Who is Christina Paxson?

By Norman Boucher / November/December 2012
November 27th, 2012

Christina Hull Paxson, Brown’s nineteenth president, grew up in the 1960s just east of Pittsburgh in the borough of Forest Hills. Today on its website the town still boasts of its “many desirable attributes, including well-established, family-friendly neighborhoods, beautiful tree-lined streets, and convenient access to shopping and cultural activities.” Because of Forest Hills’s many parks, the National Arbor Day Foundation has dubbed it Tree City, USA. Until 1958, Westinghouse operated an “atom smasher” in town—it’s now a historic site—and Paxson’s father, an engineer, worked on nuclear power plants for the company.

Dana Smith
Brown's open curriculum, Paxson notes, should give students the freedom to explore while ensuring that they leave Brown well educated. 
In so many ways, Forest Hills was a perfect town in which to raise kids in the postwar years. It had small schools in cozy neighborhoods. Paxson grew up walking to school. She also rode her bicycle all over town. She learned to play the cello. (“I was not naturally talented,” she says.) Her father was a theater buff and a woodworker, interests he combined by building sets for the local community theater group. Her mother stayed at home when Paxson was young to care for her and her older brother and sister.

One of Paxson’s great pleasures growing up in Forest Hills was school. “I was one of those kids,” she recalls, “who just loves it.” She joined the chorus and the orchestra. In later grades, she was particularly drawn to math and, in high school, to the nascent field of computer science. Although she was one of the smart kids, she wasn’t really a nerd, she says, at least not in public.

“I was a pretty social kid,” she recalls. “In a way I led this kind of bifurcated life, where I was in all the honors classes and was very studious. But I also wanted to have fun, and I wanted to hang out with different crowds. I would often downplay my intellectual side to fit in. I think a lot of kids do that.”

Summers her family traveled to Tennessee to visit her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather, an agronomist, was more than ninety years old when Paxson was born. (Her mother was born when he was sixty.) He loved to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains, something he was still doing late into his nineties. He died at age 100. “We did a lot of hiking when I was a kid,” Paxson recalls. “And that’s something I still do.”

Although her family was not particularly religious—her father had been raised as a Quaker and her mother an Episcopalian—her mother in particular loved the Quaker faith. “As a child and a teenager I went to Quaker meeting,” Paxson says. “And that was actually very interesting, because it was at the end of the Vietnam War. So Sunday school for me consisted of discussions about war. It was much more political than it was spiritual. But I read a lot of Gandhi’s writings. It was a place where you could go and have really interesting open discussions about civil disobedience. Intellectually, it was a really wonderful experience.”

By the 1960s, the idyllic façade of the suburbs was beginning to show cracks. It was a time of upheavals, both large and small, and when Paxson was nine her parents divorced. She later realized that her mother had been depressed. “My family was the first in my grade school to have a divorce. So when it happened to me, I thought, ‘This is really odd.’” But by the time Paxson reached high school, she says, “This wave of divorces had rolled over the area.”

Her family’s spirits actually improved after the divorce, as her parents continued to work hard to make their children’s lives as happy as possible. Paxson’s mother, with whom she lived, returned to school and earned a master’s degree in child development, eventually becoming a child psychologist. The omnivorous Paxson devoured even her mother’s child development textbooks. With her mother at work, Paxson became more independent, taking the bus to one of her favorite hangouts, the library.  

She spent her weekends with her father, who took her with him as he hung out with the community theater crowd. “I would go to plays with him,” she recalls. “I would work with him on plays. I would build sets with the crew.” In a corner of his home workshop, her father built her a workbench not far from his own. He taught her how to turn bowls on a lathe, and together they made jewelry boxes and other small pieces of cabinetry. “I’m still very handy,” she says. “I’m afraid of nothing. I will repair toilets, paint walls, put up wallpaper.”

During her senior year of high school she was one of four students to take an advanced computer programming course. As she had progressed through math and computer science electives, she’d noticed fewer and fewer girls in her classes. In the advanced programming class, she was the only girl: “This was back in the day when, if you wanted to do computer science, you sat at a card punch.” The teacher, one of her favorites, encouraged each of the students to experiment and explore, regardless of gender. “He was the kind of teacher that’s hard to describe,” she says. “The kind of teacher who gives you encouragement and makes you feel like you can do anything.”    

Summing up her childhood, Paxson says, “I never felt my interests were pushed or forced. You know, my parents were not intellectually pretentious people. Learning was just in the environment in a natural way.”

It was a time and place, she adds, characterized by “the kind of freedom I think a lot of kids don’t have anymore.”

Paxson has been thinking a lot about freedom lately. You cannot become president of Brown without thinking about the balance between freedom and discipline. It has been a central issue at least since the open curriculum was adopted in 1969. How much freedom should students have to choose the courses they take? Don’t innovation and freedom go hand-in-hand? Does a nineteen- or twenty-year-old really have enough life experience to make course decisions that could profoundly affect his or her future?

Paxson has quickly learned to answer such questions. “My understanding of the open curriculum,” she says, “is that students are encouraged to explore. The idea is that they have to find out where their passions are. At the same time, we want to make sure students are well educated. So they have requirements within their concentrations while they are also encouraged to explore.”

Paxson could be talking about herself. In many ways, her own development is an example of a middle way that combines exploration with focus and discipline. “When it came time to apply to college,” she says, “I applied to Harvard early decision. And I did not get in. And in fact they rejected me so fast that I still had time to apply to Swarthmore early decision, and I did get in there.” Swarthmore was a family tradition. Both her parents, her grandparents, and two great-grandmothers went to Swarthmore. Paxson’s twenty-three-year-old son, Nicholas, graduated from Swarthmore. (Her other son, Benjamin, who is fifteen, attends a private boarding school in New Hope, Pennsylvania.)

The Harvard rejection, Paxson says, “was the best thing in the world that happened to me. I had become enamored of the Harvard mystique and the idea that Cambridge is just wonderful, and I’d fallen in love with the place without thinking of what it had to offer and how that fit with me.” Swarthmore, she says, turned out to be the perfect place for her. “It encouraged a lot of intellectual independence and was very demanding. That was good for me. I still think that if I’d gone to Harvard my social side would have won out, and I would have been much less of a good student than I turned out to be at Swarthmore.”

Not that Paxson knew what she was going to do at Swarthmore. “I came in thinking I would be premed,” she explains. “That lasted about a semester.” Then this science and math wizard began to diversify. “I started taking a lot of courses in psychology, religion, English, philosophy. I really loved psychology. I loved neuroscience, but I realized that to be very good at that you to have to take advanced lab science, and I just wasn’t prepared for that.”

Her exploration began to pay off in unexpected ways. “I learned how to write, and I liked it. I’d always been a little bit intimidated by writing. I hadn’t really learned to organize my thoughts very analytically and translate them into clear prose, into well-structured, thoughtful writing. I hadn’t really realized that in order to write well you have to think well. And I learned how to do that by taking courses in philosophy, which I think forces you to be analytic in a way that no other subject does.”

By the end of Paxson’s sophomore year, she had entered the honors program and had declared herself an English major with a minor in philosophy. But then a question arose in her mind that plagues undergraduates everywhere, even at places like Brown: If I study this, what kind of a job will I get after I graduate? Paxson thought she should take an economics course, which would be helpful if she chose to get practical and go to business school after Swarthmore. It was a pivotal decision.

“I just fell in love with it,” she says. “Economics in some ways is a very logical field, and is a very analytic field. A lot of people think that when you’re studying economics, you’re studying business. But unlike pure math, it has this human side to it. So I’ve always thought of it as having a social purpose, where you’re using economics to analyze really human issues. The main goal is to think about how to improve human welfare.”

It turned out that Paxson’s detour into English and philosophy, which on the surface seemed so unrelated to economics, in fact explained what turned out to be her passion for it. Studying literature and philosophy had led to the realization that her love of logic and analysis could have a greater purpose and could lead to a more balanced and enriching life—which, as it happens, is exactly the idea behind Brown’s open curriculum.  

During her senior year at Swarthmore, Paxson took nothing but economics courses. She changed her major to economics while retaining both English and philosophy as minors. But when it came time to apply to graduate school, she returned to the idea of earning an MBA.

There was one complication, however. A month into her freshman year, she had met a senior named Ari Gabinet. The two began to date and have been together ever since. After he graduated from Swarthmore, which is eleven miles outside Philadelphia, his parents wanted him to follow family tradition and earn his law degree at the University of Chicago, but to be near Paxson he attended law school at Penn in Philadelphia. By the time she graduated from Swarthmore in 1982, Gabinet had taken a job in New York City and the two were engaged to be married. So Paxson applied to, and was accepted by, the business school at Columbia.

Then she changed her mind again. “By the spring of my senior year, I was thinking, ‘Wait a second. Maybe I want to teach economics.’” One of her professors pulled some strings, and Paxson entered Columbia’s PhD program in economics.

By this point, Paxson had decided she really wanted to study development economics. There was only one problem. Columbia at the time did not have any development economics scholars. It excelled in international economics and was one of the best graduate programs around for labor economics. “A lot of the tools you need in development economics are the same as in labor economics,” she says. “So I studied labor economics.”

In the 1980s computers had reached a point where scholarly analysis of longitudinal data sets was finally becoming possible. Once again, Paxson could bring together the various threads in her intellectual development: her humanistic desire to use knowledge to improve the public good, her sharply honed gifts for analysis and logic, and her longstanding interest in computer science. “We were just getting longitudinal data sets that would let you actually look at people’s earning trajectories over time,” she says.

Working under her thesis adviser, Joseph Altonji, who has since moved to Yale, Paxson looked at hours constraints, or how people are able to choose their work hours by moving across jobs. For her dissertation she studied the effects of consumer interest rates on the consumer credit market, analyzing, among other things, state credit laws and consumer behavior over time: “It looked like the people getting squeezed out of credit markets were just what you’d expect. They were people who were less educated and people who were African American.”

One rationale for the subject of the dissertation was particularly Paxsonian: “It’s a link back to an influential course I took at Swarthmore on poetry, in which we read Pound’s canto on usury. He has the economics all wrong. But reading that poem in college got me interested in interest-rate ceilings.”

After earning her PhD in 1987, Paxson became an assistant professor at Princeton. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. “I was really lucky,” she says. “It was the best economics department in the country at the time.” By now, her husband was working back in Philadelphia, so the move to Princeton was not easy. “But it was the best match for me, because there was—and still is—a strong development group there. And they were willing to take me on as a development economist, which I wasn’t at the time.”

Paxson flourished at Princeton. Asked to look back on more than twenty-five years of research there, she says, “I think of my work as falling into two distinct categories. Early on I was very interested in consumption, savings, and income inequality. I did work in Thailand and Asia, and other places around the world. This was really a lot of work on what determines savings behavior and how it’s related to economic growth.”

Her best early work is arguably her research into savings and something called consumption smoothing. “The idea,” she explains, “is that people, especially in lower income groups, face a lot of volatility in their incomes. People in agricultural environments are a good example: Crops are good, crops are bad, prices are up, prices are down.” How do people facing this volatility buffer themselves from these fluctuations or “smooth” their consumption across volatile times? They must have either sufficient savings or access to affordable credit if they want to stay in business.

“So I did some work on that, mainly in Thailand,” Paxson says. “And the results show that, although it’s not perfect by any means, farmers do a really good job at smoothing consumption.” Why does that matter? “It matters for policy. If somebody told you that people can’t buffer themselves, that they can’t smooth, then if you have a downturn in the harvest, you really have to worry about it. You have to think about the appropriate policy response in a very different way than you would if you know that credit markets are functioning well and savings markets are functioning well.”

It was work like this that led to Paxson’s second and best-known area of research: health outcomes. “You can’t really talk about savings, individual savings decisions, and how people make decisions, without planning for old age. And you can’t really talk about old age without talking about mortality.” Mortality depends on health, of course, and so Paxson began to study differences in health across people from different economic groups.     

“When you start looking at the economic disparities and outcomes in older life,” Paxson explains, “and you start unraveling that, you ask, ‘Where did it start?’ And you end up at age three. So I started working on kids.” The teenager who pored over her mother’s child development textbooks was, as a mature economics researcher and professor, right back where she’d started.

Over the course of a number of papers, many with her Princeton collaborator, Anne Case, Paxson concluded that the environment within which a child develops can have a major impact on his or her economic outlook. More precisely, she says, “Health in early life has a substantial impact on people’s trajectories through education and later life earnings. So one of the lessons is that investments in the health of children are important. They’re important not just because we care about children when they’re children. They’re important because we care about how well people do when they’re adults, how productive and healthy they are then.”

Working within Princeton’s Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Paxson gradually took on more and more administrative responsibilities, beginning with becoming director of the school’s Master’s in Public Administration program. “I cared a lot about the school,” she says. “I loved the school’s mission of training students, educating them, and preparing them for public service. I liked working with groups of students, groups of faculty, trying to say, ‘Hey, how can we make the program better?’”

At first she continued with her research and teaching, but Paxson also was drawn to the kind of administrative jobs that can have a larger effect. “When you’re not an administrator,” she explains, “your impact can be great, but it’s still somewhat limited to your own students and your own research. When you move into administration, if you do well, you have a positive impact on the education and research of a lot of people. You sort of amplify what you can do.”

Paxson became chair of the economics department. She founded and directed the Center for Health and Wellbeing at the Wilson School. She was the founding director of the Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging. Eventually she became dean of the Wilson School, which made balancing research and administration increasingly difficult. “When I directed the Center for Health and Wellbeing,” she says, “I had time for my research, for graduate students, for teaching. For a while I was chairing the economics department, I was directing the center, I was teaching, and I was doing research. I wasn’t sleeping much, but I was doing it all. Then, when I became dean, I made a conscious decision that I was not going to take on graduate students.”

Since becoming Brown’s president, Paxson has been spending much of her time meeting with faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and getting a feel for the place and how it operates. She learned early that, in her words, “Brown is very democratic, and it’s very important that people participate in decision making,” a characteristic that can be both useful and frustrating to the CEO of a large institution.
Paxson says she is impressed with the energy and depth of Brown’s interdisciplinary work and wants to build on that strength. “Everybody says they are multidisciplinary,” she asserts, “and they’re not. It’s actually very genuine here. Students help drive that. They don’t think of Brown in terms of departments. Our job is to facilitate that.”

She points out that advances in brain science at Brown have come from multidisciplinary work, but adds that even in the humanities a multidisciplinary approach can be important. For example, she says, given the role of religion in today’s wars, it’s conceivable to have religious studies concentrators collaborate with Brown archaeologists and even with scholars at the Watson Institute for International Studies to understand religion’s theological, historical, and political underpinnings.

At the same time, she is aware of keeping individual departments strong, saying, “You need the disciplinary level to assess the methodological rigor of the multidisciplinary work. You have to overlay a problem-centered approach that crosses disciplines over a disciplinary structure.” She adds that the University must make sure faculty members have the resources they need in order to be successful. And her administration must identify Brown’s academic strengths so that it knows what to build upon in the coming years.
One strength Paxson has identified is Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School. Given the changes in health care, changes that are likely to continue following the reelection of President Obama, the school is well-positioned to become increasingly relevant. “I’m really excited about our medical education,” she says. “We’ve been a little bit more focused on primary care in medicine than other medical schools, and we have a very strong department of public health. And that’s where the world of medicine is going. This is a comparative advantage we can really build on. The world of medicine in the United States is moving away from fee-for-service towards accountable-care organizations and the kind of models where groups of physicians and nurses and physician’s assistants are going to work together to keep populations of patients healthy. We train doctors who are going to be the types of doctors that can operate in this new world of medical care and health care reform.”

At the same time, Paxson argues, for Brown students to succeed in the twenty-first century, the University must find more creative ways to get students studying in other countries. Technology, and particularly Paxson’s old passion, computer science, can help by providing students a way to link to campus while they work abroad at universities that Brown has identified as intellectual peers.
“We need to find ways of untethering students from campus,” she says, “through technologies of online education and better methods of video conferencing. We need to redefine community and realize that it is not just physical.” Even within the United States, she says, students should be able to spend more time away from Providence to study at such institutions as the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, with which Brown already has an institutional partnership.

As an economist, Paxson takes a particular interest in the controversial issue of the cost of higher education. “Higher education is really expensive,” she says, “and the increases in tuition are putting enormous strains on the middle class and on lower-income families.”

Not surprisingly, Paxson has a nuanced economic reading of the problem. “Over the last thirty years,” she says, “there’s been an increasing income inequality. In the United States most of the gains in income have gone to the people at the very top. What you find is that, for the top 5 to 10 percent of families, the fraction of income that you have to put toward tuition to send a child to college hasn’t increased that much. For the wealthy, college is still a bargain. For people in the middle class and in lower-income families, tuition relative to income has gone up by multiples.”

This is why, she says, Brown will continue to emphasize financial aid for middle- and lower-income families. But looking at the economics of education through this one lens is misleading, Paxson insists. “One thing that I find irritating,” she says, “is that there’s a lot of focus on the sticker price of education and a lot of emphasis on how fast that’s going up. I think what we really need to focus on is what’s happening to the affordability of education relative to family income after taking into account financial aid—financial aid from the universities, but also from Pell grants and other public sources of financial aid.”

One issue that has emerged as a Paxson preoccupation in the opening months of her presidency is the malaise over the nature of a college education, which intensified during the recent recession. In times of economic trouble, people want colleges and universities to become more vocational, to emphasize a practical education that will allow graduates to get good jobs. In fact, Paxson focused her inauguration address on precisely this trend.

“I think,” she explains, “there is a movement—and this is a little bit ironic because it’s coming from me—toward the idea that we have to think about measuring the value added by education in a very concrete way. Yes, I do believe it really is important to look at what we’re doing and ask, ‘Are we doing a good job? Are we adding value? Are our students getting a really high-quality education?’ What concerns me is that the easiest things to quantify may not be the most important. It’s very easy to measure people’s subject-specific knowledge. It’s very hard to measure creativity, innovation, problem-solving abilities, abilities to work with people from other cultures—the kind of things that I think in some ways are more important than subject-specific knowledge.”

Besides, she says, subject-specific knowledge tends not to last very long, leaving students back where they started. “The fact that I learned how to program in Fortran in college,” Paxson says, “doesn’t do me any good now. But the fact that I can think analytically and logically means that I can learn to program in any language that comes along. So universities like Brown are going to be continually challenged to demonstrate their value.”

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