Amid the national economic recession in 2009 and only months after the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs settled a costly legal battle, Christina Paxson took the reigns of the school from her predecessor, Anne-Marie Slaughter.
Paxson, who was named Brown's 19th president last month, came to Woodrow Wilson after a year as chair of Princeton's economics department. Previously, she served as assistant chair and taught in the department for almost 25 years.
"When I first took over, we were smack in the middle of the economic downturn," Paxson said. "I hadn't expected to have to deal with the financial situation."
Her focus remained on students throughout the difficulties. The Woodrow Wilson School - which maintains its own private endowment - saw its endowment shrink considerably. Stanley Katz, professor of Public and International Affairs at Woodrow Wilson, said he estimates funds decreased by around 40 percent.
"I think the most important thing to do when you have to deal with a financial crisis is to really think about what your values are," Paxson said.
Financial aid and student experience placed prominently at the top of her list. Paxson fought to ensure that students enrolled in the school's three graduate programs had the same availability of financial aid and that undergraduates had the same resources available for summer research and internships.
As her tenure progressed, Paxson's focus shifted to the quality of the Woodrow Wilson School's academic offerings.
"I knew coming in that we were way overdue for taking a hard look at our teaching programs, and it was easy for me to know that because I had been here for a really long time," she said. From an administrative position, curricular reform is one of the best decisions to pursue during a financial downturn because it does not take a toll on the endowment and also improves the institution, she added.
Paxson hopes to visit Brown at least once more before assuming the presidency but said she needs to focus on Princeton responsibilities during April. She will officially take over as the University's president July 1.
Paxson's tenure marked two major changes to the school - the abolishment of selective admission to the school and curricular reforms to increase the interdisciplinary focus of the school.
Before Paxson, the Woodrow Wilson School offered the University's only selective degree program. Sophomores interested in majoring in public policy were required to apply to the school. Around half of the applicants were generally accepted to the 90-person class each year, Katz said.
"I was always very much reassured that if you were serious about being a Woodrow Wilson School major and not just doing it for prestige, then you were going to get it," said Andrew Lu, a senior in the school whose studies focus on public health.
Paxson said she saw a problem with the school's lack of prerequisites. Students were not required to complete any specific courses before applying to the school, a safeguard for students who would be rejected from the major. Paxson believed that this was a disadvantage to students who were accepted because they did not fully understand the school's demands.
"Princeton is a university that puts emphasis on public service," Paxson said, referring to the University's motto "in the nation's service." The Woodrow Wilson School specifically trains students for public service, and Paxson said it was wrong for students to be told they could not study it.
"Every year, I would have terrific students who would come into my office and say I came to Princeton to go to the Woodrow Wilson School, and I just got rejected," she added.
When Paxson put the issue to a vote at a faculty meeting, there was almost unanimous support for the proposal.
"I just think (the application process is) unfair ... and in some ways an unfortunate source of unnecessary controversy at such an elite university on the basis of criteria that I don't even fully understand," said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs. Oppenheimer praised Paxson's leadership throughout the process, saying he was impressed with how she handled a contested issue.
Katz said he disagrees with the decision because he said class size at the school needs to be controlled. He added that he is not completely sure about the decision's implications, but that he believes there will now be a "large influx" of students interested in majoring in public policy.
The decision to abolish selectivity "has made public policy more of an option for me," Princeton freshman Jonathan Esposito said. "At first, when I came in, I wasn't considering it because of the application process, but (Paxson's decision) definitely opened the possibility up."
"As a freshman, it gives me certainty and allows me to start preparing for the department's requirements without fearing that my time may go to waste," freshman Alvaro Cuba said.
Many echoed Esposito's sentiment, but some pointed out that the elimination of the application process may even reduce the number of students who are interested in the major in the coming years.
"The selectivity made people apply to the major who weren't interested in public policy because they thought it was more competitive or prestigious," said freshman Kitty Cook.
The new curriculum
Paxson's other major change will affect the junior year curriculum of the program. Previously, students accepted into the program would have to complete two policy task force seminars during their junior year. Paxson said "visiting faculty with practitioner backgrounds" often taught these seminars.
"They weren't learning the skills that they needed to tackle the senior thesis," she added. "We learned from students that they loved their junior year, but they came into their senior year blindsided by what was expected of them."
Within the new curriculum, students will only have one polic
y task force seminar and have one semester of a policy research seminar. "The focus is more on how to do research on the policy area instead of learning how to practice making policy in the area," Paxson said.
Lu said that, having recently written his mandatory senior thesis, he thinks the changes will benefit students.
"A lot of seniors were lost in the beginning because we hadn't had the chance to do independent research by ourselves on such a big scale," Lu said. He added that the thesis is often a daunting project for seniors because it may be their first major research project.
But Katz opposes the changes, saying that the new curriculum will result in many more courses becoming cross-listed within departments.
"It will certainly be a less distinctive major," Katz said. "There will be less focus on public policy and more focus on methodology."
'Big shoes to fill'
Paxson said these changes represented one of the three major aspects of her Princeton tenure that make her most proud. She added that she would also like to be remembered for her work to "build the program in health policy" before becoming dean at the Woodrow Wilson School.
"As a dean, one of the most important things you do is recruit and retain faculty members," Paxson said. "When you bring in someone who gets tenure, you're making a change to the university that will make an impact for years."
Though her time as dean was short, faculty and students who worked with Paxson consistently praised her leadership style and character.
"She's a terribly good person. That shines through," Katz said.
"I think they're big shoes to fill because her personality is grand. She's really warm," said Lu, who worked with Paxson on his senior thesis, adding that he was very lucky to have gotten to work with her.
And as her tenure winds down, her colleagues and students say she will leave behind a reputation of solid decision-making and friendly leadership.
"She leaves a legacy of an institution that has been able to continually evolve and modernize itself in the face of the very rapidly changing world," Oppenheimer said, "and at the same time do so with an emphasis on a central culture."