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Years of activism shape Paxson administration

Recent release of diversity plan reflects changes in Paxson’s approach since Ray Kelly incident

Updated on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 10:55 a.m.

Across college campuses nationwide, administrators have grappled with how to address the demands of students calling for increased support regarding issues of diversity and inclusion. Their reactions include responses as disparate as the “muted response” and subsequent resignation of Tim Wolfe, former president of the University of Missouri, and Yale’s $50 million plan to increase faculty diversity.

In February, Brown released the final version of its Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan after over a year of planning, revisions and input from students, alums, faculty members, staff members and community members. President Christina Paxson P’19 noted that while “some interactions were more productive than others,” many of her conversations with students last semester “contributed to progress” on the DIAP and other initiatives.

Protests are necessary because “universities are very conservative … in that they’re slow to change,” said Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, a research center on secondary education that often advises legislators and college administrators. Demonstrations force institutions to “stay nimble” in order to process information.

“Brown has a long history of protests. We’re not afraid of them,” Paxson said, adding that given the national dialogue around diversity and social inequality, demonstrations relating to those issues are expected.

Experts in higher education agree. College campuses have always been hotbeds for activism, and this year’s breakout of protests is no surprise given the recent intense national discourse on issues of social justice such as police brutality and structural racism.

But the constituents who make up the Brown community are not uniform in their perspectives on how Paxson, as the University’s leader, should address activists’ concerns. Disagreements center on when Paxson should intervene if a controversial demonstration takes place, the balance she should strike between collaborating with students and exercising authority over them as well as how she should navigate ideological divides among different constituencies.

When to intervene

Paxson must confront the question of whether and when to speak out on given protests should they occur.

In some cases, she has acted preemptively. In fall 2014, in anticipation of the Janus Forum event featuring Wendy McElroy, a researcher who does not believe rape culture exists on college campuses, and Jessica Valenti, founder of, Paxson sent a community-wide email expressing her disagreement with McElroy’s views.

But Paxson originally expressed reluctance over addressing the event, only agreeing to do so after a “heated exchange between her and the undergraduate and graduate student representatives on the Sexual Assault Task Force,” wrote Justice Gaines ’16, who uses the pronouns xe, xem and xyr, in an email to The Herald.

Other times ­— such as in the cases of the fall 2013 Ray Kelly protest and the Janet Mock petition this spring, both of which led to the cancellation of campus talks by outside speakers — Paxson has spoken out in the wake of activist efforts, criticizing student behavior.

In all three of these cases, campus community members had mixed reactions to Paxson’s interventions.

Referring to Paxson’s email leading up to the Janus Forum event, David Josephson, professor of music, called the email “perfectly fine” in principle but an “error of judgement.”

Paxson “inserted herself into the discussion in the hope that she would defuse the situation,” Josephson said, but her email “cut the legs off of the student organization that went to the trouble of organizing the event.”

“If it’s debatable, it should be debated,” he said.

With regard to Janet Mock’s lecture, Josephson and other faculty members question whether discourse on the talk would have yielded a different outcome had Paxson spoken out earlier. Students circulated a petition asking Mock to dissociate the event from one of its sponsors, Moral Voices, a social justice group supported by Brown/RISD Hillel, citing what they asserted are Hillel International’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as justification.

When considering whether to send community-wide emails about campus events, Paxson asks herself whether “the community need(s) to hear from the University leadership in this moment. I ask myself, is this the time for our students, faculty (members) and staff (members) to be reminded of our mission or our values as a community?” she wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

The timing of administrative intervention is not so simple, Paxson said. “When the campus is confronting a difficult and important issue, you don’t know whether you’re at the beginning, in the middle of it or near the end.”

Paxson said that in her position, she is expected to respond quickly to situations unfolding on campus. “We are working with a very fast news cycle in that social media brings the news of an issue to people almost instantaneously, and it has brought people to expect a quick reaction,” she wrote.

During times of campus unrest, administrators must remain rational and deliberative, Radomski said.

“It’s better to wait and weigh the impact of events and who is being affected, and to ensure that the facts are clear, rather than play to the immediacy of the news,” Paxson wrote.

At the same time, waiting too long to act can exacerbate tensions, Paxson said. “Letting things fester and not addressing them is very dangerous.”

Sometimes, the protests that stem from built-up tension can enlighten administrators about student emotions, Paxson added. The blackout protest held in response to events at Mizzou last semester, for example, indicated to the University that students felt excluded and isolated, which led to increased conversation with students, she said.

To collaborate or to dictate?

Higher education experts said a willingness to engage with student protests and see them as productive is the most successful way for administrators to approach activism on campus.

On some campuses last semester, administrators “didn’t treat the college students as college students,” Radomski said. A passive approach, such as the one taken by University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, tends to be less effective than one in which administrators try to shift protests from a confrontation to an exchange of ideas through open communication, he added.

The Paxson administration’s responses to student activism since the Ray Kelly incident reflect a desire to engage with student concerns.

After students shut down former NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture in fall 2013, Paxson and other administrators held an open meeting in Alumnae Hall, during which students expressed frustration and shared experiences with racism, prejudice and feeling unsafe on campus.

Originally, the forum was to be a panel of faculty and staff members discussing the “importance of academic freedom and the etiquette of the community,” Gaines wrote, though xe noted that there is no official record of the original framing of the forum. “UCS President Todd Harris spent hours with Paxson and other administrators to reframe and restructure the event to make it the forum that it was.”

“It was student effort that created the space of engagement,” xe wrote.

Manuel Contreras ’16, co-founder of 1vyG, an organization for first-generation college students, and a former Herald editorial page board editor, noted how Paxson listened to personal experiences during the forum that demonstrated “there are things that she doesn’t understand.”

Since then, administrators have participated in open forums on mental health policies, updates to the University’s Title IX policies and the first draft of the DIAP in December.

Protests should not be the only catalyst for universities to confront student concerns, and resources beyond forums — such as campus institutions designated for soliciting and processing student feedback — are essential to mitigating tension and normalizing productive dialogue, Radomski said. 

Institutions require “different lines of communication open to students … all the time, not just when there’s a series of incidents, because then it’s too late,” he said. “It’s (an administration’s) responsibility on campus to have that infrastructure in place.”

Following last year’s protests regarding sexual assault on campus, the University created a Title IX office, and amidst a dialogue of support for first-generation students on campus, the University established the First Generation  Student Center in March. Before that, in 2004, the LGBTQ Center was created through a committee that formed as a result of support from students, faculty and staff members for increased awareness of LGBTQ issues on campus.

Having these centers helps universities to address concerns that arise in certain student communities in the long run, Radomski noted. Big institutional changes are expensive, but preexisting centers and student resources that can be developed are both effective and defray the costs of sudden changes, he added.

Striking a ‘middle ground’

When Paxson steps into campus controversies, expressing her views via emails, Herald op-eds or public talks, she tends to face criticism. Often, some on campus admonish her for doing too little while others claim she has done too much, she said.

Such was the case with Paxson’s community-wide email addressing Mock’s cancellation of her lecture and student activism surrounding it. Paxson said she wrote the email because she felt the message the petitioners were sending, “that Hillel cannot be a space for social justice work, was wrong.”

Paxson said she received criticism for choosing not to take action against the petitioners, which she said she would not do, and for mentioning a contemporaneous incident of anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti scrawled on a dormitory wall in the email, which some students felt conflated anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.

Josephson praised Paxson’s email: “I sensed in the president’s measured and superbly argued response to the Mock debacle a turning of the tide” in administrative responses to student activism, he wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

Though Ken Miller ’70 P’02, professor of biology, said he was “very happy” with the community letter Paxson sent after the incident, he felt that in this case and in others, the administration has only made statements defending free expression — an ideal some see as essential to debates over which speakers should be invited to speak on campus — “after the damage has been done.”

These debates are not exclusive to Brown, as elite college campuses across the country have seen debates on whether speech perceived as harmful should be given a platform within the bounds of college communities. These debates have emerged within the context of broader discussions on improving diversity and inclusivity on campuses.

Administrations at Yale, Princeton and Wesleyan have each confronted breakouts of activism this year and have responded to their students differently. At Princeton, students advocated mandatory cultural competency training for faculty and staff members, a diversity distribution requirement and the removal of the name of Woodrow Wilson from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, citing Wilson’s racist views as justification for the name change, the Daily Princetonian reported. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber acknowledged and signed modified demands set forth by the Black Justice League in November but set no deadline for final decisions and the development of an action plan.

In fall 2015, the Wesleyan Argus published an op-ed challenging the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking student backlash on campus. Wesleyan’s president, provost and vice president of equity and inclusion wrote a response entitled “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech,” noting that while “debates can raise intense emotions … that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable.”

But Paxson is not necessarily looking to her counterparts at other universities for guidelines on how to deal with activism.

“If I took more cues from other presidents, I would probably say less,” Paxson said. “The safe thing is always to say less.”

“Very few places have been willing to confront these issues in an open space and embrace these tensions rather than say that they don’t exist,” said Alia Wong, an associate editor and writer at the Atlantic who covers education.

In October, after The Herald published two racist opinions columns, Paxson, Provost Richard Locke P’17 and Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 penned an op-ed urging students to find common ground to improve campus institutions. In February, Paxson published a piece in the Huffington Post, commending “constructive irreverence” as a powerful force to bring about change.

Some faculty members feel that Brown’s administration should have taken as strong of a stance about The Herald’s controversial op-eds as that taken by Wesleyan’s administration. In a response to Paxson, Locke and Carey’s piece, faculty members Miller, Josephson, Luther Spoehr, Glenn Loury and Ross Cheit argued that the administators’ response did not adequately defend the right to free expression.

Miller said he is “particularly concerned about whether or not we are creating an environment where different (political viewpoints are) immediately branded as racist and off-limits.” It is important to “expose people to these ideas so they can fight them,” he said.

Josephson credited Paxson with “bending over backwards to hold to a middle ground so that she won’t offend anybody and so she does not endanger an already fragile peace on this campus.”

But Paxson said that the increased dialogue about issues of diversity and inclusion on campus simply results from increased diversity among Brown community members. “It would be easier to have a peaceful campus if everyone who comes here looks the same,” she said. “But what we do is messy.”

Pamela Oliver, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies media coverage of protests and demonstrations, offered a similar perspective in an interview. More activism does not necessarily mean situations are worsening, she said. “Paradoxically, you get more protests when things are getting better.” For example, “reports about rape go up when you signal that you’re willing to listen to reports about rape.” 


Since the Ray Kelly incident, which took place in October of Paxson’s second year on campus, diversity and inclusion have been at the center of campus discourse and have at times seemed to define the Paxson administration’s relationship to students.

Though not without its pitfalls, the process leading up to the release of the DIAP reflects what the University has learned about incorporating student concerns and feedback into its policymaking and broad administrative goals.

Contreras said he feels the DIAP fits within Paxson’s long-term strategic plan, Building on Distinction, which was released in October 2013 just days before Ray Kelly’s talk.

But the DIAP did not appear out of thin air. Though Paxson knew about Brown’s reputation as a socially conscious campus before taking on her role as president, she said she did not expect Brown’s culture of “shared governance” among students, faculty members and administrators. That type of culture requires an open and transparent decision-making process, she said.

The meeting Paxson held after the Ray Kelly protest indicated that student insight is crucial to progress and development in larger University plans, Contreras said. Had Ray Kelly and the aftermath not occurred, “the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan may not have been as thorough and smart,” he added.

When the University solicited student feedback on the draft it released of the DIAP through an open forum held Dec. 1, students criticized what they perceived as the tight deadline for feedback of Dec. 4. This led the University to push back the deadline for feedback to Jan. 8.

While she said she could not speak to the case of Brown in particular, Wong said university administrations rarely reshape their agendas based on student demands. “My inkling is (universities) haven’t really done much” in these situations, Wong said. Addressing demands, which are sometimes abstract, “isn’t as easy as it sounds.”

Faculty members also offered the University feedback that seems to have had some influence on the plan’s revision. After the draft’s release, members of the Department of Ethnic Studies released a draft revision, which they called the Five Percent Plan, that called on the University to bump its financial commitment up from $100 million to $150 million. Upon the Feb. 1 release of the final plan, which allots $165 million, Paxson called it the most comprehensive diversity plan of any proposed by universities.

The faculty members who signed the Five Percent Plan either declined to comment or could not be reached for comment. Coordinators of the Brown Center for Students of Color’s Heritage Series, program groups dedicated to creating cultural and communal spaces for students of given identities, also either declined to comment or could not be reached for comment.


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