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Paxson discusses University elitism, community growth

State of Brown address covers recent email leak, administrators’ plans for creating safer campus

President Christina Paxson P’19 discussed issues of Corporation accountability, mental health and faculty diversity, among other topics, in her State of Brown address in Metcalf Auditorium Wednesday.


With the support of other senior administrators and faculty members, Paxson said she is focused on the future of Brown and “what the open curriculum should look like in the 21st century.” An external firm is helping the University develop a capital campaign.


Paxson said she is excited about finding “a way to use technology in classrooms in a way that actually makes the Brown curriculum stronger,” adding that The Herald misrepresented this sentiment after last year’s State of Brown. “What I see technology doing is giving us a way to get rid of large lecture courses and build on what Brown does really well” in offering smaller group courses.


The new Engaged Scholars Program, entrepreneurial initiatives and BrownConnect are also reasons for excitement, she said.


“The most important thing about a university is the people who come to it,” Paxson said. “We talk a lot about building buildings, but two-thirds of our budget is (spent) on people.”


More financial aid made available by an anonymous donor allowed the University to double the Resumed Undergraduate Education class, Paxson said. While the University aids lower-income students more effectively than its peers, support for middle-income students needs improvement, she added.


The lack of faculty diversity, which renders the faculty unrepresentative of the student population, is problematic, she said, adding that she hopes to double the 8.5 percent of faculty members who are underrepresented minorities in the next 10 years. This year’s new diversity postdoctoral program will help “to build the pipeline of people who are coming in,” she said. Paxson said she rejects the suggestion from several Herald op-eds “that graduate students are somehow at odds” with undergraduates, and she will focus on doctoral education in the future.


Paxson acknowledged that Brown has dealt with emotionally difficult issues this year. “We’ve been asking how can we make our campus safe from the threat of sexual assault and gender-based violence and harassment,” she said.


“I am always happy that Brown has students that aren’t complacent,” Paxson said. “I would rather have you (protest) than to not care.”


The University is also focused on “how to improve mental health services on campus and take away the stigma” of mental illness, Paxson said. Brown must restructure its mental health system despite costs, she added.


Unlike the work of the Task Force on Sexual Assault, the Mental Health Community Council’s efforts will be ongoing, Paxson said.


Paxson said she seeks more integration of physical and mental health in the resources offered on campus. In addition to increasing capacity through more hires, expanding the seven-session CAPS limit and providing more support to students through the entire process of taking medical leave, restructuring efforts will look to include improving student health insurance coverage for counseling and better coordinating referrals, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services.


Paxson then opened the floor for discussion, fielding questions from more than 15 students in the hour following her initial address.


Candice Ellis ’16 asked how Paxson intended to effectively report any increases in faculty diversity given that “doubling (the percentage) would not be impactful” if it were not distributed evenly. Paxson said Brown would be more likely to see data across academic divisions — humanities and social, life and physical sciences — to avoid causing anyone to “feel singled out.”


Justice Gaines ’16 asked what Paxson is personally doing to learn about issues of inclusion and identity, adding that some students do not feel comfortable going to the administration for support.


In addition to attending events like the JewQ Seder at Brown/RISD Hillel, Paxson said she tends to “like less formal interactions with smaller groups.”


“I need your help,” Paxson said. “This has to be a two-way thing.”


Jamie Marsicano ’15.5 read aloud an excerpt of an email, leaked in the SONY hacks and published online on Gawker, that Paxson sent to current and emeriti members of the Corporation regarding letters of recommendations for applicants. “When you look at the sexual assault case, when you look at this email that you sent to the Corporation and think about what connections the Corporation has … how can you tell us that the hashtag Money Talks at Brown is not a true one?” Marsicano asked.


The article showed the letter selectively, not entirely, Paxson said, adding that the full text is available on Wiki Leaks. “You can go get it,” she said of the email.


“The real purpose for that letter is to let people set their expectations about the level of influence they can have,” Paxson said. “Nobody can buy their way into Brown.”


Several times throughout the address, Paxson repeated that admission is separate from fundraising. “What I’ve been trying to do is to actually increase the separation — make it crystal clear that admissions is separate from everything else.”


“I know that the people who work in the Admission Office have incredible integrity — I believe that to my bones. How do I convince you of that? I’m not sure how,” Paxson said in response to an audience question about administrative accountability.


“When people talk about the Corporation, who do you think you’re talking about?” Paxson asked.


As Paxson listed professions of Corporation members, including a law professor and a head of research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Darian Surratt ’15 called out “elite!” repeatedly. “Those are still very elite people with money, and in the grand scheme of the United States, those are people with a lot of money,” Surratt said.


These people are Brown students 30 years later, Paxson replied. “The day you got accepted to Brown put you in a position of privilege and power.”


“This is a longer conversation we have to have,” Paxson said. “We want to have a really wonderfully diverse community,” she added, saying, “This is not about getting rich kids into Brown. This is about finding the best students.”



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