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Heading University, Paxson navigates alumni interests

While many alums grow distant after leaving the Hill, initiatives, donations keep some involved

This series will explore the first 1,000 days of Christina Paxson’s presidency. This story, the final of three, will look at how Paxson interacts and contends with alums.

As the public face of the University, President Christina Paxson P’19 must appeal to a number of varied interests. One major group she must court is alums, who provide much of the financial support that makes a president’s goals possible.

“The president is really committed to listening and engaging alums,” Provost Vicki Colvin said, adding that Paxson incorporates alumni comments into existing and developing program plans.

While many alums disengage with the University post-graduation, some remain passionate about individual issues and continue to engage in campus dialogue. Those who do keep in tune with College Hill can both provide support to or cause major road blocks for a presidency.

Calling all alums

Increased alumni outreach constitutes a major initiative of Paxson’s administration.

Paxson has made efforts to reach alums by speaking at alumni events around the country, and she has bolstered their involvement in the University by launching initatives like BrownConnect — the CareerLAB’s online platform for students to network with alums and find internship opportunities that alums provide.

BrownConnect is one of the most visible ways Paxson has sought to increase alumni involvement in the University.

There are currently over 40,000 alums listed on BrownConnect and 491 opportunities posted, said Donna Curry, director of alumni leadership programs.

“Her actions with regard to creating the BrownConnect program have been incredibly well received,” said Todd Andrews ’83, vice president of alumni relations.

Davies Bisset ’85, Brown Sports Foundation executive director, said Paxson “has done a great job on articulating (BrownConnect) and bringing it to fruition.”

Under Paxson’s tenure, the University has also seen an increase in subscriptions to “Brown in the News,” the e-mail newsletter, and in “Alumni Monthly,” the alumni magazine.

Presidents may reach out to alums to keep them informed and invested or to create opportunities for current undergraduates, as in the case of BrownConnect. But, for many alums, the most apparent way the University connects is economic.

Building a base

One of Paxson’s major responsibilities involves growing the University’s endowment and increasing donations.

A recent strategy to broaden the donation base entailed changing the interface of the annual fund website — alums can now specify where their gift will be allocated, Paxson said. “I can say that every gift has an impact, and it does, but people like to know specifically what their gifts have an impact on,” she added.

The Corporation accepted about $63 million in gifts at its February meeting, nearly a 150 percent increase from last year’s February total, The Herald previously reported.

Brown ranks among the top five universities with the highest alumni donation rate, Colvin said, adding, “we are really good” at soliciting donations.

Slightly over one-third of Brown’s undergraduate alums donate to the University. “Comparatively, that’s a very good number” when measured against peer institutions, said Patricia Watson, senior vice president for advancement.

As president, Paxson plays a major role in that success.

Alums respond to Paxson’s “visible, accessible and approachable” demeanor, Watson said. Excluding large public events, Paxson visits over 200 alums annually, Watson said.

Bisset also praised Paxson, saying she “has a really low-key, warm, gentle way about her, but you can tell she’s also equally brilliant.”

“She seems to understand what she’s doing and is clear about it,” said Stephen Schwartz ’91. He added that a profile of Paxson in “Alumni Monthly” conveyed that she is a “fast decider” with a “direct style.” 

Though a president’s personality and outreach play a major role in shaping the direction of the University, some alums feel a connection primarily with the campus and the institution and are neutral about the president.

William Dunbar ’76 , who has previously donated to the University, said he has not followed Paxson as an individual policy-maker.

Schwartz has not heard strong opinions on Paxson. “The people I know that always kvetch about any time that Brown wants to build or change are still kvetching, and the people who are understanding about that are not kvetching.” Even the detractors do not seem to target Paxson or her policies, Schwartz said.

Christopher Norris-LeBlanc ’14 said he did not have a personal sense of Paxson, as “the way people in her position have to interact with the community at large is so carefully created.” He added that presidents of large universities are “very much politicians.”

“It’s hard to feel much of a personal sense of a connection to the organization,” said Harpo Jaeger ’14.5.

Getting back in touch

Though some alums are distant from campus happenings most of the time, certain controversial events during Paxson’s presidency have elicited increased alumni response. These events place Paxson in the spotlight as the University’s major spokeswoman.

“I have appreciated her statements over the last few years to the Brown community and to the wider public on various current (and sometimes difficult) matters,” Priscilla May Drucker ’64 wrote in an email to The Herald.

Brown alums are “incredibly informed” about campus events, said Colvin. “It’s like they still feel a part of the campus, and they own it and they want it to be a certain way.”

“The incident that has probably generated the most response is the Ray Kelly incident,” Paxson said. The situation was “unusual,” and the primary feedback she received was that “the alumni were upset, not by what the University had done but by what some students had done,” she added.

Though he did not attend, Schwartz said he appreciated the way Paxson handled the community meeting following the Ray Kelly incident which occurred in October 2013. “She said right away that she did not want a podium. She wanted people standing around in a circle.”

The University’s handling of recent allegations of or related to sexual misconduct as well as efforts to revise relevant policy have generated fewer alumni communications, Paxson said, and the concerns are of a “different dynamic.”

Bisset said he believes Paxson is “taking a very thorough approach to try to straighten out some policies that maybe were not very well defined the past few years.”

But some alums have criticized Paxson’s passive response to certain pressing issues, particularly campus sexual assault. One major response to this was the formation of Brown Alumni to Stop Assault, an organization created to keep alums involved in efforts to curtail campus sexual assault.

Charlie Hartwell ’85, a member of BASTA, wrote an email to the administration urging the University to do more to increase safety on campus and “become a national leader in the current sexual assault crisis being exposed on our college campuses.”

“There are many survivors, students, alumni and activists who will assist you in taking the lead,” he added. 

Paxson generally refrains from taking a strong stance on an issue until it attracts public attention, Norris-LeBlanc said. “It seems like they did a lot of truth-trickling with their public statements, only releasing information about the cases when they felt like it would be a publicity nightmare not to,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. He added that this approach “is egregious because it shows they are prioritizing their image over their students.”

“More measured responses that are more indicative of stronger leadership would have been better,” Norris-LeBlanc said, adding that it seems like many alums are unhappy with Paxson’s “flat-footed” responses to controversial campus events.

In Simmons’ shadow

Any president must contend with the legacy of their predecessor, both in terms of policy and persona.

Throughout her presidency, Paxson has faced comparisons to former President Ruth Simmons, particularly from young alums who attended the University under Simmons’ leadership.

Norris-LeBlanc said he thought Paxson was “an academic technocrat” while Simmons “wore many hats.” He added that Simmons often came across as more involved in social issues, though he does not believe she actually had significant involvement advancing social justice on campus.

“Ruth had cult status,” Jaeger said, adding that Paxson is often judged in contrast to Ruth.

Simmons “was truly impressive, every ounce of her,” Bisset said, adding, “Paxson is so different from Ruth, but she’s exactly what we need at this time.”

Many of Paxson’s policies are essentially a continuation of former President Ruth Simmons’, outlined in her “Plan for Academic Enrichment.”

As a part of Paxson’s strategic plan, “Building on Distinction,” Brown is moving in the direction of a research-oriented university. Though this trend pre-dates Paxson’s presidency, she was “hand chosen as a sort of technocrat as someone who would continue this mission,” Norris-LeBlanc said.

“In general, if Brown wants to continue to be the Ivy that allows people to explore (within) academics, doesn’t care about rankings and keep an open curriculum, she is not the right person for the job,” Norris-LeBlanc said. “There’s probably a correlation between the people to whom she’s reaching out” in creating policy and soliciting donations and those that are invested and interested in seeing Brown develop into a major research institution, he said. “The prioritization of undergraduate education is going to continue to slip.”

But Bisset disagreed, saying, “I just love that she brings a breath of fresh air, everything about her, I just like her style, the low-key leadership that she’s bringing to Brown.” He added, “She’s the right person at the right time for what we need.”

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