Leadership & Governance

Brown U. Taps Princeton Dean, an Economist, as Its Next President

Mike Cohea and Frank Mullin, Brown U.

Christina Hull Paxson said she welcomed the challenge of being Brown's president: "I like having my feet held to the fire. I think that's great. The one thing I don't like is complacency."
March 02, 2012

Christina Hull Paxson, an economist and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, will be Brown University's next president, officials announced on Friday.

Ms. Paxson, 52, will succeed Ruth J. Simmons, who made history in 2001 as the first black president of an Ivy League institution.

Speaking to a crowd of professors, trustees, and otherss on Friday, Ms. Paxson expressed humility.

"It's a huge responsibility, and I can tell you I will try my very best to live up to the high expectations that you rightly have for Brown's next president," Ms. Paxson said at the welcoming ceremony, which was streamed live on Brown's Web site.

As Brown's next president, Ms. Paxson inherits one of the most coveted and complex higher-education leadership posts in the nation. Esteemed for its position in the Ivy League, Brown is also known as a freewheeling campus where protest is practically its own discipline.

Ms. Paxson earned her bachelor's degree at Swarthmore College and two graduate degrees in economics at Columbia University. She began her academic career in 1986 at Princeton, where she rose to dean from the rank of assistant professor of economics and public affairs.

While she has spent her career at Princeton, Ms. Paxson is familiar with Brown's peculiar ethos. Her older brother attended Brown, and she says he returned home completely transformed by the experience.

"He had long hair. He was listening to new music. He argued with my mother about the ethics of eating meat," Ms. Paxson told a chuckling audience on Friday.

Service on Nonprofit Boards

In a subsequent interview with The Chronicle, Ms. Paxson said she welcomed the challenges she is likely to face.

"I like having my feet held to the fire. I think that's great," she said. "The one thing I don't like is complacency."

For the time being, Ms. Paxson is insulated from a controversy that plagued her predecessor. Ms. Simmons was criticized for her service on corporate boards, and she came under particular attack for her role in awarding multimillion-dollar financial bonuses to executives at Goldman Sachs, where she was a director. Ms. Paxson serves on two nonprofit boards, but no corporate boards, she said.

"The president or employee of any organization, it's a full-time job, and I think most of my time initially will be devoted to learning about Brown," she said. "Being on the board of a corporation is a major responsibility. To me, the litmus test is, 'Is this consistent with the mission and goals of my job?'"

Ms. Paxson's research focuses on health, economic development, and public policy. Recently, her scholarship has examined the relationship between economic factors and the health and welfare of individuals, particularly children.

As dean at the Woodrow Wilson School, Ms. Paxson oversaw a revamping of the curriculum to promote more multidisciplinary learning. She said she would like to bring that same cross-disciplinary emphasis to Brown, which is known for an open curriculum that allows students to chart their own academic paths.

Hire Breaks Pattern

When Ms. Simmons announced in September that she would resign from Brown at the end of the academic year, she set off a predictable round of speculation about her likely successor. But Ms. Paxson's name stayed under wraps. Speaking at Ms. Paxson's welcome reception on Friday, the university's chancellor complimented Brown's search committee for tightly guarding the identities of the candidates, who one can only assume included some of the highest-profile names in higher education.

"They were able to keep this work extraordinarily confidential," said Thomas J. Tisch, who presides over the Corporation of Brown University and the Board of Trustees.

By selecting Ms. Paxson, a dean, Brown breaks with a pattern of hiring sitting presidents or provosts as its presidents. Ms. Simmons and her predecessor, E. Gordon Gee, had both been presidents elsewhere before coming to Brown. Not since 1970, with the appointment of Donald F. Hornig, has Brown named a president with an academic rank below that of provost. Mr. Hornig, who held titles of associate and acting dean of Brown's graduate school, was an adviser to four U.S. presidents before taking the helm at Brown.