‘I really need to get to know this place’

By
Thursday, May 24, 2012

President-elect Christina Paxson is taking a crash course in all things Brunonia while keeping her day job as dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Paxson will take the reins as president July 1, and her formal inauguration will take place in October. Paxson spoke with The Herald earlier in the month about her vision for Brown.

What are your plans from now until July 1? How are you preparing?

I have a number of trips planned to Providence. I’m actually giving an academic seminar to a group of faculty, which I’m really excited about.

In economics?

Within economics, yeah. And public health. And then I will be back for Commencement. Because I really want to see how Commencement’s done – I’ve heard it’s wonderful – and just get a sense of what I’ll be doing the next year. So it’s training, maybe. 

And will you play a role in Commencement at all?

No. I will wear my standard academic robes, and I will march, and I’ll just be an observer.

The responsibilities of being the dean of a school are very different from the responsibilities of being a president of an entire university. Looking at that transition, are there particular aspects of it that you think will be difficult for you?

I think, actually, the responsibilities of being the dean of a school are similar in many ways to being a university president. They’re just scaled down, right? 

So as a dean, I am responsible for overseeing the overall operations of the school. And I do a lot of fundraising, and I do a lot of academic planning. I meet with students. I work with faculty. So all of the elements, except for maybe athletics, are there. 

The challenge for me is that I will have to learn to be less directly engaged with everything. And as someone who I’ve always been – not a micromanager at all, but someone who really likes to be involved – I like to know what’s going on. And I think when you become the leader of an organization and institution as big as Brown, you have to give some of that up. 

Simmons, when she was inaugurated, put forth new initiatives very quickly. Do you have any intentions as to the speed with which you will introduce new ideas?

There’s a reason why presidents’ inaugurations are usually in October, which is about four months after they begin. Because it gives them a good four months to really make those plans.

One of the big differences between a university and a company – being CEO of a company – is that it really is about collaboration and getting people on board and doing a lot of listening before you do a lot of changing. So I’m not at all averse to making changes. 

But at least it’s not my strategy to kind of do that in a very abrupt way without really figuring – figuring a place out first. And getting a better sense of how people feel about different issues, and where the priorities should be.

What are the ways in which you think Brown is unique, or distinct from its peers, that should be maintained? And which are the ways that are less critical to maintain?

One of the reasons why I love Brown is it is very distinctive relative to most of its peer institutions. And it’s partly the open curriculum. I think it’s the fact that the curriculum attracts a really interesting type of student, and also faculty member. You know, the people who want to come to a place where students have a lot of responsibility for their own learning, where they’re encouraged to be very creative and to think very broadly – that’s really different. And that makes it a really attractive place. And I think it colors the whole atmosphere. 

(This atmosphere is) very robust. I don’t think it’s a fragile thing. And I do think that Brown can aspire to become an even greater research university than it already is. And doing that is not a threat – need not be a threat – to this very distinctive identity. 

Actually taking these ideas that are embedded in the undergraduate program and bringing it up into the graduate program and into the, sort of, the way we think about research, is a really interesting idea. And it’s a way to kind of grow Brown as a research institution while keeping that kind of distinctiveness.

It often comes down to resource allocation. If the University doesn’t have infinite resources and wants to grow its research programs, research can come at the expense of faculty time, departmental resources or the undergraduate experience. How do you think research and undergraduate needs can be balanced in a way that is, as you say, conducive and complementary?

My experience – and this comes from having been a department chair and a dean – is that the faculty members, among the senior faculty, tenured, who are the best teachers are also the best researchers. 

A lot of the excitement of being a researcher just reinforces being a really great teacher. 

So I think that you do have to protect people’s time in the sense that Brown should have a very competitive sabbatical policy. But the time is there. 

I worry a little bit more about the mentorship and development of assistant professors. Because they’re trying to do something really hard. They’re trying to learn how to be great teachers and great researchers at the same time. 

In terms of physical planning, what do you think are the University’s priorities?

I don’t have a complete set, a comprehensive set of priorities yet. Because I haven’t done tours everywhere. I haven’t seen the dorms, and I’ve heard a lot about the dorms. The engineering school is really out of space. 

My sense is that during the financial downturn, the natural thing to do, and what almost every university did, was to defer some maintenance. And it’s time to start catching up on that.

Where do University finances stand at this point?

Well, the University is very well managed. And people here are prudent and sensible. 

There isn’t much slack in the budget. And so that’s why over the next six months, a year – probably less than a year, but six months after I start – the most important thing for me to do will be to work with the provost and with faculty and with administrators to really consider and hone the priorities. Cause we – we can’t do everything. And we have to think carefully about what we can do with existing resources, what we need to raise new resources to do, and also to figure out what are the things that are going to make Brown even more exciting, even better. What are the big impact investments going to be? And, you know, that’s really the fun part of the job. So I’m looking forward to doing that.

In terms of fundraising, Simmons has traveled internationally a great deal and made a lot of connections for the University internationally. Do you also intend to travel in this job?

This coming year, I hope to go to London, and then make an Asia trip, probably to Hong Kong, China. Probably a separate trip to India. And I really want to go to Brazil, but I don’t know if I can fit that in in the first year. 

The goal of traveling internationally is really threefold. One is to meet with alumni. And Brown has lots of alumni in China and India, Hong Kong, London. London’s a big hub. So one goal is just to go out and meet people. The other is to learn more about local institutions, universities, research centers and things like that that might be good partners for Brown. 

And then, I really think it’s important to travel just to do – we need to d
o more to raise Brown’s visibility around the world. 

How will you balance travel with on-campus responsibilities?

Especially coming in as a new president, I really need to get to know this place. And you know, the external relations, a lot of it is going out and communicating to the world what Brown is. Well, I can’t really do it unless I know it. And so spending a lot of time talking to students, talking to faculty, talking to administrators and people in the town and the city, is very important. 

I want to be on campus at least probably 50 to 60 percent of the time, during the week, at a minimum. But I think that’s fully compatible with a pretty heavy-duty travel schedule, and being engaged elsewhere, too. And I’ll be here on the weekends, because my family will be here on the weekends.

Your husband works for Oppenheimer Funds, which is a firm that’s well connected on Wall Street and in the financial world. Would he be involved at all in University fundraising? 

No, I don’t think so. He has his job, and I have mine. 

He’s gone to some dinners and meetings with alumni, members of the Corporation. He’s really enjoyed it. So I think he’s excited about being involved in the Brown community. And he’s told me that he’ll go to athletic events with me, which is great. Because I want to go, but I’m actually – I’m not somebody who knows a whole lot about a wide variety of sports. So this will be good. So I think he’s excited about being involved. But his job will not be to fundraise for Brown.

Coming from the Woodrow Wilson School, what are your thoughts on Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies? Have you been informed or involved at all in the ongoing search for a new director for the institute? Do you think you’ll be involved in that as president?

I am very excited about being involved in the Watson Institute. It’s an interesting place. It’s actually quite different from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in that it is an institute, not a professional school. And I think that’s a very important distinction. I think the Watson Institute has the capacity to really become a very, very vibrant focal point for research and student engagement on a wide range of issues related to international studies. 

I am planning on being fairly engaged in the search next year. 

Is it more difficult to find a director because the Watson Institute has gone so long without a permanent director, which leaves its mission and goals undefined?

The more I talk to faculty members around Brown, the more I get the sense that there is a strong consensus about what the mission of the Watson should be. So I don’t see a lot of disagreement. I think the answer to your question, though, is that it’s just really hard to find a great director. We had some very good applicants this year, but we’re looking for someone who is an outstanding scholar, who also is very much connected to the world of public policy and international affairs and who can also administer and direct a center at a place like Brown that really calls for broad faculty engagement. So that’s a challenging list of things that we’re looking for, and it’s not surprising that it can take more than one year to do. The fact that there has been instability in the Watson, I think, has not been good. It hasn’t been good for the morale of faculty there and other faculty who are connected to it. But I’m very confident that we can get it moving in a really spectacular direction.

The University has an ongoing relationship with Tougaloo College, which is a historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi –

I can’t wait to visit! I’ve never been there, I don’t know much about it, and from what I’ve heard from people who have gone to visit and people who have been involved in that collaboration, it’s been terrific. 

The admissions process is currently not need-blind for transfer, international and resumed undergraduate students. What are your thoughts on the trade-off between lowering the loan burdens for students on financial aid and instituting need-blind admissions for all students? 

It’s a really hard question. I mean, I think we all recognize that the burden, especially on middle-income students, is very high. Because students are being asked to take out loans – sometimes, substantial loans – in order to attend college. Getting those burdens reduced has got to be a high priority. On the other hand, I’m very supportive of the idea that Brown University should become more international. And I don’t like the idea of treating international (applicants) differently than American (applicants) when it comes to financial aid. And transfer (applicants) as well. 

If we had to prioritize, my own sense right now is that we would prioritize first to making sure that all (applicants) are treated equally given, you know, given their economic circumstances. If you have the same economic circumstances as another (applicant), you’re treated the same way. And then, really going after reducing loan burdens on students. But again, that’s my own opinion right now. I haven’t heard all the pros and cons.

Is there any possibility that need-blind admissions would be phased in? That one applicant population, such as international or transfer students, could get need-blind admissions before the University can offer it to all applicants?

It depends a lot on what resources are available. And given that resources tend to – you get them slowly, gradually over time. That usually means that you have to phase things in. As to the sequencing of that, I really can’t speak to that right now. 

How are you dividing your responsibilities between your current deanship and preparing to take on the presidency?

Well I’m not sleeping very much. (Laughs) No seriously, I am really working very closely with the staff and making sure that I leave things in really good shape.  

On the Brown side, I’m really finding it valuable to have conversations with as many people and as many types of people as possible about Brown. There’s going to be a lot of time for me to learn a lot of the fine-grain details, but getting a broad sense of the University community – their values, their goals, what they think is working well, where there may be some room for improvements. This period has actually been terrific to get me moving in that direction.

Are there any issues that people have brought up repeatedly to you?

I think one of the big issues for the University right now, especially in light of the agreement that it just signed with the city of Providence, is how can we really move forward to have a very positive, constructive relationship with the city? I think everybody at Brown recognizes that if Providence thrives, Brown thrives, and vice versa.  

I’m looking forward to moving to Providence this summer because that’ll put me in a position where I can really start to get to know people in the state and local governments and learn a lot about the work of local institutions that Brown collaborates with and start to think of ways to build on those collaborations and make them even stronger.