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The Paxson Years Begin

Meet the new president on College Hill

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Brown University’s 19th president, Christina Hull Paxson, seems to be the real deal. When we sat down with the disarmingly personable new president, she described what’s she’s been doing during her first few months on campus. “I’ve been trying to take a ‘crash course’ on Brown, the city and the state so I can learn about how things operate here.” According to the Brown Daily Herald, she also spent quite a bit of time meeting individually with department and program heads in their offices where she was struck by “the sense of collaboration that exists among different disciplines. It’s not as if each department is a little self contained unit; people work across areas.”

The new president comes across as bright, charming and unpretentious with a wonderful, sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor. She has wasted no time in meeting with some of the other university presidents, key government officials and community leaders. “What has already become clear to me is that the universities and colleges in Rhode Island are really not competing with each other, so we can explore ways to complement each other.“

Like her predecessors, Paxon acknowledgeges that Brown will continue to expand. But she also understands the importance of dealing with community issues that can lead to major town-gown conflicts: “I’m looking ahead, not back.” As for her thoughts on the recent awkward confrontation between President Simmons and Mayor Taveras over payments in lieu of taxes to the City, the new president skillfully (and probably wisely) skirted the issue. “It’s hard for me to go back to those discussions since I wasn’t here, though I’m sure today’s difficult economic times have put stress on both of the parties. Based on the smiling pictures of the two of them when the deal was concluded, there seems to have been a good and fair outcome to the negotiations and everyone seems relieved that the deal got done. My sincere hope is to continue to build on this relationship.”

The fear some at the university expressed after the accord was reached with the City was that the new deal might only serve as a stepping stone to even more renegotiations if the City was unable to keep its financial ship afloat. President Paxson feels comfortable that the new deal is a fair one to both parties and is secure. “Since much of my academic background revolves around economic development, it is apparent to me it’s important that Brown’s growth needs to also help Rhode Island be successful.”

“There will be more development as the university grows, but I hope that we can not just be Brown-centric and educate the community as we develop our plans,” she adds, hinting at further development on the campus, the Jewelry District and possibly the new 195 land. The medical school will continue to grow and will hopefully become a new economic engine for the city and state.

“I already have a Rhode Island license plate on my car and am registered to vote,” she exclaims. “Providence is a great city, very comfortable and livable. It reminds me of when I grew up in Pittsburgh.” She boasts that her first experience with Brown dates back to the ‘70s. “My brother, who is six years older than me, went to Brown. He arrived as a short-haired freshman and by Thanksgiving had shaggy long hair all over the place,” she recalls, laughingly referring to her brother as a hippie.

Paxson arrives with some impressive academic credentials. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Swarthmore, she continued on to Columbia where she earned a PhD in economics. Upon graduating, she became an assistant professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton. After rising to a full professorship at Princeton, she also won five annual awards for teaching excellence there. She served as the chairman of Princeton’s Economics Department and was the founding director of a NIA Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging. In 2000, she founded the Center for Health and Well Being at Princeton, an interdisciplinary research center that is part of the well-respected Woodrow Wilson School. The center, which Paxton led until 2009, offered certificate programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in health and health policy.

But it’s her recent success that has helped her create a resume that attracted the attention of the Brown Search Committee as they sought out their next president. Her work in recent years focused on the impact of childhood health and circumstances on economic and health outcomes over the course of their lives; the impact of the AIDS crisis on children’s health and education in Africa; and the long run consequences of Hurricane Katrina on the mental and physical health of vulnerable populations. She is also a senior editor of The Future of Children and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is probably best known in the popular media for her research with Anne Case on the relationship of height to status, intelligence and earnings.

While the new president has a lot on her plate as she enters her first few months on the job, the good news is that the school has been doing well in terms of fundraising and that its academic reputation has never been stronger. “President Simmons left the school on an incredibly strong trajectory which I look forward to building upon.”

The 11-year presidency of Ruth Simmons at Brown has to be considered one of the more successful in the long history of the university. Her fund-raising prowess was undeniable, with over $1.6 billion raised during the recently completed Capital Campaign. She added well over 100 faculty positions, and the school has begun an exciting expansion of its medical school in the city’s Jewelry District, which has been rechristened as the “Knowledge District.”

Unfortunately, her last few months in office turned out to be probably the most tumultuous in her otherwise well-regarded presidency as she and Mayor Angel Taveras went toe-to-toe over what the school would provide to the City as payments in lieu of taxes. Their very public “he said, she said” escalated into an ugly front page spat that reflected badly on both participants until it was finally resolved during the last few weeks of her tenure. In return for an additional $4.1 million a year in annual funding to the City, Brown was given five streets on or, in the case of Olive Street, near its campus, plus the use of 250 parking spots on a partial basis through a resident sticker program. In the end, most people accepted the deal as reasonable, though a few continue to feel the City may have given away too much.

It is impossible not to be impressed with Paxson’s spirit and enthusiasm as she prepares for her official inauguration that will take place on October 26 and 27. We were meeting on that one day every fall when the Van Wickle Gates on Prospect Street are opened to admit students as part of convocation ceremony. As Paxson welcomed her first class of freshman with a convocation speech entitled “Constructive Irreverence,” she now feels that with the return of the students, “my job has officially begun.”

In terms of her vision for Brown, Paxson acknowledges the actual specifics are very much a work in progress and of course will need to be approved by the Board of Trustees. But she did offer some general guidelines of things that are important to her. “First and foremost, Brown is a very inclusive place so it’s important that any strategic process engage as wide a range of people as possible. It’s all about the gathering of ideas. Health and health care have always been important to me so what is happening in the Jewelry District with the medical school is especially exciting to me.”

She also expressed a determination to integrate the school’s national reputation for top-tier academics with an expanded commitment to research, and feels Brown is ideally positioned to excel in both. Given her interdisciplinary background at Princeton, President Paxson also feels particularly comfortable in a school that has been committed to the concept for years.

While the new president acknowledges the university will continue to grow, she promises any expansion will be done thoughtfully. “Space here on College Hill is limited and does not lend itself to a project whose footprint is large. So we will have to look at other areas of the city.” And while she loves what’s happening with the Alpert Medical School downtown, there is all that new land freed up by I-195. Anything she’d like to share with us? With a smile she deftly deflects the question. “Nothing I can talk about,” she laughs.

And then there’s Thayer Street. “I already know that parking is a problem there for all of us. I also know that this is an area that’s important to both the university and the adjoining community. So it’s an area that needs to be considered carefully. I’m also very mindful of our obligations to be a good neighbor to the community.”

On a more personal level, it’s obvious the new president will be much more accessible and people-oriented than her predecessor. Where Ruth Simmons conjured up words like “regal” and “larger than life,” not unsurprising given her role as a board member of powerful corporations like Goldman Sachs and Pfizer, there is a much more human scale to Christina Paxson. Younger, and certainly more down to earth, her overriding adjectives could be “charming” and “likable.” Oh yeah, and “smart.” Very smart.

When asked what is the thing that people would be most surprised to learn about her, she’s playful. “Oh, it’s one of those Miss America type questions, huh?” But then she dutifully wrinkles a brow. “Well, I like dogs, I like hiking. I work out twice a week. And, I like to cook. In fact, one of the things I’m most excited about since I’ve arrived is that Johnson and Wales has offered me a free cooking course and I think I’ll take them up on it. I also love Providence, in some ways because it reminds me of Pittsburgh, but not quite as hilly.”

Paxson is married to Ari Gabinet, who is currently executive vice president and general counsel of the Oppenheimer Funds; he will be commuting into New York three days a week. They have two sons, Nicholas, 22, and Benjamin, 14, and two standard poodles, Ivan and Leo.

Everyone will have a chance to meet the new Brown president in person during her official inauguration on Friday, October 26 and Saturday, October 27. The Friday night festivities will feature performances by artists from Brown, Providence and Rhode Island under the artistic direction of Trinity Repertory Theatre and the Brown-Trinity MFA students. Emceed by Brown alumna actress Kate Burton, the celebration begins at 8pm at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public with tickets available here.

Then on Saturday at 2pm, the actual inauguration ceremony will take place on the College Green. Again, the event is free and open to the public. No tickets are needed.

With her academic expertise, enthusiasm, warmth and exceptional academic and personal skills, it would seem the upcoming Paxson years promise to be exciting ones for both Brown and the city.