University News

Paxson navigates advocacy, leadership

For university presidents, taking public stances on social issues requires a careful balancing act

University News Editor
Monday, April 1, 2013

President Christina Paxson signed a petition last month supporting same-sex marriage in Rhode Island on a personal basis and as a local business leader, but she did not attach the University’s official support.

“I’m not at all timid about expressing my views on things that I think are really important societally,” Paxson told The Herald. “It’s different to say the Brown University community believes that a certain political decision should be made.”

But the title next to Paxson’s name on the petition read “President, Brown University.” Same-sex marriage is just one of several national issues — including divestment from coal, affirmative action and gun control — that have stimulated campus debate this year.

Paxson’s signing reflects what experts described as a tricky balance university presidents have to strike today between acting as public figures and private citizens, academics and activists, innovators and fundraisers.


Speaking out

With the same-sex marriage petition, Paxson was navigating the line between staying silent and “saying something that would be interpreted as speaking for Brown as an institution,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education. “She doesn’t claim to be speaking for Brown, but everybody knows she’s the president of Brown.”

Advocacy is generally more politically acceptable for presidents of private universities than those of public ones, he added.

Paxson’s signature on the petition was at a “different level” than if she had used University letterhead or encouraged peers to do the same, said Stephen Nelson, higher education expert and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown.

Stanley Katz, a professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said same-sex marriage is “of such concern to so many undergraduates that I think a president is justified in doing what she did.”

Brown, as an institution of fostering learning and critical thinking, would be loath to impose a certain policy position or ideology on students, Paxson said.  “That’s not what we’re about. We’re about independent thought,” she said.

But some pundits have bemoaned what they see as university presidents’ timidity in speaking out on important national issues.

“The time has come to demand more from them, and to hold them to more elevated standards,” wrote commentator Scott Sherman in an article in the Nation last month. In the article, Sherman compared modern presidents unfavorably to those who served half a century ago, when leaders like Yale’s Kingman Brewster spoke out on issues like the Vietnam War.

But such contrasts are overblown, Spoehr said. “We tend to overestimate how much college and university presidents in the past took public stands on issues.”

Presidents today also have to contend with a 24-hour news cycle and information culture that can magnify any public figure’s comments instantaneously, Spoehr said.

“You hear from such a multitude of constituencies,” he said. “It’s a lot of noise.”


University issues

The University often engages with national political issues directly relevant to Brown, Paxson said. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which the Supreme Court heard in October, the University submitted a joint amicus brief along with several peer institutions supporting the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

“It’s appropriate for Brown to do that when it’s an issue that touches very closely to the core of our mission,” Paxson said.

Higher education experts said university presidents are typically most willing to take a stand on issues related to education or other aspects of the university, like federal funding for research.

This emphasis makes sense, Katz said.

“That’s the comparative expertise, and that’s what the authority of the president, I think, authorizes you to do,” he said.

Former President Ruth Simmons attracted national attention in 2003 when she launched the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which investigates Brown’s historical entanglements with slavery and the slave trade.

“You could make a case that Simmons … brought a social conscience to her public utterances or her public arguments,” Nelson said. “It does appear (in) the first six, seven, eight months of President Paxson that she seems to be a little bit more willing maybe to put her name” alongside controversial issues.

For one, Paxson has proved a vocal advocate for liberal arts education. At a meeting of the National Humanities Alliance in Washington, D.C. last month, she mounted a vigorous defense of the humanities and outlined a plan for higher education leaders to defend the discipline against recent criticism.

“It is really important we get this right,” she said in her speech. “For the next century will be defined not only by what we know, but by how we know. Colleges are changing, but if anything, they are more important than ever.”

On the issue of divestment from coal, a national topic in higher education, Paxson said she is committed to discussing the subject and promoting sustainability on campus but not necessarily going further.

“I think that conversation is going to continue for a while,” she told The Herald. “I’m not persuaded yet that the action (divestment activists) think the University should take is the most appropriate action.”

Other efforts Paxson has undertaken to engage the campus on national issues have remained at the level of stimulating dialogue. The Office of the President is currently co-sponsoring a series of panel discussions about gun violence in the United States with the Janus Forum. Paxson also noted her support for a fiscal summit addressing the national debt put on by Common Sense Action in February.


Coping with consequences 

Presidents of past centuries have also faced consequences for speaking their minds. In 1897, then-President Elisha Benjamin Andrews 1870 was forced to resign due to his outspoken advocacy of free silver, Spoehr said. Campus outcry compelled the Corporation to reinstate Andrews in the presidency, but he stayed for only a year longer.

Paxson said she did not check with Corporation members before submitting the affirmative action brief. She added that the possibility of alienating donors is “not at all” a concern in considering statements or actions on hot-button issues.

But higher education experts said the modern university’s heavy emphasis on fundraising has constrained presidents in new ways.

Katz pointed to the example of former President Vartan Gregorian, whom he said he knows well. Gregorian intended “to speak out on major national education issues” when he first assumed the presidency but soon found that “anything (he said) … will offend some donor to Brown,” Katz said.

“He understood that that was his principal responsibility as far as the trustees were concerned — he just had to be overly cautious about what he said,” Katz said. “It’s a terrible problem for a university president.”

The problem has grown as fundraising has become more central to universities’ operations, Katz said, and Paxson might face the same frustrations as Gregorian. “I would be very surprised if my friend (Paxson) doesn’t feel the same way,” Katz said.

Though she said she did not feel constrained by fundraising needs, Paxson said her primary concern was making sure not to misrepresent the diversity of views on campus.

“I’m a little reluctant to be presumptuous,” she said.

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  1. Christina Paxson Teaches Chess says:

    “She is committed to discussing the subject”?? Well that changes everything! Christina Paxson is committed to discussion! Such courage! Such fortitude of will! Do you think presidents throughout history ever discussed things? They did not! Ruth Simmons was a notorious coward when it came to discussion. Gordon Gee just yelled strings of nonsense words. Ruth Simmons was, of course, a deaf-mute. But Christina Paxson doesn’t fuck around. She talks and talks and talks until your ears fall off and you die but you are thankful to die hearing the sonorous tones of such an exemplar of raw courage as Christina Paxson.

    fucking appalling

    • I was thinking about what to write, but then they have all been written for me already (and some). 🙂

  2. Tom Bale '63 says:

    The BDH quotes President Paxson as saying, “I’m not persuaded yet that the action (divestment activists) think the University should take is the most appropriate action.” As an alumnus I am very disappointed. There is a fundamental disconnect between promoting sustainability within the Brown environment, and maintaining investments in the very industry, along with oil and gas, that for years has been blocking all political efforts to create a meaningful national policy to counter climate change – the greatest threat to our planet’s stability. I wish our President would spell out what it would take to convince her that Brown should show moral courage and divest. Give the graduating class of 2013 something to really be proud of as they walk through the Gate, and become alumni!

  3. Alumn '97 says:

    The gay marriage endorsement is courageous. Bravo.

    For all of the coal divestment folks, how exactly do you think this works? The President will never make moves based on impulse in response to the pleadings and shaming tactics of a small group of students. She’s no fool and seems to be a decent, considerate person. If the President could divest immediately by logging on to AmeriTrade, it would already have been done. President Paxson has received your report and has heard your voice.

    Your comments are impetuous, threaten to harm your ultimate objective of full divestment, and verge on revealing a naivete that is hopefully not also the source of your divestment activism on campus. Wait until the Corporation meets again and divestment makes sense for the financial and ethical interests of the University.

    • I’d like to thank Alumn ’97 for his innovative strategy of being quiet and not doing things as the way to accomplish social change. That’s how the civil rights movement worked, right? They were quiet and assumed that those in power were decent, considerate people. I remember when we won the HEI campaign by giving Ruth Simmons the silent treatment for six months. Works every time.

      And by the way, just so we’re clear on this: Christina Paxson is very much a fool.

      • Alumn '97 says:

        Read my post carefully. I don’t advocate ‘not doing things and keeping quiet.’ There’s nothing wrong with continuing to raise awareness as the investment strategy and its formal, institutional justification work their way through the committees, advisers (both internal and external), and other people at the University who have a role to play in realizing your goals.

        But, demonstrating unreasonable impatience and shaming President Paxson hurts your cause. The risk of losing allies and credibility is the real threat, not the virtue of your aims.

        There’s a reason that MLK is a hero of the civil rights movement and Al Sharpton is its clown.

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