From the archives: Presidency balances peer influence with unique vision

This article is part of the series Shaping the Presidency

Part two of a three-part series

President Christina Paxson stepped into the top administrative role at Brown earlier this year with a background shaped by the three institutions of her past – Swarthmore College, where she studied as an undergraduate, Columbia, where she earned her doctoral degree, and most recently, Princeton, where she filled teaching, research and administrative roles. These experiences, presenting her with perspectives on university governance, will likely inform her tenure at Brown.

In the University’s recent history, many presidents have assumed the position after filling leadership roles at other institutions of higher education. Former presidents HenryWriston, Howard Swearer and Ruth Simmons led Lawrence University, Carleton College and Smith College, respectively, before coming to Brown. Others, like Paxson, arrived as first-time presidents, having served as deans or provosts at other institutions.

This pattern is also characteristic of leadership at Brown’s peer institutions. Penn President Amy Gutmann was provost of Princeton before taking up her current position in 2004, while Columbia President Lee Bollinger left his post as president of the University of Michigan to move to the Ivy League. Cornell President David Skorton led the University of Iowa for three years before moving to Ithaca.

Presidents who have been leaders at other universities “generally do better as a result,” said George Borts, professor of economics, who has been with the University since 1950 and seen nine administrations. 

Such experience can give presidents insight into how to lead an institution of higher education, but presidents must develop agendas forged by Brown’s particular set of demands and resources – a crucial aspect of the presidency highlighted by many senior administrators. 

Paxson, who will be officially inaugurated this weekend, is the fourth out of the last five Brown presidents to come directly from another university, arriving after serving as the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Paxson now takes on the challenge of making her mark on an institution striving to maintain a university-college identity in an increasingly interconnected and competitive global landscape.

University exchange

Appointing presidents with experience at other institutions is “very healthy” in helping universities maintain an outward perspective, said Hunter Rawlings III, president of Cornell from 1995 to 2003 and current president of the Association of American Universities. “It’s valuable sometimes to bring in fresh ideas that are influenced by situations elsewhere,” he said.

“Coming from Princeton may be an advantage” for Paxson, said David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98, professor of anthropology and former provost under Simmons. Princeton is the Ivy League school most aligned with Brown in terms of striving to be a top research university while simultaneously fostering a strong undergraduate experience, he said.

“Even through Brown and Princeton are very different places, the basic skills needed for this work are transferable,” Paxson wrote in an email to The Herald. “Already, I can see how my experience building consensus around curricular change will be useful in the strategic planning process we have launched at Brown.” 

But not all of Paxson’s past experience will necessarily be applicable to Brown. She spearheaded some notable changes while at Princeton – including the creation of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, which conducts research on public health and development-related issues, and curricular reform in the economics department – but told The Herald last March that she does not know if similar initiatives are right for Brown. Her top priority, she said, will be to maintain Brown’s “very distinctive feeling and set of values.”

“What develops here has to come from here, and importing things from elsewhere is usually not a very good idea,” she said at the time.

In framing an agenda, a president must keep the University’s unique mission in mind, Kertzer said. 

But opportunities for transferring ideas go beyond previous job expertise. Paxson will be in communication with other university presidents through the AAU’s semi-annual sessions for university leaders to meet and discuss issues facing administrators in higher education. The AAU’s members include 61 research universities in North America and all Ivy League institutions excluding Dartmouth.

“Although I have not attended any of these meetings yet, I understand that they provide opportunities to discuss a wide range of issues, from online learning, to controlling the costs of college, to federal support of research. They also discuss issues that, while very important, may not be as much in the public eye,” Paxson wrote in an email to The Herald.

Nan Keohane, who served as president of Wellesley College and later Duke University, said she occasionally contacted colleagues she met at AAU meetings for advice in situations that were new to her early in her tenure as president. By the end of her presidency at Wellesley, she said she was the one giving advice. 

“It’s a nice kind of reciprocity,” Keohane said.

Paxson also wrote that she finds value in consulting other universities’ presidents. “As a new president, it is great to compare notes with people who hold the same job and are dealing with similar issues,” Paxson wrote.

She will also meet with other Ivy League presidents, who gather regularly to discuss both topics related to academics and the Ivy League. For instance, Paxson wrote, presidents of Ivy League universities have been discussing ways to prevent concussions in student athletes – a subject she said she is drawn to because of her own work as a health economist.

Paxson has already started forming relationships with other univer
sity presidents in Rhode Island, she wrote. Such collaboration follows the lead of past University presidents who also reached out to their fellow presidents within the state. During Simmons’ presidency, the University worked with the Rhode Island School of Design to create a dual-degree program in 2008 at the urging of the faculty. 

“Brown and RISD have reached this historic moment when we are actually weaving together our academic programs for some great students,” Roger Mandle, former president of RISD, told The Herald in September 2007. 

Peer influence 

When universities undertake unique initiatives, peer institutions are often prompted to consider doing the same.Kertzer pointed to Harvard’s move to eliminate its early action admission program in 2006, after which Princeton and the University of Virginia also eliminated their early admission programs.

Harvard’s former Interim President Derek Bok said “somebody had to take the lead” in discontinuing the early admissions program, the Harvard Crimson reported in 2006. After the announcement, Bok said he hoped that this decision would create a larger trend in higher education and that other universities would also reshape their admissions policies.

When Princeton administrators decided to end early action, they also anticipated that peers would follow suit – an expectation that would prove incorrect. 

“We hoped other colleges and universities would do the same and they haven’t,” Princeton President ShirleyTilghman said in a 2011 press release announcing the program’s reinstatement.

But institutions must still consider their individual circumstances when determining policy directions. Brown and several other top institutions did not change their early admission processes after peers discontinued the programs. This decision “turned out to be right,” Kertzer said, given that other schools reinstated early action by 2011. 

Miller explained Brown’s decision to retain the program in an email to The Herald in March 2011. An early admissions program provides, he wrote, “more certainty for the college in terms of constructing an incoming class, while giving students the chance to declare and commit themselves to a very clear first choice institution.” 

One of the most striking examples of peer institution influence on policy was the shift to coeducation, said GaddisSmith, a professor emeritus of history, who wrote a book on the history of Yale. 

Yale “was kind of fiddling around” with the transition until the fall of 1968 when Princeton announced it would accept women. “So Yale immediately said, ‘Ok, we’ll do it,’” Smith said.

Brown did not formally become co-ed until the fall of 1971, though by the time the Brown and Pembroke College administrations merged, co-ed housing and dining halls were already present on campus. Interim President Merton Stoltz had also formed a committee to discuss the future of Pembroke College as a separate institution in 1969. 

Dartmouth became co-ed in 1972, and Harvard and Columbia followed suit in 1977 and 1983, respectively. 

Students themselves have called upon presidents to follow the lead of other universities. In February 1969, students demanded that the administration question the status of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs as part of the community. 

“I would urge the Faculty to vote down the Ad Hoc Committee proposal and to follow Yale University and Harvard University in recognizing the incompatibility of military training with the proper functioning of the University,”Kertzer said as an undergraduate in 1969, in reference to the committee responsible for evaluating the presence of ROTC on campus.

From his more recent viewpoint as a former administrator, Kertzer pointed to the discussions of tenure guidelines, which started in 2009, as an instance in which the University looked to the practices of its peers to shape the major decisions affecting the faculty. Most professors and administrators cited practices at other universities in their arguments, Kertzer said, adding that only a few faculty members took an “ostrich approach” in not wanting Brown to be compared to another school. 

“We make our own decisions of what we think is right, but we take advantage of what is going on at other universities to learn about how it works,” Kertzer said.

While some University changes are prompted by internal agendas, presidents and administrators are acutely aware of broader trends in higher education and the policies of peer institutions. 

Understanding undergraduates

With responsibilities to the faculty, trustees and higher education in general, presidents at different universities vary in the extent of their interaction with the student body. 

At her inauguration in 2001, Simmons’ newly emerging celebrity-like status inspired students to take pictures with a life-size cutout of her, which she called “one of the most embarrassing moments of my life” during an interview in 2006.

In a fall 2011 Herald poll, 81 percent of Brown undergraduates surveyed said Simmons had positively contributed to their Brown experience, validating the unique campus popularity she enjoyed.

During her tenure, students showed their admiration for Simmons through shirts, posters and even Halloween costumes.

“Most presidents feel they want to be as engaged as possible with the undergraduate student community because that’s the heart of the campus,” Rawlings said.

Princeton president Tilghman also has a popular presence on campus. “Most people I talked to really like her,” said Suchana Costa, a sophomore who took a freshman seminar on genetics with Tilghman. Costa said when she struggled in the class, Tilghman made time one Sunday evening to meet with her – notable considering that some of her other professors weren’t as willing to meet, Costa said.

A joke among Princeton und
ergraduates is that Tilghman “controls the Princeton weather machine” because the weather stays good every time the campus hosts an important event, Costa said.

Cornell president David Skorton and his wife stay in a freshman dorm during orientation every year, according to Adam Gitlin, president of the Cornell student assembly, and Skorton has a reputation for being very approachable.

But not all university presidents have such a strong presence on their campuses. Though Yale undergraduates have a “tremendous amount of respect” for President Richard Levin and are aware of the notable initiatives that characterize his tenure, “it’s not like he’s interacting with undergraduates every single day,” said Brandon Levin, a student counselor to the Yale presidential search committee who is of no relation to the president. 

Undergraduate familiarity with Columbia President Lee Bollinger mirrors the situation at Yale. “He really is kind of aloof when it comes to undergraduate life,” said Jared Odessky, vice president of communications on the Columbia College Student Council. His main engagement with undergraduates comes from the “fireside chats” he hosts at his home a few times a year – students enter a lottery for a chance to attend the chats and personally ask him questions.

The Undergraduate Council of Students is planning to hold similar chats with Paxson this semester, announced Kyra Mungia ’13, communications chair, at a UCS meeting last month. In the past, these videos have featured Simmons and Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron.

‘Natural rhythm’

As Paxson assumes the role of the University’s 19th president, she will navigate both the responsibilities and expectations specific to Brown and those common across university presidencies at a time of presidential turnover at peer institutions.

“There is a natural rhythm to university presidencies,” Tilghman wrote in an email this fall to the Princeton community in which she announced her decision to step down at the end of this academic year. Both Tilghmanand Richard Levin declared their intentions to step down last month.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Susan Hockfield announced in February she would leave the school as soon as a successor was found, while former Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim ’82 resigned this summer to become president of the World Bank after serving for less than three years.

Last year, Simmons said she felt she was stepping down at the right time because of the University’s financial stability, The Herald reported in September 2011.

“The time to make the transition is when you’re strong,” she said then.

Rawlings said private university presidents often stay between eight and 15 years. Presidents should stay long enough to effectively implement their agendas, but staying too long may identify the university too strongly with a president’s individual interests, he said. 

“In the beginning, you can be critical of everything because none of it is your responsibility. After 12 years, you’re inevitably more defensive, less critical, because a lot of what you should be looking at really critically is your work,” Tilghman told the Daily Princetonian.

When the University is in need of a new leader, the search committee looks for a person whose personality and prior experiences match with the unique qualities of Brown, Chancellor Thomas Tisch ’76 said.

“Brown is somewhat unusual in being this combination of a school that puts a huge emphasis on the quality of its undergraduate experience, but has the potential to be one of the great research universities of the world,” Kertzersaid.

As the presidential search committee convened last year to find a successor for Simmons, members found Paxson“seemed to us just to be a completely natural, comfortable and perfect fit,” Tisch said. 

“It was the combination of her skills, her experience, her temperament, her sensibility and her love of the values of Brown,” he added.

But in addition to an understanding of the uniqueness of the institution itself, one important aspect to any successful presidency is personality, said former Chancellor Artemis Joukowsky ’55 P’87.

“It’s such a multi-faceted job,” Keohane said. “You’re everything from the mayor of a small town or a city-sized town, to a scholar-in-chief, to a fundraiser extraordinaire, to a friend of students and a colleague of the faculty.” 

Leaders of universities and colleges may collaborate or enact new initiatives that prompt action by other schools. Brown at times has followed these larger trends, though each new decision is predicated on the University’s distinctive mission. 

But trends and the University mission are not the only factors to shape a presidency. The next article in this series will investigate how the specific conditions surrounding a presidential transition can influence the agenda that defines a president’s tenure.

- With additional reporting by Alexandra Macfarlane.

Herald Archives