At Brown, former WWS dean wins favorable reviews
Half a year since leaving her position as dean of the Wilson School to become president of Brown, Christina Paxson is still establishing her place at Brown but has thus far won favorable reviews from several student and faculty leaders.
Though some students and faculty said the majority of the student body has not interacted personally with Paxson, who declined to comment for this article, she has made an effort to engage with student groups and faculty leaders. Those who have interacted with her praised her involvement and thoughtful questions.
Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students president and senior Anthony White said one of the biggest programs Paxson is currently working on is expanding financial aid. While former Brown president Ruth Simmons, Paxson’s predecessor who is now on Princeton’s Board of Trustees, successfully made applications need-blind for domestic students, White said one of Paxson’s big goals is to make sure Brown is fully need-blind for transfers and international students.
White noted that in her first few months Paxson has done a great job of immersing herself in Brown culture.
“One of the things I admire most of her is she is very willing to listen and very willing to learn and really respects that Brown is based on the student experience,” White said. “I’ve been impressed by how much she has learned and appreciates the idiosyncrasies at Brown.”
Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin said Paxson and Provost Michael Schlissel are currently working on a strategic plan ahead of Brown’s next capital campaign to better understand the university’s priorities and future opportunities.
One of the strategic planning groups is looking at postdoctoral education for Ph.D. students at Brown, while others are looking at undergraduate education and faculty experiences, according to Graduate Student Council president Matteo Riondato.
“She is getting a sense of where the Brown community really wants to go and where the different contingencies of the Brown community want to go,” Riondato said.
Schlissel noted that Paxson often points out the similarities between Brown and Princeton, including the similar student body size, focus on undergraduate education and absence of professional schools beyond Brown’s medical school.
McLaughlin noted Paxson also has an advantage of familiarity with Brown’s administrative structure as a result of her experience at Princeton.
“One of the things that’s interesting is that structurally the administration at Brown is very similar to Princeton; it’s unusual compared to the rest of the Ivy League and the peer group of universities,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said Princeton and Brown shared the same base structure featuring a dean of the faculty and provost, rather than divisional deans. This approach concentrates the decision-making process with a small group who must consult regularly with faculty across different divisions.
However, Schlissel noted Brown and Princeton also have significant differences, most notably the scale of their respective endowments. Brown’s endowment size is $2.52 billion while Princeton’s is $17 billion.
“Princeton’s endowment is unmatched, and that allows Princeton to do things or perhaps take risks that Brown would be imprudent to do or take, so that’s a pretty fundamental difference,” Schlissel said.
Schlissel said Paxson came with an open mind, aware that she didn’t know the university but wanting to learn more about it. Paxson has spent a considerable amount of time both during the summer and the academic year traveling around campus and talking with department chairs and faculty.
McLaughlin said Paxson’s willingness to ask questions and meet with faculty on an individual basis was apparent in her leadership at the Wilson School and continues to serve her well as president of Brown.
“She did something that immediately endeared her with the faculty, which is that she made appointments to meet with each faculty chair in their offices,” McLaughlin said. “The fact of going out and reaching out to meeting department chairs was a symbolic start for her presidency because I think it really underlined her commitment to be in direct contact with the faculty.”
Associate Dean of Medicine for Public Health and Public Policy Terrie Wetle said it was still too early to really understand how Paxson’s leadership style compared to Simmons’.
“We had a wonderful 10 years of Ruth Simmons, and we’ve only had a few months of Christina Paxson, so we’re only just now learning about her leadership style,” Wetle said.
Nonetheless, Wetle said she learned from the questions Paxson asked that Paxson’s plans included enhancing and strengthening graduate education while still maintaining undergraduate education as “the jewel in the crown” at Brown, bolstering research activities and engaging the broader community of Providence, which has clashed with Brown in the past.
White said he appreciated how visible Paxson has been on campus and how up-front she has been in describing potential problems and suggesting solutions in student government initiatives. He provided an example of an in-progress program that would integrate public service into the curriculum, and the advice Paxson provided on how to sell this idea to departments and to alumni who could donate to make it possible.
Nonetheless, Sana Majid, a junior who runs Brown’s peer-advising group which hosted Paxson, noted that the majority of the student body hadn’t formed strong opinions about Paxson yet.
“Most people would say they don’t have a very strong impression because she hasn’t [made] any big executive decisions,” Majid said.
According to economics professor Andrew Foster, who worked with Paxson on a National Academy of Science panel on demographic fluctuation in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, Paxson’s background as a Princeton administrator — which she shares with Simmons, who served as director of studies at Butler College, associate dean of the faculty and vice provost before leading Brown — may provide a sense of the direction she will take the university.
“We look to Princeton for a direction that at least in some ways we want to move in terms of having a larger research profile, while remaining very cognizant of our undergraduate mission,” Foster said.
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