect someone else to live up to that same standard, at least in a celebrity sort of sense.”
Kat Reardon ’12.5 expressed concern that an outsider will be able to understand the unique student body. “What does she know about heteronormativity at Brown?” she asked.
Nelson said such fears are unfounded.
“If there’s somebody out there fearing she will take a stance we won’t recognize or isn’t a principled one, I can’t imagine that,” Nelson said.”Her undergraduate is from Swarthmore, and their activism puts Brown to shame. In that sense, she’s going to recognize us as a place where she’s at home.”
In the atmosphere of general approval amidst a lack of specific knowledge or particular excitement, many students also said their judgments about the president-elect would ultimately be based on her actions in the coming years.
“The excitement for Christina Paxson will come from what she does in office,” McWilliams said.
Priorities for Paxson
The results of this spring’s poll indicated that students view financial aid as the top issue currently facing the University.
”What students want is for the University to address financial aid
, and if (Paxson) does so, I think she would be more widely well-received, and her approval ratings will be high,” McWilliams said.
“She definitely needs to show that she understands how big of an issue financial aid is to students,” Shasha said. “She needs to outline her policy for financial aid right away so everyone knows what she is planning on doing.”
The University’s financial negotiations about its payments to the city of Providence is also a key issue, and several students said Paxson’s management of this relationship will influence their view of her moving forward.
Students also pointed to changes in the admission process for international students as an area where Paxson could make her mark.
“Ruth Simmons mostly pushed for need-blind admissions for local students,” said Kumud Ghimire ’13, an international student. “I think if Christina Paxson does that for international students, she could surpass expectations.”
Jurica Bulovic ’13 said that his lack of interest results from a belief that she will not personally impact him.
“I don’t see how the president is directly going to affect my life here, so I don’t really care about the president,” he said. “People say Ruth is good, but I don’t know what she did for Brown. She was good at fundraising, but who knows? Maybe Paxson is even better at that,” Bulovic added.
Expectations are difficult to manage because many students do not necessarily know the details of Simmons’ accomplishments, said Kelly McGuire ’13. “Now, it’s someone they don’t know, and it’s harder because they don’t have some schematic of ‘Ruth Simmons is the man’ to fall back on,” she added.
Other students said Paxson may one day develop her own at image at the University.
“When we came to Brown, Ruth Simmons already had that celebratory image,” Ghimire said. “It takes a while to build that. Once that image is there, students get more curious and try to find out more about their policies and what they’re doing.”
“Once this year’s freshmen leave Brown and the next generation of students moves in, Paxson will have a reputation,” said Josh Sung ’13.
Current students “are used to public events with people chanting ‘Ruth, Ruth, Ruth!’” Nelson said, “but I was hired by Vartan Gregorian. Gregorian was a very different person than Ruth, but people loved Greg, too. They chanted ‘Greg, Greg, Greg!’ So I really expect that Christina will be loved.”
Written questionnaires were administered to 1,530 undergraduates March 12-14 in the lobby of J. Walter Wilson and the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center during the day and the Sciences Library at night. The poll has a 2.2 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence.
Find results of previous polls at thebdh.org/poll.