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Paxson lauded for ‘bottom-up’ leadership style

One year after Paxson’s election, professors and students reflect on the president’s approach

One year after her selection, President Christina Paxson has earned acclaim on campus for what faculty members and students called receptiveness to the community and decisive leadership.

Paxson entered the University without a set agenda and with a willingness to listen, get to know people and respect the institution, said Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus of engineering. Many other community members interviewed echoed his opinion.

“She didn’t show up with preconceived notions of what had to happen at Brown,” said Neal Fox GS, a member of the Campus Advisory Committee that helped select Paxson as president. “She came and spent an inordinate amount of time meeting with department heads, trying to understand the culture of Brown, see where people were and understand where Brown is as a whole.”

Faculty and students interviewed praised Paxson’s success in reaching out to all members of the community through what Hazeltine called her “bottom-up” approach to setting her agenda and effecting change at the University. Paxson visited many department heads in their own offices, a choice applauded by faculty members.

Paxson’s execution of strategic planning has garnered widespread approval for her collaboration with the community and faculty-generated, interdisciplinary strategic initiatives.

She has started to implement strategic planning changes earlier than did her predecessor Ruth Simmons, who took a year or two to acclimate before starting, said Chung-I Tan, professor of physics and chair of the Campus Advisory Committee. In that short time, Paxson has already developed a keen understanding of the culture of the University, Fox said.

While some students expressed approval of Paxson’s work thus far, others said they are still learning who she is and what her presidency might mean to them. Tomorrow will mark the one-year anniversary of her election as the University’s 19th president.


Faculty praise

All faculty members interviewed sensed widespread support for Paxson among professors, many of whom mentioned her solicitation of ideas for Signature Academic Initiatives, or faculty proposals for collaborative research projects.

“I’ve been impressed by her in that she’s willing to listen and she’s active in getting to know people and know the institution,” Hazeltine said. “I respect her for that.”

Upon Paxson’s selection last March, Roberto Serrano, professor of economics and department chair, deemed her a “wonderful choice for Brown,” and he said his opinion remains the same a year later. “She’s a terrific choice.”

Hazeltine commended Paxson for coming to speak to him about his teaching, as he noted that many of her predecessors seemed most interested only in professors whose primary purpose was research.

Paxson does oversee research appropriately, Hazeltine said, concentrating on quality rather than quantity of research.

“Ninety percent of the important research is done by 10 percent of the people, and (Paxson) is really trying to reward that kind of path-breaking work,” Hazeltine said.

Tan cited what he called Paxson’s personable but no-nonsense style of leadership as a primary reason for her rapid progress so far. “She understands academic excellence. She engages all the senior administrators in the process, which in turn engages the whole academic community in this effort,” Tan said.

Several other faculty members praised Paxson’s open and gracious nature in her dealings with the community.

During Winter Storm Nemo, Paxson invited Tan — who at that point had lost power in his home — to visit her until he regained power. “My power came back, and I couldn’t take advantage of her offer,” Tan said with a chuckle. “‘Darn it,’ I thought.”


Relating to students

Around 54 percent of students said they had no opinion or did not feel familiar enough to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with Paxson’s selection last spring in a poll conducted by The Herald.

Since coming to campus, Paxson has been a very visible part of the community, lighting candles at Hillel on a cultural holiday and even walking her poodles around campus, said Undergraduate Council of Students President Anthony White ’13.

Paxson holds open office hours once a month, which is fewer than Simmons, who held them twice a month. The shift is likely due to her spending more time adjusting to the University, White wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. He added that he expects her office hour frequency will increase in coming years.

Paxson has developed an “extremely positive” relationship with UCS, White said.

“You had to have wondered about someone who has never been a university president, who has never had to interface with an undergraduate student body,” White said. “But it comes from her nature from wanting to seek opinions and wanting to learn about Brown as much as teach us things from her perspective.”

While many students said they have yet to familiarize themselves with Paxson, most students who said they had interacted with Paxson commended her as a welcoming figure.

Alana Bhatla ’16 had the opportunity to meet Paxson several times. She held the banner with Paxson during convocation, had dinner at Paxson’s house through UCS and interviewed Paxson over video for a UCS fireside chat. “I find her very inspiring as a person,” Bhatla said. “She’s very personable, intelligent, and you can tell she is planning things for the future.”

Bhatla found such a role model in Paxson that she and her roommate coined the motto “WWCPD” (What Would Christina Paxson Do) in their daily decision-making. “We were inspired by the fact that she wakes up every morning, works out, works and still has time to take care of her dogs,” Bhatla said. “So we thought, let’s just try to be Christina Paxson.”

But Stoni Tomson ’15, a member of the Student Labor Alliance, criticized Paxson for refusing to cut the University’s contract with Adidas and for her response to students protesting about the contract.

“President Paxson has refused to honor Brown’s legacy in anti-sweatshop work,” Tomson wrote in an email to The Herald. “She has refused to take students’ voices seriously and displayed a blatant disregard for Brown’s code of conduct.”


‘Her own president’

The legacy of the “cult of Ruth” still lingers in the minds of upperclassmen after Simmons’ departure, but Paxson is working to define herself as an individual and be recognized for her own way of problem solving and reaching out to constituencies, White said.

“I didn’t know whether she could fill the shoes of Ruth Simmons,” White said. “But as I got to know her over time and see her in action, there’s no need. She’s an effective leader in her right.”

“When strategic planning becomes a part of her legacy, that’s when the cult of Paxson will begin,” White added.

While Simmons was an incredible president who raised the bar for Brown, Paxson has identified that positive direction and reevaluated how the university can raise that bar again in a targeted way, Fox said.

“I think that she is her own president right now, and that’s important,” Fox said.

Paxson’s expertise in economics and public policy — fields where scholars submit papers to policymakers as opposed to crafting theoretical research papers — supports her pragmatic agenda, Hazeltine said.

“She’s interested in real-world problems, things she thinks will have an influence beyond academia,” Hazeltine said.


What’s next?

When Simmons announced her intended resignation in Sept. 2011, she “left Brown in an incredible place,” Fox said. “In the last year since we selected Paxson, four other universities that we compete with on a day-to-day basis picked new presidents” — Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale and MIT.

“Brown had its pick of the litter,” Fox said. “It was either a stroke of luck or a stroke of wisdom.”

Paxson will continue to work on strategic planning until the committee’s final recommendations are submitted to the Corporation in May. After that, Brown’s 250th anniversary will play an important role in Paxson’s mission to generate excitement about the University, engage the broader community and fundraise, Tan said. Fox similarly highlighted reaching out to alums as major financial resources as a focus he would want to see over the next couple of years.

The Plan for Academic Enrichment centered on expanding the University by increasing the size of the faculty 20 percent in fewer than 10 years, Serrano said.

He predicts less growth under Paxson for a number of reasons, including the global financial crisis, but he still encourages some growth of the University.

“The ratio of students to faculty is high, and we need to bring that down,” Serrano said. “As the chair of (the economics) department, I wouldn’t be happy with a zero percent growth rate.”

Many of the issues raised by the faculty members interviewed have already been addressed in some regard in the strategic planning committees’ interim reports released in January, those interviewed said — such as the development of new workspaces for grad students, the creation of interdepartmental buildings and the renovation of existing classroom space.

Hazeltine specifically praised the theme of interdisciplinary collaboration that guided many of the preliminary recommendations of strategic planning, citing the importance of interdisciplinary initiatives at a small university like Brown.

“She’s really committed to making this not just a Paxson presidency, but to make it Brown University coming together, challenging Brown in similar ways that (Simmons) was able to,” Fox said. “She’s being critical and saying, ‘Where do we want to go?’”

Serrano cited the progress toward making Brown a strong research university and undergraduate college under Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment as a path on which the University should continue.

Even with Brown’s undergraduate focus, Paxson clearly understands that a vibrant grad school is necessary for the University’s recognition as a research institution, Fox said.

“If we can continue down that path — with Brown as a leader in the academic world with wonderful faculty and students and make a significant change in the world — that’s a good goal to have,” Serrano said.

“Paxson is definitely the right leader for that kind of project,” he said.


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