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For Paxson, presidency both challenges and inspires

After two years in office, president strives to build bridges between admins, diverse U. community

As President Christina Paxson sat down for lunch with the Student Athletic Advisory Board at her house last Wednesday, she assured her guests she had “no formal agenda” and encouraged them to drive the conversation.

These opening remarks were reminiscent of her approach to the State of Brown address this year, which Paxson declared a “conversation” rather than a speech.

Paxson has been doing a lot of listening recently, and her aptitude for conversation is evident. She was constantly engaged at the meeting with student athlete leaders, nodding her head and posing questions as they presented information.

Her willingness to participate in dialogue is a trait Paxson’s admirers acclaim. Accessible, engaging and collaborative were the descriptors that alums, students and professionals who have worked closely with her repeatedly mentioned in interviews.

Paxson and Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 visit each other’s offices and talk half a dozen times a week, he said. In Schlissel’s first year at the University, Paxson’s predecessor, Ruth Simmons, walked across the hall to his office once the entire year.

The president “brings the knowledge and value system of a department chair to the work of the presidency,” Schlissel said, noting her engagement with academic issues in particular.

As Paxson nears the end of her second year in University Hall, she has been at the center of heated campus debates in which she has faced criticism for misunderstanding students’ concerns. In the wake of such heat, she has emphasized dialogue to connect with a greater number of Brown community members, seeking to develop understanding through conversation.

 

From Pennsylvania to Providence

In May 2012, a couple of months after being named Simmons’ successor, Paxson came to campus for an event celebrating 120 years of women at Brown.

“She was already doing a lot of research,” Brown Alumni Association President Nancy Hyde ’80 recalled, noting that Paxson left a “great impression” and was “very knowledgeable” about the University’s history.

Paxson is no stranger to consuming information quickly. She found her academic passion in a year-long introductory economics class her junior year at Swarthmore College, deciding to take nothing but economics senior year in order to graduate with a degree in the discipline.

“I can see a lot of what I went through in college with some Brown students,” Paxson told The Herald, adding that she is glad Swarthmore afforded her the liberty to take an array of subjects, discover her true interest as a junior and still graduate in four years.

Before stumbling upon her calling, Paxson had declared English and philosophy as her disciplines. When she matriculated, she first planned on becoming a doctor, but dropped the idea her first year after realizing she was “terrible” at chemistry.

Paxson’s varied coursework left her with “some appreciation for the value of a very wide range of fields,” she said, adding that her only regret about her education is going directly from Swarthmore to graduate school at Columbia, where she earned a PhD in economics.

Like many students, Paxson worried about the feasibility of pursuing research after her undergraduate years, even after switching from Columbia’s business school to its economics program.

But Paxson realized as a graduate student that she loved researching and teaching and received a post as an assistant professor at Princeton in 1987.

 

‘Starting to understand’

At the meeting with student athletes, Paxson’s teaching experience manifested itself as conversation continued around her dining room table. When a student hesitantly leaned forward as if he had something to say but was then cut off by another, she came back to him, imploring him to contribute, like a professor leading a seminar. Her tone was not pedantic, but it was clear that she was at the head of the table.

Marguerite Joutz ’15, who organized a discussion hosted by the Brown Conversation in the aftermath of the former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly incident, noticed this duality when Paxson speaks with students.

“She was definitely the president in the room,” Joutz said, but in a sense “she was like any other conversation participant.”

The Kelly lecture’s shutdown and the Corporation’s decision not to divest from major coal companies have been among the most public controversies facing Paxson’s administration, drawing unparalleled scrutiny from the student body.

Paxson announced the Corporation’s coal decision Oct. 27, and the Kelly incident occurred two days later. Following the events, her disapproval rating among undergraduates spiked from 9 to 28 percent, The Herald found in a poll conducted at the time.

Paxson hesitated as she recalled her feelings in the moment she heard about the Kelly lecture disruption, trying to put them into words.

“My immediate reaction was I, … how can I put this … I was very sorry that it happened,” she said. “I didn’t understand probably until the next night, when we held the forum, how important it would be to this campus. How intense, widespread the discussion would be.”

When Paxson first heard Kelly was speaking, she figured it would be “interesting,” she said, and did not consider the vantage point of those who had personal experiences with the controversial stop-and-frisk policies Kelly implemented.

“I don’t think that at the time she had any understanding of what was really going on with the students who protested,” said Justice Gaines ’16, who took part in the protest and has consistently conversed privately with Paxson as well as other students since the incident.

Paxson said something similar of herself.

“We have to be much more sensitive about how things are going to be viewed by different communities,” she said. “The fact that we didn’t get that means we didn’t understand a group of people at Brown.”

Paxson said she and most faculty members think stop-and-frisk policies and racial profiling are “horrible.”

But there is a difference between empathy and the visceral reaction engendered by direct experience with racial profiling, some students say. Though most white students and faculty members may oppose stop-and-frisk, they have likely never been presumed guilty for a crime based on their skin color.

Gaines said a crucial misunderstanding between the administration and the student protesters was the dialogue about a free exchange of ideas that Paxson promoted in a campus-wide email after the incident.

Paxson and the protesters “were not talking about the same thing,” Gaines said. “There was no contention about the need for free exchange of ideas. There were some issues related to identity and race that don’t fall under ideas. They fall under experiences.

“Identity issues in regards to race … were a disconnect, which is why a lot of students, especially students of color, were very upset with her,” he added.

Paxson was born in Pittsburgh to a white, middle-class family with a father and mother, three kids, a car and a dog. In her early years, before her parents’ divorce, her father was an engineer, her mother a housewife — both were college-educated.

There was some history of academia in her family, she said, as her maternal grandfather was an agronomy professor at the University of Tennessee, and two of her great-grandmothers went to Swarthmore, where she, her husband and her older son, Nick, also studied.

Raised in a Quaker family during the 1960s and ’70s, when social justice movements around civil rights and the Vietnam War peaked, Paxson was introduced to activism at an early age.

“Quaker meeting was talking about Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi,” she said, adding that these childhood experiences continue to influence how she sees activism.

But Paxson did not anticipate the intensity of activists’ opposition to Kelly’s lecture, and the six months since have been a test of the communication skills her supporters laud, as she tries to include a wide range of constituents in discussions about University governance.

“President Paxson has made steps since (the Kelly lecture) to become more sensitive to a greater percentage of the student body,” Joutz said, adding that the president has worked to reach out to more students on campus. She highlighted the fact that Paxson stayed an extra hour at a Brown Conversation meeting to answer student questions.

Paxson is “starting to understand more how experience affects students,” Gaines said, adding that “she’s working hard to get to that understanding.”

Conversations with students in the aftermath of the incident were “moving,” albeit “very difficult” at times, Paxson said. “It gave me an opportunity to connect to students at a level that normally would not happen.”

Meeting with students is just one part of a job “you don’t do,” Paxson said. “You live it.”

 

A day in the life 

It is impossible to summarize an average day as president of the University, Paxson added.

“There is no normal, but I have very full days,” she said, displaying her calendar, which is covered with events from 6 a.m., when she goes to the gym, until 9 p.m.

But it is the irregularity of the presidency’s daily tasks that keeps Paxson going.

“It’s so diverse, and it’s the diversity that I love. I’m in a lot of meetings. I go to a lot of events,” she said.

Despite a packed schedule, Paxson holds regular office hours and makes time for students who reach out to her.

After Elizabeth Weber ’14 wrote Paxson a letter asking to participate in the strategic planning process, she found a note from the president in her mailbox.

Paxson agreed to take Weber on as an intern for the summer.

“She offered her time to me every single week of the summer,” Weber said, adding that despite her position of power, “she was so willing to help me and to be my mentor.”

As she has gotten to know students, Paxson said, she has realized they are distinct in several ways from students at Princeton, where she spent her entire career as an educator before beginning her term at Brown in July 2012.

The greatest surprise of the move from Princeton to Providence was the ease with which she adjusted, Paxson said.

“I had been there for 25 years. I packed up my office, and I left, and I haven’t missed it at all,” she said, adding that the extent to which she enjoys working with the students was also hard to imagine before taking the helm at Brown.

“I didn’t appreciate how much of a community this is in a way that Princeton isn’t,” she said, adding that “Brown students are just a little looser, more creative, and they love the flexibility that Brown offers, and it does show in these very intangible ways when I talk to Brown students.”

While she now appreciates the sense of community among students, appreciating and understanding the many different people on campus are two distinct tasks.

Paxson compared the role of a university president to that of a city mayor.

“There are many different groups of constituents,” she said. “Sometimes they have very different views on what the University should be doing, and engaging them all in the life of Brown is very important.”

As her conversation with the Student Athlete Advisory Board, which represents one of the largest student communities on campus, came to a close Wednesday, Paxson gave the students the floor.

She asked them for “one piece of advice,” another example of her willingness to look to students for guidance.

Paxson has more work to do to fully connect with every “constituent” at Brown. But her enthusiasm for leading is apparent, and she earnestly solicits students and faculty members’ counsel on how best to serve them.

What she does with that counsel may ultimately define her administration.



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