An Interview with President Christina Paxson

The Spectator interviewed new President Christina Paxson. The 19th president of Brown, Paxson formely served as the dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. She discusses her education, her career, and her vision for Brown. Look out for her at Chicken Finger Friday.

President Christina Paxson

Recently-inaugurated Brown University President Christina Paxson

You’re an economist by training, but are there any other fields you’re passionate about?

I entered into economics because I always enjoyed math and computer science, and when I took my first economics course, it resonated with me because it was a way to apply my interest in math in ways that address the human condition. My research interests initially focused on international economic problems of labor supply, mobility, savings, inequality, and aging. The beauty of exploring a discipline both deeply and broadly is that it often leads to a number of other areas of study. For me, I have become increasingly focused on the relationship of economic factors to health and welfare, and particularly on the health and welfare of children. In 2000, I founded the Center for Health and Wellbeing in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. The Center for Health and Wellbeing is an interdisciplinary research center where researchers work on health, wellbeing, and investigate the role of public policy on shaping quality of life. So, I would say that I am as interested in health and health policy as I am in economics as fields of study.

You have been a successful teacher and academic. What advice would you give to Brown students considering those careers?

I encourage students to pursue fields of interest that are most inspiring to them. Whether it is teaching, research, the arts, medicine, an entrepreneurial path, or something entirely different, the most important ingredient for success is to have an eager, almost unsustainable curiosity. It took me some time to find the area of deepest interest to me, and it has made an enormous difference in my life to have identified a field that has continually nourished my inquiry. For me, teaching, research, and a career in the academy has been rewarding personally and professionally, and I would encourage students to consider this path if it aligns with their interests and motivation.

Do you have any plans to increase political diversity on campus?

We value diversity broadly at Brown, and certainly diversity of thought and perspective. There are a number of programs in place to encourage diversity of thought and political perspective, such as the Janus Forum, which invites civil discourse and debate around a range of salient issues. I would certainly support programs like this that inspire critical thinking and discussion around a broad range of issues.

If you were to hire a professor, how much consideration would you give to the candidate’s teaching ability?

I was attracted to Brown, among other reasons, for the emphasis it places on excellence in both teaching and research. Unlike many institutions, Brown has a single faculty for teaching and research, and students in our classrooms and laboratories benefit from faculty who are advancing knowledge through scholarly research — research in which students, undergraduate and graduate alike, are also engaged. I place enormous value on the capacity of our faculty members to engage in ambitious research and be inspiring educators for Brown students.

In the last year, there has been much discussion about whether Brown is drifting away from its focus on undergraduate education. Do you believe that undergraduate education should be a higher priority than graduate and professional programs?

Brown has a solid and enduring tradition of excellence at the undergraduate level and the college is and will remain central to our role, reach, and contributions as a leading university. Maintaining Brown’s signature approach to education is of paramount importance, and, through the strategic planning process we have launched this year, we will discuss opportunities to ensure we remain innovative in our approach.

The deliberate and largely successful efforts over the past decade to bring graduate programs to the level of distinction of Brown’s undergraduate program has only enhanced our overall offerings, attracting talented graduate students to campus and our community. Without question, for Brown to continue to engage in the teaching and research needed to prepare students for the challenges that confront society, we must include attention to our undergraduate, graduate and medical programs.

Also in the past year, there has been much debate on campus about increasing Brown’s financial aid contributions and eliminating need-aware admissions for transfer and international students. Where do you stand on these issues?

Brown has made significant strides in recent years in its commitment to provide increasingly robust need-based financial aid for students, and this is an area that will remain a priority for me as President. Again, through the planning process underway this year, we have a committee formed to focus squarely on determining the financial support necessary to attract “an exceptionally talented, diverse, and global student community.” We know that an individual’s capacity to learn and contribute and advance our understanding is not bound by economic or geographic circumstance, and we must identify the resources needed to attract the most talented individuals to Brown.

At the end of Ruth Simmons’ presidency, Brown made an agreement with Mayor Angel Taveras to pay an additional $31.5 million to the city of Providence over the next 11 years. Do you think it is Brown’s responsibility to shoulder the burden of Providence’s financial mistakes?

The city’s fiscal condition is complex, rooted in decades of difficulty and exacerbated by the recent global economic downturn, which affected all of us. Brown has a role to play in being a constructive partner with Providence and Rhode Island, and there is value in working together to ensuring that the city — and the University — are as vital and strong as possible. While there are many factors that have contributed to the city’s current condition, my hope is that over the duration of the agreement that was forged, the city’s administration will continue to confront the structural challenges that have led to this point, and that perhaps, working together with other public, private, and nonprofit partners, we can build a more beneficial environment that will compel more and more graduates to stay in Providence.

This month, Bain & Company and Sterling Partners released a report on the financial health of 1,700 colleges and universities. The report stated that Brown was on a “financially unsustainable” economic path. How do you plan to ensure Brown is on a financially stable path?

First, let me say that I am confident that Brown is on solid financial footing — we have robust and engaged financial planning and governance processes, and external reviews by rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have consistently reaffirmed our long- and short-term financial health. I found the Bain report interesting, however, in that it calls for many of the things we are doing through the planning process — developing a clear and strategic plan that focuses on our core mission, developing accountability measures, and being mindful of efficiencies. The report itself acknowledges that for institutions like Brown that have substantial endowments, the timeframe of the analysis may skew findings, since it was a time when the global economic downturn led to significant losses.

Of course, we must continually look for opportunities to allocate resources as effectively and efficiently as possible to achieve our priorities. Simultaneously, we must maintain a commitment to diversifying our resources, to competing successfully for federal and other research funds and continuing inspiring the support and generosity of our donors. Being thoughtful in our planning and having a process that engages our community widely in decision-making will also help ensure we maintain a solid and stable path.

Where do you see Brown in 10 years?

Brown was so appealing to me because of its distinctive character, talented student body, engaged faculty and purposeful mission. Significant progress has been made in recent years, providing a solid foundation upon which to build, and I am more than enthusiastic about Brown’s future. The planning process underway is intended to draw on the best ideas of the University community to develop a set of priorities that will help us shape Brown’s future over the next decade and beyond. The decisions we make in the year ahead will help develop a shared vision for Brown in 2022.

What major projects do you plan to implement during your tenure as president?

I join Brown at a time when there are a number of priorities already underway that I am committed to seeing through, including establishing and supporting a School of Engineering, advancing an important Initiative in the Humanities, supporting the expansion of brain science, supporting environmental studies, and moving forward with the process to establish a School of Public Health. That said, I have spent these early months since arriving at Brown getting to know the campus, the community, the people, and the full range of opportunities and challenges facing Brown at a more granular level. The candid conversations I have had with faculty, students, and members of the broader community have revealed palpable pride and enthusiasm for Brown’s distinctive approach to teaching and research, as well as an inspiring commitment to excellence. To identify priorities that will build on this appetite for excellence and fuel continued momentum, we have launched a planning process, which I mentioned earlier. In addition to the areas of focus already mentioned — financial and educational innovation — the process will identify opportunities to continue to foster and nurture faculty excellence and develop signature academic initiatives that build on Brown’s academic strengths, distinctive multidisciplinary culture, and commitment to integrating education and scholarship.

Do you plan to go to Chicken Finger Friday at the V-Dub?

Absolutely! I’ve heard it’s a must.


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