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In Her Own Words: An Interview with President Christina Paxson

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Christina Paxson is the 19th president of Brown University. President Paxson is an outspoken advocate for increasing access to higher education. She led The Brown Promise initiative, which eliminated loans from the aid packages awarded by the University, decreasing financial barriers to accessing a Brown education. Under Paxson’s leadership, the University has benefited from consecutive record-setting years of philanthropic support. Prior to her appointment at Brown in 2012, Paxson was dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and the Hughes Rogers Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. She founded and directed both the Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging and the Center for Health and Wellbeing at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. 

Sam Trachtenberg: A lot of students aren’t exactly sure what a university president does. Can you briefly explain what your role entails? 

Christina Paxson: Yes, I can. University presidents are charged by their governing boards with setting a direction and vision for the university. We do this in collaboration with faculty, students, staff, and corporation members. We are also responsible for hiring and building a team of talented academic and administrative leaders to execute this vision for the university. So that’s one part of the job. The other is to make sure that the university has the resources that it needs to thrive and fulfill its mission. That’s code for fundraising. Presidents fundraise. I do a lot of that myself. And then finally, there’s an aspect of the job that is maybe the most visible to students—the ceremonial function, which I love. I get to welcome students to campus. I get to graduate students. I also spend a lot of time speaking about higher education, representing Brown in the community and in the world. 

ST: You seem very passionate about this school. I have to ask you, what’s your “Why Brown”? 

CP: So you’re asking me why I came to Brown?

ST: Exactly.

CP: Okay, I’ll tell you. In 2012, I was asked to come into the search for the next Brown president. At the time, I was not looking for a university presidency. I knew something about Brown because my brother had gone here. I did a little digging and learned more, and it seemed like such a good fit. It’s interesting because when students talk about why they chose Brown, they often say the same thing, “It’s a good fit.” What I loved most about the University was the culture and history of being open-minded, collaborative, creative, curious, and kind. It’s just a really good community of people working across disciplinary boundaries and doing really creative and interesting things. So that’s one reason I came to Brown. The other was that Brown seemed like a university that had come a long way but still had so much it could do and more it could become. I like to build things. That’s what excites me. I would not like going to a place that’s operating fine, and all I would have to do is keep the trains running. It was exciting to come to a place with a great community, great culture, and very important and exciting work that could happen. That’s my “Why Brown.”

ST: Speaking of building, you made a pair of very important announcements at the beginning of this school year. The first of which is that Brown is increasing its “in lieu of taxes” donations to the city. Can you speak a little bit about what that means for Providence? 

CP: Assuming the agreements are approved by the City Council, Brown will be putting in about $175 million over a 20-year period through two agreements. The first is a 20-year MOU, a memorandum of understanding, that we entered into with the other three institutions of higher education in the city. The second is a 10-year agreement that is Brown-only. I said at the press conference announcing this plan that Brown and Providence’s futures are intertwined. If we’re successful, the city is more successful. If the city is more successful, we can recruit great students, faculty, and staff. I think it’s probably fair to say that 20 years ago, Providence was not a selling point for prospective students or employees. Now it is. People come to the city and say, “This is a great place.” Brown has had a lot to do with that. I’m proud of that. The city needs resources to provide city services and support education. It also has sustainability initiatives that we really believe in. So there are a number of things the city is doing that are very much consistent with Brown’s mission, and I think it’s important that we step up and support those things both through direct financial contributions and through a lot of the other things we do that are more indirect. 

There are two things I really like about these agreements. One is that there’s an explicit recognition of the contributions that our institutions of higher education make to the city over and above these direct cash payments. That’s great. The other part I really like is in the MOA between just us and the city. The MOA has a number of really innovative provisions that give Brown strong incentives to invest in things that will make both Brown and the city stronger. We’ve never had anything like that before. Now, if our work sparks the development of new residential housing that’s on the tax rolls, some of that counts toward our payment to the city. We have an incentive to do good work that’s good for us and that the city wants to see happen.

ST: Also as part of the agreement, the city’s allowing Brown to acquire five new blocks: four in the Jewelry district and one up here on College Hill. What’s planned for these new spaces? 

CP: We have no immediate plans to make permanent changes to any of those blocks that we’ve acquired. There is one block, the Richmond Street block, that will have to be closed temporarily while we build the new Integrated Life Sciences Building. That would have happened whether we had acquired it or not. I have to say, none of this has been approved by the city council yet, and even after it’s approved, there’s still another layer of approvals that have to go through. So there’s still a lot to work out. The way I see it, we’re investing a lot in the Jewelry District. We’re working very collaboratively with communities that are involved in the Jewelry District, most notably the Jewelry District Association, which is a collection of homeowners and businesses in the area. My vision is that we will work collaboratively with those groups and with people in the city to say, “Hey, what would be great for this area?” If we decide with these other groups that it makes sense to close the street for pedestrian use and green space, that might be great, but we don’t know yet whether that’s going to happen, and we wouldn’t just dictate that outcome. The block on College Hill is a block that we also have no immediate plans to do anything with. It’s a block near the athletics complex just north of Sternlicht Commons. There may be some future use for that block, but I don’t know what it would be right now. All of these blocks are fully bound by Brown-owned buildings or property. 

ST: I’m curious about this decision to buy more land. Is Brown’s footprint in Providence currently too small to accommodate the needs of the University?

CP: Does Brown have land to expand? Well, yes and no. If you look at the capacity of Brown to expand on College Hill, it’s very, very tight. We’ve built three new dorms in the last five years, which is fantastic. Can we keep fitting more onto campus? It would be really hard to do that. We don’t want to take down historic districts. We want to respect the neighbors. We want to do things the right way. What’s great about the Jewelry District is that it was land that used to have a highway running through it. It has a bunch of buildings that used to be jewelry factories that all closed when business moved overseas. It’s an area where we can expand and bring in both commercial and residential development. I don’t want that area to be all Brown, but it’s very unusual for a university to have an area that close to its historic campus where it has room to grow, and we’re going to need it.

ST: Your second major announcement of the last week was the creation of a task force to look at Brown’s admission policies. In addition to investigating the impact of standardized testing and early admissions, the task force has been asked to make a recommendation on whether to modify the preferencing of applicants with family connections to the University, like legacy students. Is this inspired by the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action?

CP: We routinely look at our admissions policies and practices, and we did so a few years ago after the Varsity Blues scandal. In much the same way that we’re doing now, we had a committee of faculty and corporation members check if we had the right controls in place to make sure that this couldn’t happen at Brown. One of the recommendations that came out of that committee was that we should eliminate the use of home equity in the calculation of financial aid, which has a big impact on middle-income students, so we recently made that change. 

The Supreme Court ruling has focused a lot of attention on issues of access and equity. Coming out of the pandemic raises the question of whether we go back to requiring standardized test scores. It was suspended during the pandemic for very pragmatic reasons, and we want to know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Early decision is another issue that has also come up a lot. Some states are actually looking at legislation that would ban the use of early decision. I think it’s really interesting, and, like a lot of these things, there are misperceptions about how early decision is used. For example, a lot of our admissions of students through community-based organizations, which include some of our highest need and most diverse students, are done through early decision. So yes, the Supreme Court ruling had something to do with it, as did coming out of the pandemic. 

ST: What sort of evidence would the committee need to find to be convincing enough to do away with legacy admissions? Or is it even a matter of evidence? 

CP: I certainly can’t prejudge the committee. They will have to decide for themselves what to look at and how to weigh their findings. Part of the task will involve doing a deep dive into the facts. I hear people say things about what they think legacy students are and how many there are and things like that, which shows me that the facts are not well understood. So that’s one piece of it: just really digging into the data. The main role of this committee is to make decisions based on facts while remaining grounded by our institutional values. The committee is going to have to investigate the impact of ending legacy admissions. What would the student body look like? How would it differ? How would the alumni community’s relationship to Brown change? Would they give less? They’re going to have to decide how we weigh these things against each other. It raises a lot of questions. A lot of people come into this discussion with very strong preconceived views but have not looked at the data and don’t understand the complexity of the issues. 

ST: It’s true that a lot of people don’t understand the data, but part of that may be due to limited public access to it. Am I correct that Brown doesn’t publish its legacy admissions rate? 

CP: You may be right about that. I’m not sure. Generally, we don’t publish admissions rates by any subgroup of students, whether it’s Rhode Island residents or students of different ethnicities or genders. That’s been our practice.

ST: I know that in the Harvard case, they had to release their legacy admissions rate, which was several times the rate of normal students. [While legacy applicants make up less than 5 percent of applicants to Harvard, the data showed they constitute around 30 percent of the applicants admitted each year.]

CP: That’s right.

ST: The New York Times recently calculated that the legacy admissions rate at Ivy Plus schools falls around 37 percent. [These same students, when applying to other Ivy Plus schools where they were not legacies, had an 11 percent acceptance rate.] Would you be concerned if Brown had a 37 percent legacy admissions rate? 

CP: So, looking at the raw numbers is very misleading because the students who are legacy students actually have academic profiles that, on average, are stronger than the rest of the student body, so you need to factor that in. But these are exactly the kind of things that the committee will be digging into and talking about.

ST: Well they certainly have a big task. I look forward to reading what they come out with. I will say, however, that many students are skeptical of the Brown Corporation and its socioeconomic makeup. How come there are so many extraordinarily wealthy people on the school’s highest governing board? 

CP: You know, you’re asking me this question as if the vast majority of people on the Brown Corporation are extraordinarily wealthy. So let me just back up a little bit and tell you about the composition of the Corporation. There are 54 people––I’m one of them, and 13 are elected by alumni. Two are new alumni trustees, people who graduated in the last few years. If you look at the Corporation overall, there are some people who are really wealthy, but there are also a lot of people who aren’t. If you look at the demographic composition of the Corporation, I think over 35 percent are people of color. I’ve heard students say, “Everybody knows that the Corporation is made up of wealthy white men.” But when you actually look at who’s there, that’s not the case. Mainly, they are people who went to Brown, some are parents of Brown students, and they’ve all been very successful in their careers, but they’re not all really rich. 

Like most universities’ governing boards, in addition to their governance work, they’re also very important philanthropically to the University. I can’t give you the precise number, but a large share of our capital campaign came from current or former Corporation members. We could not be moving to need-blind admissions for international students without some of the members of our board stepping up and really supporting that, just like we couldn’t have eliminated loans from the financial aid packages of all Brown students without Corporation members’ support. I’m grateful to the Corporation, and if I can find amazingly talented, thoughtful people who can also support Brown financially, that’s a really good thing.

ST:  Keeping with this theme of wealth at Brown, one of the most striking sights I’ve seen on campus is a large sign in the Stephen Robert Campus Center that lists the names of everyone who’s donated over $50,000 in the last year. What’s striking is not the number of names––I know that a lot of people love Brown––but the number of children and grandchildren listed next to these names. What would you say to a student who doesn’t come from this sort of extreme privilege and who feels uncomfortable or out of place seeing this sign? 

CP: That’s an interesting question. I would answer it the following way. A lot of people up on that board were themselves first-generation college students or came from families of very limited means. What you should take away from that sign is that universities like Brown play an extraordinarily important role in moving people from one part of the socioeconomic distribution to a very different one. I hope students will look at that and say, “You know what, a lot of these people were like me, and they’re successful enough to give $50,000 a year to Brown, and someday I’ll probably be in that position too.”

ST: And maybe a dozen of their kids and grandkids will go to Brown too?

CP: Maybe. But also I would assume that a lot of the names on that board who don’t have a P (parent) or GP (grandparent) class of whatever next to their names have kids going to Dartmouth and Harvard and Chicago and Swarthmore because they’re people who have gone to a great school, and it’s given them a great start in life.

ST: One study found that Brown has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the nation, with nearly one in four women being assaulted during their time here. Why do you believe sexual assault rates are so high on Brown’s campus? 

CP: Well, I would correct the data a little bit. The data we have is of mixed quality. Brown looks very much like other schools. We participated in a big sexual assault survey that was done by the Association of American Universities for the first time in maybe 2016, and they’ve done it once since then. That study showed we look pretty normal. That doesn’t mean it’s good. The thing that I think a lot of people don’t appreciate is that those numbers refer to a wide range of experiences, none of which are good. Some of the newspaper articles on this say, “One in four women are raped at Brown,” but many things are classified as sexual assault that don’t rise to that level. But it’s true, sexual assault rates are high at Brown, and they’re high at other universities as well. It’s disturbing. We’ve done a lot of work to build a strong Title IX office so that we can address concerns appropriately. We’ve done a lot of work through that office, but also through the SHARE office to educate students about sexual assault. My guess would be if you had come to Brown a decade ago, there would’ve been much less attention paid to bystander intervention training, making sure that students know what sexual assault is, how to watch out for it, and how to protect their friends.

ST: Have you seen the effects of these efforts on campus? 

CP: Well, again, it’s really hard to measure. What’s happened with the surveys––and this is a problem with surveys overall––is that response rates of undergraduates are plummeting. Students don’t answer surveys anymore. If you want to look at trends over time, it’s really, really hard because the group of people who are responding to the survey are increasingly self-selecting. They’re people with a certain set of experiences. So it’s hard to know whether things are changing. We do know that the number of complaints went way down during the COVID-19 pandemic because people weren’t on campus and weren’t having the same parties or socializing in the same way. I haven’t seen the report yet for the last year, but that will be important to look at.

ST: Definitely. What part of campus do you want to be named after you? 

CP: I am going to disappoint you. I really don’t care about naming. In fact, I find it a little embarrassing. I love to build things, not because I want my name on them, but because it’s good for the University.

ST: Well, they’re probably going to do it anyway. You’ve gotten a lot done here.

CP: I’m a little modest. If they do, they do, but that’s not my goal. I’m not hoping for students to be like, “Oh, what dorm do you live in?” “Oh, I live in the CPax dorm.” I don’t really think that’s what I aspire to.

ST: Do you like the nickname CPax? 

CP: I love it.

ST: Well that’s good. I very rarely hear students refer to you as anything else.

CP: Yes. It’s funny because when it first started, students thought I didn’t know they called me that.

ST: Really? 

CP: Yes. I remember in one set of graduation remarks, I referred to myself as CPax, and they all gasped like, “Oh, she knows.” It was very funny.

ST: That’s funny. Did that nickname start at Brown, or did you have it at Princeton? 

CP: Oh, it started at Brown. Brown students are great at making up really good names for people and things. I loved the name Blueno. 

ST: Rest in peace, Blueno. If you could be an undergraduate student and take any class at Brown right now, what would it be? 

CP: Oh, if I could go back and be an undergraduate, I would take courses in probably two areas. One is in brain science. I actually took a lot of neuroscience as an undergraduate, and the field has moved so far, and it’s so important and so fascinating. So that would be one area that I would like to study. I love to read novels, and anything that Melinda Rabb teaches I would take. She’s a professor in the English department. Have you had anything with her? 

ST: No, I haven’t taken an English class at Brown yet. That’s on my bucket list for next semester. My final question: is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you think would pique students’ curiosity? 

CP: Well, one thing you could have asked me about was the University’s sustainability plans. I’m actually very excited about them. When we started working on them, there was a lot of student interest, and I feel like people aren’t really up to speed with what we’re doing now. We’re on track to reduce our carbon footprint by 75 percent by 2025. That’s coming up really fast, which is great. After that, we’re working on getting it to zero by 2040, and I think we’ll probably get there before then. As you walk around campus right now, you may see these funny little construction-looking sites. What we’re doing is digging test geothermal wells because we think that we can generate a lot of carbon-free energy, but we have to test to see if it actually works. It’s a big, complicated, really technologically interesting project that we’re in the middle of right now, and I think it’d be great if more students were involved.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity