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As Paxson charts U.’s future, Simmons’ influence lingers

Shifting economic circumstances instilled caution in President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan

In the weeks after Christina Paxson was named the University’s 19th president, the transformative tenure of her predecessor, Ruth Simmons, set the backdrop against which Paxson’s presidency would be viewed.

That lens can set expectations for and illuminate Paxson’s strategic plan “Building on Distinction: A New Plan for Brown,” released last month and approved by the Corporation the weekend of Oct. 26.

Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment, released in 2004, was the first formal strategic plan in the University’s history, and Building on Distinction, the next document to articulate a vision for Brown’s future, will be measured in the context of its legacy.

But Building on Distinction was forged in vastly different institutional and economic circumstances than the PAE. The University’s improved instutional strength made it possible for this planning process to be broader and more inclusive, said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15.

But some questioned the degree to which input from outside University Hall influenced the plan’s original draft, which faced criticism for its lack of definitive goals. Administrators responded that the plan was crafted with flexibility in mind.

With Brown embarking on the next decade guided by Paxson’s plan, this four-part series will examine the plan’s broader historical context, the financial strategies that will underpin forthcoming initiatives, the significance of the  plan’s intentions to expand Brown’s presence in the greater Providence community and the implications of its academic proposals.


Terra firma

The PAE was formulated during an “era of instability,” Schlissel said.

Simmons’ arrival in July 2001 came at a tenuous time for the University. Former President E. Gordon Gee’s short tenure and unexpected resignation in February 2000 and the subsequent interim presidency of Sheila Blumstein, currently a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, left the University lacking consistent leadership and lagging behind its peers.

“The interim president is in a sense a placeholder,” Blumstein said. The Corporation “wouldn’t provide funds in the absence of a sitting president.”

Former Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Richard Spies said the University was “a little bit stuck” when Simmons arrived.

She was immediately tasked with restoring Brown to the level of its peers, the impetus behind the PAE.

“If we were starting from a position with no programmatic and institutional deficits, our task would be somewhat different,” the PAE reads. Contemporary circumstances led Simmons’ plan to take a reactive rather than a proactive approach.

“There are things we couldn’t pursue until other things were put in place,” said Spies, who also served as a senior adviser to Simmons.

In particular, Spies said master’s programs and general expansion of graduate education were implausible without significantly growing the faculty, as the PAE ultimately did.

While the PAE addressed many deficits, “Building on Distinction” comes at a stronger time in Brown’s history, Paxson and Schlissel said.

What senior administrators called a restoration of institutional health allowed the recent strategic planning process to take a more forward-looking approach, Paxson said.

“We now have the luxury of making choices about where we want to focus resources,” she said. “We’re now in a position where we can say, ‘Okay, what are the areas where we can be really, really great?’”

But others said Brown was not in decline when Simmons arrived.

Brown “might have been moving in a direction that President Simmons and her staff didn’t think was the right direction, but I don’t think it was in dire straits,” said Professor of History Howard Chudacoff.

The course she laid out for the University may have been misguided, said Stephen Nelson, a higher education expert and senior scholar at the Leadership Alliance at Brown.

“There are a lot of old-timers at Brown who feel … that Simmons spent the first couple of years here trying to turn Brown into Princeton,” Nelson said.


The uncertainty principle

Though the University rehabilitated its core during Simmons’ tenure — expanding the faculty and improving facilities — the 2008 financial crisis produced new cracks in the foundation. In January 2009, Simmons projected an $800 million loss to the University’s endowment, requiring deep budget cuts and dramatically changing the nature of strategic planning, Paxson said.

“We live in a more uncertain world than we did 12 years ago,” she said, a theme that surfaced repeatedly in interviews with senior administrators. Uncertainty stems not only from the 2008 crisis and its aftershocks but also from the lingering possibility, narrowly avoided in recent weeks, that the United States could default on its debt, which could sink the nation back into recession, Schlissel said.

Paxson said economic instability has led to less predictable endowment returns and the sequester has slashed federal research funding.

That context engendered a decisively more cautious plan than the PAE, a distinction exemplified by each document’s language on financial aid.

The PAE declares, “Brown will offer need-blind admission for all undergraduates, including international and transfer students” — a goal not fully realized.

Building on Distinction is more hesitant: The University “will work toward Brown’s long-standing goal of becoming fully need-blind for all students.”

“While I would love to be need-blind for financial aid, we can’t do that unless we can be sure need-blind is very financially prudent and responsible,” Paxson said.

Adaptability has thus replaced boldness as the chief virtue in a strategic plan.

“A plan should set out directions that allow for the flexibility that’s going to be required as we go forward,” Paxson said. At the time the PAE was released, she said, it was more common to have “a much more set-in-stone plan.”

Schlissel warned against creating “false expectations” and making promises on which the University might renege.

Nelson expressed support for Paxson’s more cautious approach. “If they overreach with a plan and they don’t get the significant pieces of it … there’s no quicker way to demotivate a whole culture,” he said.

But Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02 said he appreciated Simmons’ boldness. “Rather than say money first, then we go need-blind, she said we have to go need-blind, and we’ll count on the money to show.”

Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine GP’15 said Building on Distinction appears unfinished, while the PAE was more “fully fleshed out.”

The PAE is about four times the length of Building on Distinction and articulates goals in more specific terms.

Paxson “put out a beta version, so to speak,” Hazeltine said.

But Paxson said the speed of this planning process — twice as fast as that of the PAE — “is reflected in the fact that it doesn’t contain the full set of metrics by which we will measure ourselves.”


Reaching out 

Though the PAE incorporated many voices, Paxson’s planning process was more inclusive, Schlissel said.

Planning centered on six committees composed of administrators, faculty members, undergraduates and graduate students. The administration also surveyed the community, collected data and held open forums. It was a very “iterative and consultative process,” Schlissel said.

But despite students’ formal inclusion, some expressed skepticism about the weight of their contributions.

Though students “were consulted,” their voices lacked a major impact on both the PAE and Building on Distinction, said John Savage P’88 P’95 P’03 P’05 GP’17, professor of computer science.

“Students, both graduate and undergraduate, were not well represented,” wrote Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies Harold Roth in an email to The Herald. “This is unfortunate because in a real way students have the most insight into what is disctinctive about the Brown education and what elements of it need to be preserved.”

Students may not be the only constituency with tenuous influence.

The faculty has historically had an important role in determining University priorities, as when it “had the last say on the curriculum” in the 1960s, said University Historian Jane Lancaster.

Faculty members can still influence and exert significant pressure on administrators, Savage said.

But Roth wrote in a Herald Opinions column that it was “disappointing” not to see mentions of recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits in the new plan. The faculty had unanimously approved the committee’s recommendations at its February meeting.

The roles of many outside University Hall in the planning process were more “cosmetic” than substantive, said a long-time faculty member who wished to remain anonymous.

While Simmons’ efforts to solicit input were not “a charade,” Nelson said, “my hunch is that she had a pretty good idea in her own brain what she felt Brown needed.”


‘On each other’s shoulders’

The successes and shortcomings of the PAE’s implementation loom large over Building on Distinction.

“These plans always build on each other, and presidents stand on each other’s shoulders,” Nelson said.

Paxson cited the PAE’s pushes for more competitive financial aid, faculty salaries and graduate stipends as critical pursuits for Building on Distinction to continue.

“If we retreat on those, we will go backwards,” Paxson said.

Paxson’s plan might therefore be expected to build on the PAE in continuing unfinished initiatives and using the fortified faculty and facilities to push forward new ideas.

Building on Distinction maintains the PAE’s unfulfilled goal of adopting a universal need-blind admission policy. Though 2007 marked the beginning of need-blind admission for domestic applicants, the University remains need-aware when considering international, transfer and Resumed Undergraduate Education applicants.

Paxson’s plan will “continue our commitment to need-blind admission and will move in the direction of expanding it,” Miller said, but that extension goes “not quite as far as I would like.”

Building on Distinction’s proposal for incremental faculty growth represents another continuation of the PAE, which called for 100 new faculty members in its initial stages, followed by an annual 1 to 2 percent growth in the faculty.

Paxson has said she also expects to grow the student body by about 1 percent annually, with matching faculty expansion.

Miller said he sees in Building on Distinction the same desire as in the PAE to expand the physical campus in addition to its population. The PAE said it would add over 500,000 gross square feet of academic space and renovate 250,000 more. While Paxson’s plan does not set out square footage goals, it proposes “new buildings to house exceptional scholarly initiatives” and additional space for the School of Engineering, the Alpert Medical School and the Brown Institute for Brain Science.

But Building on Distinction’s proposals for the physical campus seem to emphasize “refinements” rather than major new construction, Nelson said.

Like the PAE, Paxson’s plan bolsters the University’s commitment to graduate and professional education, Miller said. He cited the increased number of graduates from the Med School — 120 per year, double that when the PAE was released. Building on Distinction calls for a growth in the number of master’s and medical students and seeks to enhance doctoral education.

These expansions to graduate and medical education and intensified attention to research — made possible by the continued expansion of the faculty and enhancement of research facilities — are central to understanding whether the University intends to focus over the next decade on its role as an undergraduate college or on its role as a research university.

Paxson rejected the assertion that increasing the scope of graduate education detracts from undergraduate education.

“This is not a zero-sum game,” she said.

But “in spite of all of the promises that it won’t, I think (the focus on research) has the potential to change the nature of the traditional undergraduate commitments,” Chudacoff said.



Though faculty members are conscious of the two plans’ shared elements, some struggled to identify proposals in Building on Distinction that are uniquely Paxson’s — initiatives separate from what appeared in the PAE.

“I can’t see specifics of a big departure,” Miller said.

But Hazeltine pointed to integrative scholarship as distinct from any facet of Simmons’ plan. Though the PAE called for the development of multidisciplinary initiatives and programs generally, it did not enumerate specific interdisciplinary areas in which the University would make targeted investments — something Paxson’s plan does.

One of the integrative themes, brain science — a field the original PAE never explicitly mentioned — emerges as a key area of academic interest for Building on Distinction.

Building on Distinction has a much more global scope than the PAE, Nelson said. This is evidenced in the themes, which were chosen so the resulting scholarship would have “a positive impact not only on the Brown campus but also in the community, the nation and the world,” according to the plan.

The word “world” is used in Paxson’s plan more than twice as frequently as in the PAE in nearly a quarter the number of pages. The words “global” and “globe,” used 10 times in Building on Distinction, do not appear in the original version of the PAE.

But aspects of Paxson’s plan relating to technology are the most distinct from the PAE, representing a field less ripe for exploration a decade ago.

Massive open online courses, online academic tools like Canvas, the opening of the Digital Scholarship Lab in the Rockefeller Library and academic investments in engineering and computer science all reflect the effects of technological innovation on undergraduate and graduate experiences.

With attention given to “the potential applications of digital technology to teaching and learning” and “the creative use of online technologies,” Building on Distinction emphasizes and promotes augmenting technology’s presence in the classroom.

Recent technological developments have also led to the rise of Big Data, prompting Building on Distinction to include “data fluency and analysis” as one of the five sections listed under educational leadership.

“In 2002, we didn’t have digital or online learning,” said Vice Chancellor Jerome Vascellaro ’74 P’07. “The world has changed around us, and the plan is reflective of that.”


Community reaction

Because many of the PAE’s initiatives were put in motion before its release, the document’s unveiling to the community was relatively uneventful, Spies said.

He added that most reactions were voiced in February 2002 as the planning process unfolded and the administration was deciding the “flesh” of the document.

Many worried the PAE aspired to do too much, Spies said.

Though community members voiced concerns over the feasibility of the PAE’s ambitions and whether undergraduates would be “swamped” by investments in graduate education, Spies said, “I don’t think anyone thought we got the big picture wrong.”

Building on Distinction incited both praise and criticism from students, faculty members and campus organizations, but Schlissel said reaction to the plan has been insufficient — in a community of 10,000, only between 100 and 150 attended the open forum he and Paxson hosted after the plan’s release. They also attended several campus group meetings as part of the public comment period.

Many students may not have opinions on the strategic plan at all. In a Herald poll conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 1, around 16 percent of undergraduate respondents indicated they had not heard of the strategic plan, and almost half were aware of the plan but did not know enough to form an opinion.

Despite evidence of low engagement with the plan, existing opinions are strong.

Within two weeks of the draft’s release, Paxson surprised the community by announcing she would revise the document before submitting it to the Corporation based on feedback from the various forums and meetings, reversing an earlier statement that she would not change the draft.

Paxson said “the process of vetting it on campus … has made me realize that things I take for granted, people wanted to see in the plan laid out.” Undergraduate advising, competitive graduate stipends and the idea of the “university-college” were implicit in the original draft, Paxson said, but she revised the plan to include them.

Paxson said concern about the absence of the phrase “university-college” surprised her. None of the planning committees or groups who read the draft before it was released discussed whether to include the phrase, she said.

Despite Paxson’s revisions, some concerns — like commitment to growing financial aid — have not been addressed, and some still question the plan’s overall vision.

The balance between personal growth and pre-professional preparation has long been a hallmark of Brown, Roth wrote in an email. “Sadly, I do not see this well-reflected in the strategic plan as it was presented last month.”

Disagreements, though they are “a challenge to deal with,” are necessary to the planning process, Spies said. “I’d say people be patient, work on these with the administration and others to fill those blanks in.”

A lengthy process of feedback, revision and eventual implementation is key to strategic planning, Vascellaro said. “There is a long arc to these things.”

Like Simmons, whose Campaign for Academic Enrichment funded key components of the PAE, Paxson will have to develop major fundraising initiatives to implement priorities outlined in her strategic plan. Tomorrow’s story explores potential University strategies to finance Brown’s development over the next decade and what they could mean for the University.


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