Brown President Christina H. Paxson discussed leadership and innovation in a virtual Chronicle of Higher Education event focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Black racism and threats to democracy in 2020-21.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On March 12, 2020, as COVID-19 arrived in full force, Brown University President Christina H. Paxson conveyed nearly unthinkable news — most students, faculty and staff would need to leave the Brown campus with the spring semester to be completed remotely.
As heart-wrenching as the decision was, it wasn’t a particularly challenging one to make.
“That’s something that I could never have imagined doing — ever,” Paxson said during a June 21 virtual event hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. “In some sense, though, that decision was one of the easiest to make — it was forced on us. The harder things were the series of decisions that came after that: Can we have a safe environment? Can we open the campus? How do we do that? The myriad decisions that had to go into making this year be a successful year.”
Establishing a clear set of values to guide decision-making was essential in enabling Brown to welcome students back to campus and complete a year with little virus spread, the ability for students to make academic progress, continuity in research, and enough financial security to ensure no layoffs among regular employees.
“We very much think about values as we make decisions,” Paxson said. “At the beginning of COVID, we developed a set of values that would guide all of our decision-making. And the first one was the health and safety of our community.”
Paxson — an economist, public health expert and education leader who chairs the board of the Association of American Universities — shared those insights during a conversation titled “Leadership and Innovation During a Crisis,” part of the Chronicle’s new monthly Leadership Interview Series. Senior reporter Lindsay Ellis asked about decision-making and lessons learned during the pandemic, the national reckoning with anti-Black racism and injustice, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, among other moments and challenges.
“It was such a complex year because not only did people have the stress of the pandemic, they had the stress of a very uncertain election and the stress of this racial reckoning that we’re going through,” Paxson said. “One of the benefits coming out of this year is that there’s a renewed commitment to really think hard about how we make sure that all members of our community are core members, and that this is true in fact and in feeling.”
Ellis asked about expectations among community members for how university presidents respond in moments of national crisis.
“My position has always been that I will comment on public [and] social issues when they are directly relevant to members of our community…” Paxson said. “Because of our commitment to academic freedom and because of our commitment to having a diverse range of views on all sorts of issues on campus, I don’t think it’s appropriate often for the University to step in and take a university position on a wide range of social and political issues.”
She cited Brown’s advocacy for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — under which many students who arrived in the U.S. as children have legal standing to remain in the country — as an example of an issue that immediately impacts Brown community members. On other important issues that are less directly related to the University’s mission, “we encourage discussion and debate and analysis on campus, but it’s not our role to step in,” Paxson said.
As difficult as they are to navigate, Paxson said that moments of crisis can also prompt new innovations. While Brown started a transition to becoming a truly digital-first organization before COVID-19’s arrival, the forced conversion to a more fully digital environment accelerated that process rapidly, offering lessons that will inform learning experiences for decades to come.
“When a student comes to Brown in 2022, they will have a great on-campus experience because we’re a residential community,” Paxson said. “But they will now have the opportunity to take courses… where they don’t have to be sitting physically in the classroom to learn the material. The idea that you can use remote technology to untether students from campus is creating a really new way of thinking about study away, study abroad and internships during the course of the year.”
Students might travel for high-impact research or career experiences while still taking campus-based courses with their classmates on College Hill, she said — an innovation that can offer Brown students yet another way to take advantage of flexibility and choice in their educational experience, another value that proved instrumental during the pandemic.
“We’re known for our Open Curriculum,” Paxson said, noting Brown’s signature approach to undergraduate education. “This in some ways is the digital extension of what it means to have an Open Curriculum.”