University News

In Paxson’s strategic plan, first glimpses of U.’s future

The draft of the plan emphasizes curricular innovation, graduate programs and growth downtown

By , and
University News Editors
Thursday, September 19, 2013

President Christina Paxson offered a framework for the University’s trajectory over the next decade with Wednesday’s release of a long-term strategic plan, “Building on Distinction.”

If approved by the Corporation — which is set to review the 11-page document at its October meeting — the plan would orient Brown toward an era highlighting interdisciplinary projects and continued expansion on College Hill, downtown, online and across the world.

Among the most attention-grabbing proposals are ideas for restructuring the academic year, strengthening doctoral programs, growing the student and faculty populations, moving toward universal need-blind admission and renovating more dorms and the Sharpe Refectory.

But even if they receive Corporation approval, few plans are definite or even have determined parameters or timelines yet.

“This is a strategic plan, not a tactical plan,” Paxson said Tuesday in a joint interview with Provost Mark Schlissel P’15.

Following Wednesday’s release, the University will sponsor a community-wide forum for feedback Sept. 24 and solicit responses through the Undergraduate Council of Students, Faculty Executive Committee and other bodies. Though input will likely not change the draft of the plan itself, Paxson said input received could influence the Corporation’s discussion.

Paxson and Schlissel will discuss the plan with UCS members at the Council’s general body meeting Oct. 2, said UCS President Todd Harris ’14.5, adding that the meeting will be open to all students.

The University will engage with the city and state, but most outreach efforts will be targeted at the Brown community, Paxson said.

Paxson added that costs for many of the plan’s recommendations remain unclear and will be contingent on the national economy. She said of the plan, “if we didn’t think this was in the realm of feasibility though, we certainly wouldn’t be putting it out.”

After voting, the Corporation is expected to discuss a future capital campaign to fund the plan’s proposed initiatives.

 

Curricular changes

The plan identifies seven “integrative” areas of academic focus. The section recommends developing hubs of interdisciplinary scholarship and focusing funding on creative expression, brain sciences, environment and human society, peace- and justice-oriented international studies, the humanities, new technology and population health and disease.

Some of these — such as brain science — have been priorities for years, and most will make use of existing institutions. But Paxson said the administration would “seriously consider” creating a new environmental institute for the environment and human society hub.

“What I did notice from these seven areas is that they were broad in really covering the spectrum of research areas that are going on,” said Professor of Engineering Iris Bahar, who co-chaired the Committee on Reimagining the Brown Campus and Community.

The plan includes a number of undergraduate-specific curricular reforms. For instance, the University intends to revamp science, technology, engineering and math courses to emphasize hands-on problem-solving. New sophomore seminars would focus on issues of diversity and equity.

The plan urges increased support for data literacy across disciplines among students, faculty members and staff members, though Patricia Ybarra, associate professor of theater arts and performance studies and co-chair of the strategic planning Committee on Educational Innovation, said that recommendation would not result in a curricular requirement.

Beyond College Hill, the plan envisions a set of “Brown in the World” courses that would connect on-campus classes with abroad experiences. These would fall under the umbrella of the Program in Engaged Scholarship, which combines coursework with internships, Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards and other off-campus opportunities.

The plan also calls for expanding the student body, as well as increasing the size of the faculty to maintain student-to-faculty ratios and class sizes.

“Brown will be better if it’s a little bit bigger,” Paxson said, though she added that the growth would be “modest to moderate” over many years.

A shake-up of the academic year could also be in the cards. Though administrators are still brainstorming, Paxson said changes could include altering scheduling to have larger course blocks, lengthening winter break so students can take full courses and  creating a new summer session.

Schlissel and Paxson said none of these changes would be definite or immediate, and the community will be able to contribute to further discussions.

 

Financial aid

On one of the most high-profile topics of campus debate — adopting a need-blind policy for international, transfer and Resumed Undergraduate Education applicants — the plan is noncommittal, and the University will “work toward” the goal, according to the draft.

But Paxson, who described herself as a “huge advocate” of universal need-blind admission, said the change is a matter of when, not whether.

“I’m sure that we can reach it,” she said. But “we’re in a world now, a financial world, where we can’t make promises to do anything — whether it’s going need-blind or building a new building — until we’re sure that we can do it in a financially responsible way.”

Susan Harvey, professor of religious studies and co-chair of the strategic planning Committee on Financial Aid, said the plan’s nature lends itself to ideals rather than details.

“It is not the work of this plan to put forward the exact steps of how to get from here to there,” she said, adding that it would be up to the community to realize that goal.

The plan calls for making Brown more affordable for middle-class students, introducing annual financial aid reassessments for international students, increasing financial summer support for low-income students and bolstering outreach to underrepresented groups such as veterans.

Starting with the class of 2018, international students who receive financial aid will have their demonstrated need annually reassessed, said Director of Financial Aid Jim Tilton, who chaired the Committee on Financial Aid. The University will intensify efforts to reduce out-of-pocket contributions for families, particularly those with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000, Tilton said.

 

Graduate education

Paxson’s strategic plan proposes an imprecise yet extensive framework under which the University will aim to expand and enhance graduate offerings, making them more competitive for recruitment and career placement.

The plan calls to “increase dramatically the fraction of doctoral programs that are ranked in the top tier,” a metric Paxson said would be assessed internally.

Schlissel said the University’s graduate programs could be compared to those at other institutions by analyzing acceptance and yield rates and the students’ success in obtaining jobs, especially academic positions at elite institutions of higher learning.

“What is a tier? Is it the top 20 percent? 30 percent? It’s hard to tell,” said Bernard Reginster, co-chair of the Committee on Doctoral Education and professor of philosophy. “The way to read this is that we want to just work harder at making our doctoral programs better.”

To distinguish the University’s postgraduate offerings, the plan proposes an incentive system under which high-performing programs and students would receive increased support through stipends and fellowships.

The plan calls for increased attention on developing doctoral students as teachers. Most doctoral students pursue academic careers, Reginster said, but recent nationwide studies have revealed that doctoral students are well prepared as researchers but not instructors.

The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning already provides opportunities for graduate students to hone teaching skills and has boosted its efforts in this area in recent years, he said. But the center is considering further expanding its offerings dedicated to teaching, he added.

Under the plan, the postgraduate student body would grow as the number of master’s degree and medical school students increase. The University would look to expand existing master’s programs and consider establishing new ones, Paxson said, though the specific details remain to be seen.

Academic quality and excellence remain the priorities behind these programs, Paxson said, but she added that new master’s programs could serve as an additional source of revenue for the University.

Though there is room for improvement, doctoral programs must be developed through “careful, focused investments,” she said.

“We have to make sure the ones that are already in existence have what they need and can excel,” Reginster said.

 

Faculty incentives

The plan highlights three faculty-related goals: furthering research programs, incentivizing outside-the-classroom scholarships and diversifying the faculty ranks. Administrators aim to build a “pipeline of young scholars” from diverse backgrounds, the plan stated.

Recruiting a diverse range of postdoctoral fellows and other young scholars will move the University in “the right direction,” said Bahar, who is also the current chair of the Faculty Executive Committee.

To make the University’s sabbatical policy more competitive with other elite institutions, administrators will consider changes to course scheduling and the academic calendar to increase “blocks of time” for faculty members to conduct research, according to the plan.

A new sabbatical policy would give recently tenure associate professors 100 percent of their salaries while they conduct research during their semesters out of the classroom, said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12, who chaired the Committee on Faculty Recruitment, Strategic Development and Retention. Tenured faculty members on sabbatical currently earn 75 percent of their salaries while away, McLaughlin said.

Though the plan incentivizes a stronger research environment, McLaughlin said he saw “no distinction” between support for both teaching and research in the plan.

“The document is very good about this because it focuses on integration” of both duties, he added.

Bahar said she believed most faculty members will view the plan as a document that values both enhancing teaching and promoting research.

 

‘Reimagining the Campus and Community’

The plan lays out campus development plans that emphasize investing in College Hill while further developing the Jewelry District.

Though the plan states that “College Hill will remain the core of undergraduate education and faculty research,” the Jewelry District takes a prominent place in the campus development strategy.

Administrators hope to preserve College Hill’s “walkable, intimate campus,” Paxson said, adding that the Jewelry District will be used for more research-intensive programs, especially biomedical research.

Along with shifting research programs, the University aims to integrate residential facilities for medical and graduate students, administrative offices and retail space into the Jewelry District, according to the plan. College Hill would remain devoted to “undergraduate-focused departments and programs,” according to the plan.

The Admission Office’s move to the Jewelry District — which allowed the office’s former location at 45 Prospect Street to house the Department of Philosophy — was one such effort toward transitioning offices “that are nonessential to undergraduate education classrooms” downtown, Bahar said.

College Hill will remain the base teaching undergrads and grad students, Bahar said.

Collaboration with the private sector will be necessary to achieve the University’s vision for Jewelry District growth, the plan states.

Administrators will work to implement a “comprehensive transportation plan” to improve transit between College Hill and the Jewelry District, while administrators will aim to use technological innovations in and out of the classroom to better connect the campus with the global community, according to the plan.

The University will create a new technological education office — to be called the Laboratory for Educational Innovation — within the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, the plan stated.

Expanding online learning “untethers people from campus,” Paxson said, adding that digital course material provides more flexibility to study abroad.

Though the University is in the final stages of a two-year, $56 million dorm renovation project, Paxson highlighted a future overhaul of the Ratty  — which she called “long overdue” — and continued renovations to residential halls.

Administrators have not finalized which residence halls will be renovated or the specific changes that will be made to the Ratty, Bahar said. But she said this part of the plan is a “nearer-term goal” that will likely be completed in the next two or three years.

  • Tischo Sauce

    This disappoints. After more than a year, they call a discussion paper a strategic plan. No numbers. No commitment. Chris is capable. But the Corporation as led by Larry Tisch sets such a low bar, as it did with Ruth Simmons. Where does Larry Tisch rank among fellow corporate people? Exactly.

    Here is a guide for you, Chris. If all these are such good ideas, why have they not happened already?

    Also, Chris, what will be done about the high ratio of bureaucratic staff to academic staff? Do you realize that it is way out of line? (Just do a time-line graph, and you will see.) What will be done about cheating in applications, and cheating in classes. (Yeah yeah this is not Harvard, but seriously.)

    You gotta wonder. Chris, does Princeton work this way too?

  • Brown Alum

    “Peace- and justice-oriented international studies” is one of the 7 areas of multi-disciplinary academic focus under the Paxson strategic plan? “New sophomore seminars would focus on issues of diversity and equity.” Seriously, why not remove all pretense and facade and re-name the university “Far Left University.” At least that would introduce a modicum of intellectual honesty into the place. “Brown will be better if it’s a little bigger.” Can you imagine that kind of deep thinking in a Princeton or Yale strategic plan, both of which undergraduate colleges are smaller than Brown’s? Deeply disappointing and underwhelming, at least to the extent summarized in this article.

  • A Real Brown Alum

    I am super conservative and a registered Republican but guess what – I like peace and justice, too, “Brown Alum” commentator. I don’t see how fostering peace and justice is a partisan or even ideological issue but I guess you didn’t really go to Brown if you can’t understand my confusion with your comment.

  • Daniel Moraff

    It’s 11 pages. It’s packed so full of generalities that it’s virtually impossible to determine what any of it will actually mean for Brown. And it sure seems like that’s the goal. Thanks to the BDH for pretending it’s a real plan.

  • anon

    LOL