Dear Faculty and Staff,

Brown’s Convocation, which formally marks the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year, will take place virtually today at noon, with Professor Andre C. Willis giving the keynote speech. I hope you will join us. Participation in this annual ritual is a reminder that, even in an extraordinary time, Brown continues to focus on its mission of advancing knowledge and understanding in the service of society.

I usually begin my annual letter at the start of the academic year expressing my hope that you had a productive and relaxing summer. However, I expect that, for many of you, the summer was anything but relaxing. I want to convey my sincere gratitude to all who work at Brown and have done so much over the past months to make this academic year possible. Our dining services, facilities and campus life employees reimagined what it means to feed, house and teach students during a pandemic. Faculty worked tirelessly to revamp the entire Brown curriculum to fit a three-semester hybrid model, and together with staff they developed plans to re-open laboratories and academic buildings. Staff from the digital design team, the Sheridan Center, and Computing and Information Services worked with Brown faculty to prepare for high-quality hybrid instruction, and so many others came together to stand up two COVID-19 testing sites. These are just a few examples of the innovative work that has taken place over the summer.

Despite the challenges created by COVID-19, I remain very optimistic about Brown’s future. By making wise choices, we will be able to maintain Brown’s upward trajectory throughout the pandemic and emerge stronger and more resilient in the years to come. I anticipate that this will be a tumultuous year due to the pandemic, a contentious presidential election, and racial upheaval on a scale that has not been seen for many years. It might be tempting to try to simply muddle through. But, to do so would not be true to who we are. Instead, this is the time when we can and should double down on fulfilling our primary mission of education, scholarship and research in the service of society.

In a typical year, I would a use this letter to provide comprehensive information about major priorities for the coming year. However, given the frequency of communication around the University’s plans related to safely resume on-campus operations and support our students during the pandemic, as well as multiple communications around priorities related to Brown’s efforts to address anti-Black racism, I will briefly highlight just a few additional items. But first, it’s important to reflect on some of the tremendous achievements of 2019-20.

Accomplishments of the past year

As we begin a new academic year, I draw inspiration from the incredible accomplishments of the Brown community over the past twelve months. During this time, Brown faculty made discoveries that could lead to a new vaccine against malaria and developed new explanations for how earthquake vibrations are produced. They discovered freshly exposed boulders on the Moon and developed new technologies that could explain how cancer spreads. Brown researchers received prestigious fellowships to study political polarization in the U.S., advance mathematical modeling, study entrepreneurship in Nigeria and consider how societies have incorporated nature and the environment into political decision-making in the Yukon.

We had an exceptional year for growth in research funding. Brown researchers received federal grants for groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research and critical work in helping school districts improve high school graduation rates. A grant awarded to the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America places Brown among the most prominent universities in this field. And, a $23.7 million federal grant, the largest award from the National Science Foundation in Brown’s history, will support the cutting-edge research and programming at the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics for several years.

At a time when facts and science are more important than ever, we can all be proud that many of our own faculty have become trusted experts who have been called upon to help analyze and discern today’s most pressing problems. This is especially true in the fields of medicine and public health, which deservedly have a strong grip on public consciousness today, as well as racial and social injustice and economic mobility.

Furthermore, for the fourth consecutive year, Brown ranked among the top producers of Fulbright student scholarship recipients in the nation. Further exemplifying Brown’s academic distinction, five Brown faculty members were awarded the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development awards, the most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty. And Brown alumni captured the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for Audio Journalism. These are just a few examples of the accomplishments of the members of our community. 

We can also be proud of the efforts our community has undertaken to provide resources and support to low-income students in light of the transition to remote teaching and learning and the increases in financial stress many families have experienced due to the pandemic. Since March, more than $23 million was donated to Brown’s President’s Response Fund, which is defraying the added costs of supporting students during the pandemic, and $1 million was raised for the Student Emergency Support Fund.

Over the past year, Brown also has been deeply engaged with the city and state to identify ways in which the University can support the needs of our home city. We have fully funded the $10 million endowment of the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, and we partnered with the City of Providence to supply thousands of meals to those who have limited access to affordable, healthy food during the pandemic. It has been heartening, although not surprising, to see how Brown faculty, staff and students have stepped up to support the residents of our city and state during this difficult time.

Priorities for the year ahead

I am excited to share plans to support Brown’s high-impact scholarship and research and continue to sustain and build our community.

Academic priorities

Despite the pandemic, we will continue to focus on building Brown’s academic strength in ways that are aligned with Brown’s strategic plan, Building on Distinction. Faculty will engage in scholarship and initiatives in the area of climate action and sustainability that will be announced this year, and which will span the life sciences and social sciences. Seed funding will continue to assist researchers in finding solutions to complex medical, public health and social problems spurred by COVID-19. And, as we shared earlier this summer, a seed fund will support research and education aimed at addressing anti-Black racism and police violence. Due to the University’s hiring freeze, we anticipate hiring relatively few new faculty or staff this coming year, although there will be some exceptions, including filling previously-established endowed chairs and launching a Target of Opportunity hiring program in the sciences, which will be overseen by Professor Chris Rose, serving in his role of associate provost of STEM initiatives.

Building a cohesive, open-minded and supportive community

This is a perennial priority, but it is especially important this year as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic, the underpinnings of systemic anti-Black racism and what will certainly be a contentious election season. Brown has long sought to address the impacts of racism and bias on campus through education, research and service. As Provost Richard Locke, Executive Vice President Barbara Chernow and I wrote in a letter to the community earlier this month, it bears restating that we remain deeply committed to this work. In the first few months of the year, we will also focus on making sure every Brown student and employee who is eligible to vote in the upcoming election has the information and support needed to cast their ballot.

Campus enhancements

We will continue several major construction and renovation projects this year. The new Health and Wellness Center and Residence Hall is on track to be completed by May of 2021, and we’re excited that construction continues on the Performing Arts Center. During the pandemic, the pace of construction has been adjusted, and substantial completion is expected in May 2023, with occupancy in Fall 2023. Meanwhile, we have commissioned a planning study for the renovation of Rites and Reasons Theatre and will undertake a comprehensive study of the capital needs of our academic priorities, including the need for additional laboratory space for brain science and biomedical research.

Addressing the COVID-19 deficit

The pandemic has created stress on the budgets of all colleges and universities, and Brown is no exception. Over the course of the year, we will provide information on the impact that the pandemic has had on Brown’s finances and on the actions that will be taken to address the negative financial impact of COVID-19. Last spring, I enumerated principles that would guide Brown’s actions: (1) to protect the health and safety of our community to the best extent possible; (2) to protect students and employees who are more financially vulnerable; (3) to protect our mission of education and research; and (4) to protect the long-term health of the University. Fortunately, to date, we have not had to lay off any regular employees due to COVID-19. Although there are no guarantees given the continued uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic, my hope is that with careful financial planning and management, we can continue to avoid layoffs while maintaining our commitments to support our students.

Building long-term economic sustainability

In order to advance the academic priorities in Brown’s strategic plan Building on Distinction, we must ensure that Brown is in a strong financial position when we emerge from the pandemic. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Brown had a small, but persistent structural deficit. This at times has constrained our ability to invest in new academic areas, and to renovate academic and residential buildings to support research, education and campus life. This year we will prioritize developing plans that use revenue growth and expense management to convert this structural deficit into a positive operating margin that supports University priorities. Later this month, Provost Richard Locke will provide information about a new committee that will be composed of faculty, staff and students and focus on these long-term financial issues.

Advancing the BrownTogether campaign in support of academic strength

Fundraising is integral to Brown’s mission of education and scholarship. To date, we have raised over $2.5 billion in the $3 billion BrownTogether campaign, and we continue to track ahead of schedule with respect to our approximate end date at the end of 2022. Fundraising priorities for the coming year include: endowed faculty professorships; endowed funds for financial aid, including the Brown Promise, our initiative to eliminate student loans from financial aid packages, and increasing financial aid for international students and veterans; support for diversity and inclusion initiatives; and support for Brown’s major Centers, Institutes and Schools, including the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, the School of Public Health and the Carney Institute for Brain Science, among others.

Finally, I hope you’ll tune in for the virtual Convocation today. As we embark on this year, remember that the collective contributions you make to advancing education and research in the service of society are more important than ever. I look forward to all that we will accomplish together in the year ahead.


Christina H. Paxson