PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On March 12, 2020, as COVID-19 arrived in full force, Brown University President Christina H. Paxson conveyed nearly unthinkable news — most students, faculty and staff would need to leave the Brown campus with the spring semester to be completed remotely.
As heart-wrenching as the decision was, it wasn’t a particularly challenging one to make.
“That’s something that I could never have imagined doing — ever,” Paxson said during a June 21 virtual event hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. “In some sense, though, that decision was one of the easiest to make — it was forced on us. The harder things were the series of decisions that came after that: Can we have a safe environment? Can we open the campus? How do we do that? The myriad decisions that had to go into making this year be a successful year.”
Establishing a clear set of values to guide decision-making was essential in enabling Brown to welcome students back to campus and complete a year with little virus spread, the ability for students to make academic progress, continuity in research, and enough financial security to ensure no layoffs among regular employees.
“We very much think about values as we make decisions,” Paxson said. “At the beginning of COVID, we developed a set of values that would guide all of our decision-making. And the first one was the health and safety of our community.”
Paxson — an economist, public health expert and education leader who chairs the board of the Association of American Universities — shared those insights during a conversation titled “Leadership and Innovation During a Crisis,” part of the Chronicle’s new monthly Leadership Interview Series. Senior reporter Lindsay Ellis asked about decision-making and lessons learned during the pandemic, the national reckoning with anti-Black racism and injustice, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, among other moments and challenges.
“It was such a complex year because not only did people have the stress of the pandemic, they had the stress of a very uncertain election and the stress of this racial reckoning that we're going through,” Paxson said. “One of the benefits coming out of this year is that there's a renewed commitment to really think hard about how we make sure that all members of our community are core members, and that this is true in fact and in feeling.”