University News

Poll: Undergrads apathetic on Paxson

A higher percent of students than faculty expressed uncertainty

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, April 25, 2013
This article is part of the series Spring 2013 Faculty Poll

Students expressed much higher levels of uncertainty and ignorance than did faculty members in their appraisals of President Christina Paxson’s job performance in The Herald’s undergraduate poll and faculty poll, both conducted this semester.

A plurality of students, just under 49 percent, reported having no opinion on Paxson’s handling of the presidency, compared to roughly 30 percent of faculty members who said they either had no opinion or were not familiar enough to answer.

Two-thirds of faculty members polled either strongly or somewhat approve of Paxson’s performance — about 22 percentage points higher than total student approval, which is around 45 percent.

The poll recorded low rates of disapproval of Paxson’s leadership among both groups, with about 4 percent of faculty members and about 7 percent of students either strongly or somewhat disapproving.

Though in the minority, students dissatisfied with Paxson have been vocal in their dissent. Brown Divest Coal and the Student Labor Alliance fall into this contingency, having criticized her actions — or lack thereof — on their respective causes on the Main Green and in The Herald’s opinions pages as guest columnists.

Camila Bustos ’16, a member of Brown Divest Coal, attributed the high percentage of students who either approve of or have no opinion on Paxson’s performance to their “superficial interactions” with her. By contrast, Divest Coal’s advocacy on a “controversial” issue has led to more substantive dialogue with Paxson that has left members of the campaign aggravated, she said.

“We are frustrated, but we are hopeful,” Bustos said. “We definitely have a critical perspective. … But I think it’s a result of the type of interaction we’ve had with her.”

“We as an organization don’t really approve of her job so far because she’s been so dismissive of what we’ve been trying to do,” said Trevor Culhane ’15, a member of the SLA.

“She is good at listening to faculty,” Culhane added. “But in terms of listening to student voices, both respecting student activism and respecting the social responsibilities that the University has … she has not been very receptive.”

Iris Bahar, vice chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and professor of engineering, said while Paxson has tried to reach out to both faculty members and students, “perhaps her emphasis has been a bit more on faculty” so far.

But others disagreed with the claim that Paxson has been unreceptive to students.

Undergraduate Council of Students President Anthony White ’13 said “her willingness to listen … and evaluate the entire situation” before making changes has impressed him.

“She spent a lot of time reaching out to many different groups around campus and getting a good lay of the land,” he said.

White ascribed the comparatively lower percentage of faculty members who expressed no opinion on Paxson’s leadership to faculty members’ more frequent interactions with her through the FEC and monthly faculty meetings.

Marguerite Joutz ’15, a member of Brown Conversation, also said she has found Paxson responsive to students. “Paxson is a great listener, and I feel like that’s a sentiment shared by a lot of members in the community who have had a chance to interact with her,” she said.

When Paxson attended a recent dinner hosted by Brown Conversation, she was a “fantastic participant,” Joutz said.  Paxson “acted as an equal among us,” she said.

“She understood what Brown is, what Brown stands for … everything that makes Brown so unique,” Joutz added.

“She’s been doing a great job with the strategic planning committee process,” she said. “I think Paxson is really starting to come into her own.”

Paxson’s approval rating is lower than those recorded for former President Ruth Simmons. In fall 2011 — the last time student and faculty polls tracked opinion of her performance — about 68 percent of students and about 73 percent of faculty members approved of Simmons.

“There are no concrete changes or concrete initiatives that students can tie to (Paxson) at the movement,” White said.

But all students associate the University’s implementation of need-blind admission with Simmons, he said. It is unlikely that Paxson’s approval rating will catch Simmons’ until she implements a signature initiative of her own, White said.

Emily Kirkland ’13, another member of Brown Divest Coal, wrote in an email to The Herald that the Divest Coal campaign never interacted directly with Simmons because the campaign only began in September. But she cited Simmons’ request for the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies to review the possibility of divestment from Sudan and Darfur as evidence of her responsiveness to student activism.

“We’d really like to see Paxson demonstrate the same level of openness and engagement by putting coal divestment before (the) Corporation for a vote in May,” Kirkland wrote.

Paxson has convened an ad hoc committee to review ACCRIP’s recommendation to divest from the coal companies targeted by Brown Divest Coal, The Herald previously reported.

Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein said Paxson brings a different skill set, style and perspective to the job.

“She’s much more the kind of proven scholar profile in the presidency, and therefore has a different optic on the University’s current place and its ambitions,” he said.

“Ruth had a kind of in-your-face charisma that you couldn’t miss … and she was really remarkably eloquent,” Weinstein said. “Paxson is a less dramatic president than Simmons was … but Paxson has other trump cards and other virtues that are going to be very important.”

Weinstein said he was very impressed by a speech Paxson delivered last month to the National Humanities Alliance discussing the importance of the humanities.

“Here’s a woman whose credentials are definitely located in other areas of academic inquiry and research, and I thought that was remarkably impressive,” he said.

Students and faculty alike need to give Paxson more time and “a chance to make her mark,” Bahar said.

 

Methodologies:

Questionnaires were sent to the email accounts of faculty members and advertised on the faculty Morning Mail April 9. Only faculty members that teach, advise or interact with undergraduate students were invited to respond, and 120 responses were recorded out of a population of 713. The poll has a 8.7 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence.

Written questionnaires were administered to 1,202 undergraduates March 13-14 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 2.55 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. The margin of error is 3.9 percent for the subset of males, 3.4 percent for females, 5.1 percent for first-years, 4.7 percent for sophomores, 5.4 percent for juniors, 5.2 percent for seniors, 3.8 percent for students receiving financial aid, 3.4 percent for students not receiving financial aid, 6.5 percent for varsity athletes and 2.8 percent for non-athletes.

Find results of previous polls at thebdh.org/poll.