Q&A: Christina Paxson, Brown University's President

Extended Interview: Brown University's president reflects on her first few months in Rhode Island and looks forward to the road ahead.


Photo by Pat O'Connor.

A shortened interview with Brown University President Christina Paxson appears in the January issue of Rhode Island Monthly. This is the extended version.

How are you adjusting to life in Providence?

My family and I are adjusting well, in large part because of the friendliness and openness of Rhode Islanders. Everyone I have met has been exceptionally gracious and welcoming, and not at all reluctant to suggest things to do, places to visit and food to eat. Now all I need is a bit more time to take them up on their suggestions! We are outdoors people, and have already enjoyed spending time along the shore and hiking in state parks. It is great to live in a city where we can walk out from our home to restaurants, museums and cultural events, but get in the car and be in much more remote areas within half an hour.      

Brown has had just nineteen presidents in close to 250 years. What does it feel like to be a part of such an exclusive club?

Honestly, I haven’t focused too much on this aspect of my position. Of course, I am aware of the importance and responsibilities associated with being a university president, but from the moment that my appointment was announced I have just wanted to get to work! Since then, I have tried to immerse myself in learning about Brown’s rich history and distinctive culture, and I have devoted a lot of time getting to know faculty, students, alumni and leaders throughout Rhode Island.  More recently, as I prepared for the inauguration ceremonies held in October, I read about the eighteen presidents that have served Brown over the years. It is a bit daunting to reflect on all they have accomplished in succession over nearly 250 years, and I am humbled and honored to be part of this legacy of commitment. I am also keenly aware of Brown’s place in Providence and Rhode Island, and hope to continue our commitment to collaborating constructively to strengthen our city and state. I am perhaps reminded most often that it is a great privilege to be in this role, working with students, faculty, alumni and members of the broader community to advance our mission of teaching, research and service.

How difficult was it for you to leave your position at Princeton University, where you had worked for twenty-six years?

Princeton was an exceptional place to work, learn and grow as a teacher, scholar and administrator. I began my academic career at Princeton in 1986, moving from assistant to full professor of economics and public affairs over the course of a decade, and serving as associate chair and then chair of the economics department. In 2000, I founded the Center for Health and Wellbeing in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, an interdisciplinary research center where researchers work on health, wellbeing, and investigate the role of public policy on shaping quality of life. In 2009, I became the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School. I was inspired and energized by my work as dean, and I loved the School’s focus on public service. But, as much as I valued my time at Princeton, the decision to leave was not at all difficult. Brown is an incredible institution. I share its values, and I appreciate its distinctive culture. I was very glad to be given the opportunity to come to Brown. 

You’re known for your extensive work surrounding the health and welfare of children. What are some ways we can give back to young ones in need this new year?

This is both a difficult and straightforward question. We know that in our city and state - and across the country - there is growing income inequality and unacceptable levels of poverty that disproportionately affect children. The recent recession and very slow recovery are putting tremendous stress on school systems and public services that serve children and families. I feel strongly that, as a society, we do not invest enough in children, starting at the youngest ages. We need better prenatal care, more affordable and accessible pre-school programs, and public schools that can prepare even the most disadvantaged children for college. Getting this done will take the development and implementation of thoughtful public policy at the federal, state and local levels – not an easy task. There are glimmers of hope in our state, certainly, with many organizations working steadily to improve the lives of children in Providence and Rhode Island. For example, at Brown, we work closely with the United Way and the Fund for Community Progress, encouraging employees to give, both during the holiday season and all year round. Financial support is not the only way to help. There are ample opportunities to assist children by volunteering throughout the year at local schools or with other organizations that serve children and families.

Your husband, Ari, and sons, Nicholas, twenty-three, and Benjamin, fifteen, must be very proud of all that you’ve accomplished. What’s the key to balancing your roles as president, wife and mother?

Every working parent knows that finding balance can be challenging, and over the course of my career there have certainly been days that are more in balance than others! However, I am at a good stage in life to take on the demanding job of university president. My older son, Nick, is living in California, and my younger son, Ben, opted to stay at his former school in Pennsylvania as a boarding student. Although Ari and I miss our children, our days of scrambling to get two kids out the door in the morning, or coping with the unexpected call from the school nurse midway through the day are, thankfully, over. Ari works in New York and comes home to Providence on weekends, so we throw ourselves into our work during the week and spend time together on weekends – often attending Brown football games or seeing new friends. It’s been an adjustment, but it seems to be working well.

I’m told you have two standard poodles, Ivan and Leo. Are they having trouble walking up all the hills of the East Side?

Ivan and Leo have also adjusted well to life in Providence, and we all enjoy walks around the East Side. They don’t seem to mind the hills at all!

Do you plan on taking any extracurricular classes while you’re here in Providence? Perhaps a welding workshop at The Steel Yard or a cooking course at Johnson and Wales?

I have been to the Steel Yard and was so impressed by the work of (Brown alumni) Clay Rockefeller and Manya Kay Rubinstein. It’s an amazing community resource, with many points of connection to Brown and our Swearer Center for Public Service. I’d like to get back there for one of their events, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to take a course any time soon.  Blacksmithing would certainly be a change of pace. 

It’s funny you mention Johnson and Wales. During our very first meeting, John Bowen (President of Johnson and Wales) learned that I enjoy cooking and offered to enroll me in a class or two. I know I would enjoy this and learn a lot, and just need to find the right course and the time to take advantage of the offer.

How will you be spending your holidays? Cooking, I assume.

This year, Ari, Ben and I will go to California for the winter holiday to spend time with our son, Nick. We’ve rented a house, so we can cook instead of dining out. Nick is actually turning out to be the best cook in the family, so I will plan menus with him after we get there. My signature holiday dish is pie: usually apple pie with a lattice crust, sometimes with homemade caramel sauce on top.

When you manage to find time to relax, how do you unwind?

I enjoy my work very much, and find great pleasure in nearly every aspect of it – particularly the students. But it is nice to have occasional moments to get away from my job. When the weather is nice, I like to go for walks. When it isn’t, I stay home and read, or watch a movie. One wonderful benefit of being in Providence is that I am much closer to my sister and father, who live in Boston. It is great to see them more often than I used to.

If you could have coffee with any famous Rhode Islander, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

I mentioned that I have been reviewing the history of Brown and its presidents, and during the course of my research, I have been struck by the desire to ask some of them how they may approach a particular issue or tackle an opportunity were they president today. If I have to choose just one, I think I would select Brown’s eleventh president, Henry Merritt Wriston. He served in the 1930s, when the country was at the point of transition from the Great Depression to World War II. Like today, there were many who questioned the value of higher education, and argued the importance of acquiring skills over pursuing the liberal arts. Wriston seemed to grasp the national mood, and believed that universities should not merely train students to make their way in the world as it is. Instead, he argued, they should educate students with the knowledge, skills and ambition to change the world for the better. We could use President Wriston’s voice on this topic today.

If you’re into this blog wait until you see what’s inside Rhode Island Monthly each month.
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