Before she became president of Brown University in 2012, Christina Paxson was already a respected professor, researcher, and administrator. She had founded the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton, and she had contributed work to the National Bureau of Economic Research. This rigorous background was essential, because Paxson took office during a critical time in Brown’s history – the campus was rapidly expanding, and school-city relations had recently been strained.
Time has passed, and Paxson has more than settled into her adoptive community. We sat down with Paxson, shortly before her sixth anniversary as president of Brown, to talk about her term so far. For all her professional drive, Paxson has a gentle presence; she speaks in the quiet-but-assertive tone of a pediatrician. True to her demeanor, Paxson values collaboration over competition – and her interest in Rhode Island has led to an increasing number of partnerships between Brown and its neighboring institutions. Her administration has experienced many successes and challenges since 2012, and Paxson says she’s learned a great deal.
On Building the Curriculum
Since Paxson’s arrival, Brown has established both a School of Public Health and the Institute of Environment and Society (IBES). The new Engineering Research Center comprises 80,000 square feet of state-of-the-art research space. The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs was radically expanded. Paxson is particularly excited about multidisciplinary programs, which not only train specialists, but help different specialists work together. One example: researchers at the Women & Infants hospital who study patterns in the crying of newborns, which may indicate whether they are addicted to opioids. She describes these projects, with their unconventional approaches and real-world applications, as translational science. “When you look at the university as a place for education and research - which is really what we are - I think we’re on a great trajectory,” says Paxson. “I’ve been able to build a really good team of people.”
On Private and Public Institutions
The field of economics is part of Paxson’s lifeblood: she earned her PhD in Economics from Columbia University, and she served as chair of the Economics Department at Princeton. She has written about academia from an economics perspective, and she speaks passionately about the relationship between private and public enterprises. (One example: using commercial developers, who pay taxes on their properties, to build and rent space to nonprofits like Brown). There has even been talk about forming a partnership between Brown’s medical school and an area hospital system, although Paxson politely declined to comment on those evolving negotiations. “One of the advantages of these non-for-profit/for-profit-sector partnerships is that they do keep the tax base,” she says. “And I will defend very strongly the idea that universities and other not-for-profits provide a lot of public good, and so the tax-exempt status make sense. But I think we still have to approach that in a very careful and thoughtful way, to make sure that we’re not hurting our own communities.”
The East Side is hardly a criminal hotbed, but when locals saw a spike in street muggings a few years ago, Paxson helped usher in the Yellow Jackets, a team of unarmed, brightly colored security guards. “I think that helped a lot. But I think crime in general is down. By all reports, [Brown] police are working well with the [city] police.”
On Working with the City
Paxson’s predecessor, Ruth Simmons, was renowned for her leadership, but she also butted heads with then-Mayor Angel Taveras over tax issues. After many conversations with Mayor Elorza, Paxson has more than mended those ties: she says she wants to replace that “transactional” relationship with a collaborative one. Some collaborations are large-scale: developing South Street Landing, or recasting of the Jewelry District as the Knowledge District, requires a lot of cooperation with the city. Others are small but powerful, such as the Swearer Center’s after-school programming at D’Abate Elementary School in Olneyville. “That’s sort of a new model,” says Paxson. “Ten years ago, universities were all thinking about globalization. And I think the rest of the world is really important. But a lot of the work we do happens locally.”
On the Ray Kelly Incident
In 2013, Brown was caught in a bitter controversy: NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly was invited to speak as part of the Noah Krieger Memorial Lecture series. Kelly’s support of “stop-and-frisk” policies triggered protests on campus, and activists loudly interrupted his presentation. After 22 minutes, Kelly left the stage and the event was cancelled. Paxson condemned the incident, but Brown received a lot of flak from pundits. “We now have a protocol that we follow for potentially disruptive events,” she says. In a worst-case scenario, the speaker would be video cast into the room from a secure location. “The idea is that the talk goes on. We have the means to make that happen. We haven’t had to use it, but I sure wish we had it in 2013.” Last February, the conservative commentator Guy Benson spoke at the college without incident, and the Wall Street Journal ran a positive editorial: “Brown Stares Down the Censors.”
Brown is in the middle of a $3 billion fundraising campaign. Last fall, the school passed its halfway mark and has now secured about $1.7 billion. Several extraordinary gifts from Brown alumni made recent headlines: Jonathan Nelson’s donation of $25 million in 2016 to establish the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship; Robert and Nancy Carney's donation of $100 million to name the Carney Institute for Brain Science; and Brown chancellor Samuel M. Mencoff's gift of $50 million to the Warren Alpert Medical School to further biomedical research. Paxson credits the alumni for supporting Brown’s most pressing priorities, and she insists that the money will not be used frivolously. “The myth of universities is all we’re doing is building climbing walls and lazy rivers,” she says with a laugh. “We’re not raising money for those kinds of things. We’re raising money for things that are going to make the university stronger – education stronger, research stronger – and a lot for financial aid, which I think is really important. Increasing college access.”
On the Rosa Parks House
So far, Brown’s most turbulent row in 2018 was the Rosa Parks House, a collaboration with the WaterFire Arts Center. Brown was instrumental in shipping the Rosa Parks house from Germany and reconstructing it in Olneyville. But when legal issues arose, Brown backed out, causing hard feelings. “I was crushed,” Paxson says. “I was so excited about this. I thought it would be a great community event. We ran into very real legal obstacles and felt that, by moving forward, even if those were surmountable, it would have put us in a place that would have actually compromised what we were trying to accomplish.” Paxson was gratified to know that the house was still displayed, and proponents managed to create several cultural events, attracting legions of visitors.
On Affordable Student Housing
As luxury apartments shoot up across the city, Paxson is aware that students will struggle to find housing. Some complexes, like 257 Thayer Street, are prohibitively pricey, which segregates students by their families’ income brackets. Meanwhile, the city is struggling to enforce rules that limit the number of people living in a single building. (Right now, 13 students are planning to live in the house on 85 Keane Street, which has raised serious controversy). “We would like to have more [undergraduates] living in Brown residence halls, as opposed to out in the community,” Paxson asserts. “And the number we’re aiming for is probably 80 percent.” To that end, Brown has stopped growing its bachelor’s programs, and the total number of undergraduates is capped. Meanwhile, Paxson hopes to focus on the current facilities. “If we got any bigger, we would start running into problems, like we need a new dining hall, we need new dorms, we need huge infrastructure investments that we’re not prepared to make right now. Some of our dorms are in not great repair, so we have some work to do there.”
At the same time, expanding Brown’s campus makes some preservationists nervous, especially in a hallowed neighborhood like College Hill. But Paxson is careful about the college’s impact on historic streets. She expects most landmarks will stay exactly as they are, including the trusty football field and beloved Urban Environmental Lab, and some parts are untouchable. “I think the real sacred ground for Brown is the main green, the quiet green, Simmons Quad, and then the green up around Alumni Hall,” she says. “That’s the old campus, and I think people care a lot about the look of what’s on campus.”
On the Performing Arts Center Controversy
Brown needs a new performing arts center, but until February, that plan required the demolition of four historic East Side buildings between Angell and Waterman Streets. Many residents protested, and Brown decided to revise its design: the new performing arts center will have a smaller footprint and relocate only one building. “Sometimes, when you’re pushed, it forces you to go back and rethink,” reflects Paxson. She notes that the site was chosen before the architects, New York-based REX, were brought on board; ultimately this new plan better fits their original vision for the project, and the square footage will be comparable, thanks to the new location’s allowance for underground construction. “I think there was a bit of tunnel vision on our part. But I’m happy with the outcome. And it may actually cost less.”