Date July 6, 2022
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Q&A with President Paxson: Reflecting on 10 years in the Brown presidency

Appointed Brown’s 19th president in 2012, Christina H. Paxson has guided the University through major accomplishments and national moments of challenge, and she looks forward to achieving more in the years to come.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Soon after her appointment as Brown University’s 19th president in 2012, economist and higher education leader Christina H. Paxson set forth a vision for working with an exceptional community of faculty, staff and students to continue building an extraordinary research and teaching institution.

“It’s a huge responsibility, and I can tell you I will try my very best to live up to the high expectations that you rightly have for Brown’s next president,” she said on the day of her appointment.

In the decade since, under Paxson’s leadership, Brown has fortified its standing as a leading research university known for scholarship that makes a positive impact on the most complex issues, innovation in undergraduate education, and a deep commitment to advancing inclusion and access. The campus also has weathered social and political change facing the country and higher education.

On the 10-year anniversary of her arrival at Brown, Paxson shared insights and perspectives on serving as president during a time of transformation, and what she looks forward to accomplishing in the years to come. The transcript of the conversation has been edited for length.

Also included are thoughts on her presidency from a selection of colleagues and students with whom she has worked since 2012.

Q: University presidents serve for an average of about six years. What keeps you going, 10 years in?

I love being president of Brown. That doesn't mean Brown should have the same president forever — change is healthy — but I feel like there are really important goals that I want to move forward before I leave. I am as energized by this job as ever, and I’m grateful that the Corporation has asked me to continue beyond the 10-year mark.

Q: And those around you — how would your colleagues describe your leadership style?

Maybe that’s a question best answered by other people. What I hope they would say is that I am collaborative while still being decisive, and that I inspire people to be their best.

Chris continues to lead the University forward with ambitious plans that will extend Brown’s global reach, advance its excellence, and further elevate its value to the world. Brown has never been stronger financially, in its standing, or in the richness and distinction of its intellectual and human capital, thanks to President Paxson, and this is enabling Brown to do more, go faster and aim higher.

Samuel M. Mencoff Chancellor, Brown University
Samuel M. Mencoff

Q: Across your full 10 years at Brown, what project, initiative or development makes you the most proud?

Early on, we mapped out our strategic plan, Building on Distinction. When I look at the accomplishments that have come out of that plan — new academic initiatives, seeing the University generally grow in stature and strength and impact in regard to our education and research — that really rises to the top of what makes me proud.

We’ve also made Brown a much more affordable, more inclusive place for students. That includes replacing loans with scholarships through the Brown Promise. Our veterans initiative. Our work now to become need-blind for international students. All of the things in our Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan to ensure that students are supported here and that everybody has equal opportunity to take advantage of a Brown education.

Chris is an exceptional leader, not only of Brown University, but of higher education nationally and internationally. All of us at AAU are grateful for her leadership, for her commitment to the things that make American research universities so attractive to students and scholars from around the country and around the world, and for the honesty and integrity that she brings to everything she undertakes.

Barbara R. Snyder President, Association of American Universities
Barbara R. Snyder

Q: Some people say that universities and their leaders often are on the front lines of social and political change. What’s the most difficult challenge you have faced during your presidency?

Over the last seven to 10 years, the degree of political and social polarization across the country has been felt very strongly within higher education — sometimes because it should have been, and sometimes because it's been forced upon us. I've heard long-time presidents and other observers of higher education say that they haven't seen a decade that's been as difficult since the 1960s, which really says something. We’ve seen acute challenges around racial justice, Title IX, DACA, international issues and all of this talk about culture wars and cancel culture. Navigating this both internally and externally has been tricky, especially as we try to help people understand that universities are places of academic freedom where people can speak their mind, have divergent viewpoints, and that this is a really good thing. That's been a hard message to get out there.

President Paxson’s willingness to partner with the city in 2013 was instrumental in Providence winning the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge $5 million grand prize for Providence Talks, a program to increase vocabulary of young children and prepare them for kindergarten. Her commitment to South Street Landing was key in making that redevelopment a reality and transforming the Jewelry District. Providence is a better city because of President Paxson and her deep understanding of our interconnectedness.

Angel Taveras Former Mayor, City of Providence
Angel Taveras

Q: The beginning of your presidency coincided with significant challenges — the disrupted event with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, incidents of sexual misconduct and a debate on campus about fossil fuel divestment. How did events like those shape your approach to leading the University since?

The Ray Kelly event was for me a wake-up call. I think I was somewhat naive that something like this could happen at a university; and then talking to students afterwards, it became clear that most of them did not know that it was a problem that Kelly had been prevented [by protestors] from speaking. From there, what did we do? We now have a great protocol based in Campus Life that works with students and community members when events on contested issues are approaching so that people understand Brown’s commitment to expression and what their responsibilities are. That's been really important.

The broader lesson from those challenges is that communication is essential. You can't duck your head and pretend that these things aren't going to happen on our campus — you have to confront them openly. You have to be consistent and principled and then be able to articulate why your actions are consistent with the principles and values of a university. You asked earlier how people would describe me: I hope they would also say principled or values-driven. I'm an economist and sometimes people think economists are just about dollars and cents, but I think it’s essential for leaders to look to principles to guide actions.

Q: You have taken a particularly public stance on asserting the value of freedom of expression. Why was that issue in particular something you felt important to address?

First, the larger topic is misunderstood. People mistake academic freedom for the constitutional right to freedom of speech. They have similar ends, but they're different things. Academic freedom is meant to protect the role of universities in advancing education and scholarship. And the idea is that if you shut down modes of inquiry or areas of thought, you’re limiting your ability to do those things.

One reason I've been so outspoken is to make sure our own community appreciates this. Not every new Brown student coming to campus from high school understands the nuances of a university’s purpose and function, so this is part of our educational obligation. The other reason has been to help the broader world understand this. Higher education is often targeted as  being intolerant of diverse points of view, and that's really untrue. Helping people understand how inaccurate that is has been fundamentally important to me.

There’s an irony I see at times. I have heard people say “Brown is intolerant of different points of view” and then go on to say “And how can you allow this professor to say X, Y and Z?" Well, wait a second. Of course, that professor can say those things. If another faculty member presents the opposing view, that's okay, too. Then the conversation that needs to happen takes place so we can advance knowledge. And that’s what we need to explain. So it’s educating the public as well.

President Paxson’s unwavering support and commitment to the involvement of undergraduates in the research enterprise is truly unparalleled. Her leadership has ensured that undergraduates can participate in meaningful research experiences without financial barriers. This bold vision and early research engagement are why I could become a professor myself.

Mya Roberson Assistant Professor of Health Policy, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Mya Roberson

Q: You’ve also addressed the importance of the humanities. This might not be an area of focus for many leaders of research universities. Why has this been a priority for you?

We are a university grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, and the humanities are a really big part of that. I think of the humanities as sort of the glue of a university in some very fundamental ways. If we were just a science or tech institute, we wouldn't be educating people who understand how their work grows out of and influences cultures and societies — or graduates who understand and think about the ethical implications of their actions. When you think about science and technology, the ethical and cultural implications are vast.

Before I fell in love with economics in college, I studied English and philosophy. That experience taught me to think analytically and to write clearly. Those are habits of mind and abilities that have served me well my entire life. How can you be well educated without those things?

Brown has in Christina Paxson exactly the qualities our Presidential Selection Committee sought out 10 years ago. Her leadership is extraordinary. Building on the University’s structure, scale, curriculum and urbanity, Brown under Chris is reimagining what a connective, collaborative research university can be in the most resonant and consequential way.

Thomas J. Tisch Chancellor Emeritus, Brown University
Thomas J. Tisch

Q: Polls often reflect a complicated mix of public sentiment about higher education. Most Americans still see the value of a degree and have a high level of respect for education and research, but others believe that college isn’t worth the cost. How do you respond to concerns about the cost of college?

When you talk to parents, they all want their children to go to college. But if you ask them whether a college degree is worth the cost, many will say no. How can that be? I think there's a lot of misinformation out there, and perhaps we need to do a better job of getting the message out. I was at a meeting with a group of community members from Rhode Island recently and explained that if a family earns under $60,000 a year, Brown is completely free — tuition, room, board, travel, textbooks and just about everything else is paid for. People in the room were astonished. Of course for those who qualify for less financial aid, college is an investment. But it’s a worthwhile investment. Your lifetime earnings are multiples over what they would be if you don't go to college.

Like all great visionaries and leaders, Christina Paxson plans and acts with integrity, fairness and data for monumental and enduring impact. Chris’ deep commitment to inclusive excellence is inspiring. She amplifies voices of our historically underrepresented colleagues and women in the sciences so that their creativity, talents and contributions are visible and valued. I’m a much better leader for watching and learning from her.

Diane Lipscombe Professor of Neuroscience and Director, Carney Institute for Brain Science
Diane Lipscombe

Q: There’s a persistent focus, understandably, on how Brown can assist with challenges locally in Providence. What’s your view on the net impact the University makes? What more could we do?

Brown adds a tremendous amount to Providence, as do the other higher education institutions here. I ask people to imagine a Providence without Brown, RISD, Johnson and Wales, or Providence College. It would be a vastly different place — I think a much less robust place economically for everybody who lives here. We add significant value as a major employer and a major contributor otherwise. With the medical school and School of Public Health, health care and medicine is an area where we have made a tremendous difference in the lives of families across our city in real ways.

I do think we can do more. And part of that is being more open and inclusive to people who live in our neighboring communities. This year we brought high school students from all over Providence to spend a day at Brown just learning what a college campus was like, what we do and what they could learn. If we repeat that so more children who go to school in Providence, and maybe in Central Falls and Pawtucket and Woonsocket, then they will know that Brown is a place where they can feel comfortable and  welcome.

We can also strengthen partnerships so that people have even more voice in what Brown does. We have the Fund for the Education of Children of Providence, and we now have a public education committee with community members, for example. We're doing even more in medicine and public health, building collaborations with places like the Rhode Island Free Clinic and Clinica Esperanza and other great organizations. That's what we need to do.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you knew upon your start in 2012? Is there a particular piece of advice you would give yourself, if you could go back in time?

One thing I've learned is the importance of leadership — not just at the presidential level, which is of course important — but throughout the university. Building and cultivating a strong leadership team, and helping those leaders build strong leadership teams, has been essential.

Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s president, told me before I came to Brown something that at the time struck me as odd: “My office, the president's office, doesn't really do anything,” she said. I thought, What do you mean the president's office doesn't do anything? In this job at Brown, it became really clear. The people who do things are the people who report to me, and the colleagues who report to them, and so on. They have to be really excellent at what they do. They have to be committed. They have to be collaborative. If you build that strong team, everything else falls into place.

By any measure of academic excellence, it’s clear that Brown is thriving under President Paxson. But as important as what Brown has achieved is how Chris has led this wonderfully diverse and complex university. Chris is guided by a deep ethical core, and creates space for other leaders to develop their own skills, sharpen their capabilities, and grow as professionals and people. Brown is a stronger university and a more inclusive community because of Chris.

Richard M. Locke Provost, Brown University
Richard M. Locke

Q: What’s next for Brown? What priorities are you looking forward to taking on before your tenure ends?

This is an amazing moment at Brown in so many areas. First, there's so much great science we can do, and I am excited about our plans to build research facilities, and specifically a building for integrated life sciences — including biomedical engineering, public health and medicine — in the Jewelry District. It's going to be good for the world, for our undergraduate students, and for the people who live here in Providence. We're doing work on Alzheimer's, on cancer, on basic science that's fundamental to things like the development of vaccines. More broadly, we want to grow research across all disciplines at Brown. That work is really front and center for me.

I'm also excited about work we're doing internally to better prepare our students for successful lives and careers. We have a big emphasis now on expanding how we think about career and professional development, involving alumni, and helping our students find great jobs when they leave Brown. That's another priority.

A third priority is finishing out our BrownTogether fundraising campaign, which is essential in continuing to expand financial aid initiatives to make Brown more affordable to more students. We are becoming need-blind for international students, which is a way to bring the most talented people from all over the world to Providence, R.I., and to the United States. And hopefully they stay here and add to the community. I could go on … the arts, the vitality of the student experience, excellence in athletics. This really is an exciting time.

Time will prove that Chris Paxson's leadership is one of the most consequential in Brown's history, and engaging alumni around the globe is part of that. From celebrating 125 Years of Women at Brown, the Black Alumni Reunion, Brown’s 250th anniversary and so many other moments of importance, Chris’ leadership is Ever True.

Carlos A. Lejnieks President, Brown Alumni Association
Carlos A. Lejnieks

Q: On a lighter note, before we wrap up, what do you enjoy most about living and working in Rhode Island?

Two things stand out: I love the scale of our city and our state. I can walk places. I run into faculty I know in the grocery store. Providence feels big enough that there's a lot going on, but small enough that it's really intimate in a way that much larger cities aren't. Second, I love the ocean. Being able to drive 20 minutes and take a walk on the beach, that's a fantastic thing. All the things people told me about Rhode Island when I came here 10 years have really proven true. It's a great place to live.

Q: And finally, what’s your favorite spot on the Brown campus?

The main green. It’s the University's living room — everything that happens, it happens on the College Green. It’s students studying, it’s meeting friends, it's Campus Dance, it's juggling and frisbee and celebrations, it’s protests. It's really the town square of the university. I will never get tired of walking the two blocks from my house to the main green with my dog and talking to people. This is one of the many things I love about Brown.