Paxson’s progress

The University’s 19th president looks back on her first year in office

Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

Before taking an administrative position at Princeton in 2009, Christina Paxson spent two decades as an economist examining tradeoffs, human capital and other concepts that could be applied to her latest role as Brown’s 19th president. But when she arrived on College Hill, Paxson tried on a new discipline: anthropology.

“It’s been very, very interesting and really almost exhilarating because I’ve been taking in so much information,” Paxson said. “One of the most important things I needed to do was to learn about Brown’s culture.”

In interviews with The Herald, administrators, faculty members and students widely hailed Paxson’s willingness to listen as one of her greatest strengths.

The University faces the ongoing challenges of emerging from a crippling recession, navigating unknown territory in online education and forging ahead with plans for new modes of expansion. Paxson’s administration is in the initial stages of forming a broad strategic plan that outlines the University’s future direction. Some of Paxson’s more immediate policy decisions have already taken effect, including taking steps forward with the School of Engineering, the School of Public Health and the Watson Institute for International Studies.

Paxson’s leadership style, particularly through the University’s strategic planning process, has emphasized a collaborative approach involving a broad circle of people, administrators and faculty members said.

“People are pretty amazed to have a president who is so disarmingly available and open,” said Department of History Chair Kenneth Sacks, who was not the only person to use the word “disarming” to describe Paxson.

Paxson also faces the challenge of following former President Ruth Simmons, known nationally and adored by Brown students.

“President Simmons was almost a once-in-a-generation gifted communicator, and I think both the president and I struggle with having to communicate in the shadow of President Simmons,” said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15.

Yet Paxson and Simmons share certain characteristics, said Stephen Nelson, higher education expert and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown. For one, he said, “neither of these folks suffered fools gladly.”


Strategic planning process

Including a diverse set of voices in the strategic planning process has been an important component of the administration’s approach over the past year.

The process began in earnest Oct. 1 with the formation of six strategic planning committees, which met throughout the year to imagine new priorities and paths forward for Brown. The committees examined faculty hiring and retention, doctoral education, financial aid and the curriculum. Though no committee exclusively focused on diversity or internationalization, administrators highlighted both as goals that would span the entire planning process.

The preliminary recommendations the committees released in January were wide-ranging, including a new concert hall, expansion in the Jewelry District and a three-year bachelor’s degree option. Not all suggestions will make it into the committees’ final reports, let alone the University’s new plan. But taken together, the committees propose a vision for the future of Brown: an increasingly flexible curriculum with more pathways to the community and the world, continued expansion on and off College Hill, and more resources to support faculty members and graduate students.

Some recommendations have already been highlighted as top priorities. The administration affirmed a commitment to assessing the feasibility of going need-blind for all applicants in the future, a policy currently extended only to domestic first-years. The School of Engineering is also headed toward decamping from a cramped Barus and Holley and moving to new quarters.

There is still much dialogue to come. On issues like online course development, Brown is experimenting with various models, but “quite frankly, we really haven’t had a full discussion of all the implications of online education, what it means for a university like Brown,” said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12.

The final plan will likely emphasize broad principles and goals over specific targets, which will allow for flexibility to adapt in the years to come, Paxson said.

But the planning committees’ ambitions may come up against some hard financial truths. The University’s $2.5 billion endowment, the smallest in the Ivy League, posted a weak 1 percent annual return in fiscal year 2012. Federal research funding continues to shrivel as Washington remains stuck in gridlock. At Brown, that means some priorities may have to be cut. The University will complete a financial analysis this summer to assess the feasibility of different recommendations, Paxson said.

“That’s just the world that we live in now,” said Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, associate professor of Africana Studies. “We are doing more with less.”

The extent to which the University can draw in money through its upcoming capital campaign may be critical to determining how many of the priorities can be addressed.

Paxson has been an effective fundraiser for certain priorities already, Schlissel said. The University last month initiated a $160 million campaign for the School of Engineering.

But it remains to be seen how her ability to raise money will compare to Simmons’, especially as the University moves toward its 250th anniversary next year, a key fundraising opportunity. Simmons’ five-year Campaign for Academic Enrichment brought in $1.6 billion, the largest fundraising drive in University history.


Inititiatives in action

Paxson has already made major decisions that have had an immediate impact on the University.

Among the most noteworthy was the choice, made in consultation with other administrators and members of the Committee on Reimagining the Brown Campus and Community, to keep the future School of Engineering on College Hill.

At the beginning of the year, there was a significant chance of the School of Engineering relocating to the Jewelry District, said Russell Carey ’91 MA ‘06, executive vice president for planning and policy. Students and faculty members pushed back, and top University administrators “absolutely listened,” Carey said. But the decision not to move needed to be explained to disappointed prospective partners in Providence and Rhode Island, Paxson said.

Some choices required more immediate action. Paxson, who led the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, was instrumental in leading the search for a new director of the embattled Watson Institute, Schlissel said. Incoming director Richard Locke, currently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be its seventh leader in nine years.

Paxson also shepherded the upcoming School of Public Health through its final stages of seeking University approval. The school was already well on its way toward official approval under the stewardship of Terrie Wetle, associate dean of medicine for public health and public policy and the school’s future dean. But Paxson, whose research has often focused on the intersection of economics and health, “made that happen pretty fast,” Nelson said.

The school was approved by the Corporation in February and will officially be created in July, with leaders hoping for national accreditation by 2015, The Herald previously reported.


Faculty collaboration 

Much of Paxson’s perspective is informed by the fact that, unlike Simmons, she was an active researcher until this year, multiple sources said. As president, Paxson has also published one academic paper and given a talk at the World Bank.

“She still thinks like a researcher and an intellectual in a very particular way,” said Patricia Ybarra, professor of theatre arts and performance studies and co-chair of the strategic planning Committee on Educational Innovation.

When she first arrived at Brown, Paxson met with every department chair individually to learn about the University’s research and academic offerings. It was an unprecedented step, faculty members said, and one that still gets many professors talking. Sacks described Paxson as part of a “new wave of university presidents that want to demonstrate that they are, first and foremost, of the faculty.”

That perception was cemented this spring when Paxson announced that the faculty would sit on stage at Commencement, a privilege that has traditionally been reserved for administrators, members of the Corporation and other honorees, Terry-Morgan said.

Many professors and administrators said they were impressed by Paxson’s visibility at a variety of events on campus — including sports games and less prominent departmental offerings — as well as through the Providence and Rhode Island communities, where Ybarra said the president has worked hard to foster ties.

Much of this is attributable to Paxson’s leadership style: engaged and personable but decisive when the time comes, according to faculty members. McLaughlin described it as “no-nonsense informality together with very high standards.”

Throughout the planning process, Paxson has opted to include a diverse group of people in the decision-making process. Susan Harvey, professor of religious studies and co-chair of the strategic planning Committee on Financial Aid, said Paxson made everyone feel comfortable.

“She’s very welcoming of people she’s working with, and she establishes an immediate rapport of collaboration, which is very affirming,” Harvey said. “You really feel you’re in a partnership.”


Student opinion

If Paxson is generally popular among the faculty, she remains something of an unknown entity to much of the student body. Though her approval-disapproval split in a March Herald poll was roughly 45 percent to 7 percent, a plurality of students — about 48.9 percent — said they had no opinion. Simmons had developed a cult status on campus, meriting a 62.5 percent approval rating in Spring 2011.

Some students have been vocal about their dissatisfaction. Herald opinions columnist Daniel Moraff ’14 has criticized the administration for focusing on building renovations and expansion while financial aid priorities remain unmet. And leaders of the Brown Divest Coal Campaign and the Student Labor Alliance, two visible student activist groups on campus, have expressed frustration with Paxson’s unwillingness to move quickly on their priorities.

Emily Kirkland ’13, a leader of Divest Coal, said though Paxson has “definitely made herself very available to meet with us, … we would like to see her take bolder steps on the issue.” Campaign members, who had hoped that divestment from coal companies might reach a vote at the Corporation’s meeting this weekend, were disappointed by Paxson’s announcement that more dialogue was necessary, thereby making a vote at this meeting unlikely.

Simmons’ actions on other divestment issues reflected a desire to make Brown a leader, Kirkland added, saying she hoped Paxson would help Brown lead on coal divestment.

Though the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies recommended divestment this year, the campaign has some prominent skeptics in the administration. Schlissel told The Herald that while he is committed to the principles of the cause and working with students, he believes divestment could set a risky precedent by inspiring a cascade of similar divestment campaigns.

The ultimate recommendation will come from Paxson and an ad hoc Corporation subcommittee she has convened to carefully examine the issue, he said.


Guiding principles

Before she came to Brown, Paxson said she read about the University’s commitment to liberal learning, student autonomy and the open curriculum.

She was heartened to discover the extent to which these themes continue to guide life on campus.

“What I hadn’t realized is how fundamentally those ideas shape the entire University. It’s not just words on paper,” she said. “It was quite remarkable to see how different this place is, relative to other institutions that I’ve been involved with.”

Clarification Appended: An earlier version of this article stated that the Paxson administration has affirmed a commitment to going need-blind for all applicants. While Paxson has stated improving financial aid is a firm goal of the University and that the administration would seek to move toward expanding need-blind admission in the long term, a pledge of going need blind for all students has not been made.