Working As One

By Norman Boucher / November/December 2015
November 13th, 2015

The job of a twenty-first-century university president is a staggering amalgam of demanding roles. She must be all things to all people: a leader with the creativity to come up with a clear vision and the administrative skills to implement it, the prudence to be able to prioritize, and the charisma to inspire students, faculty, and alumni to work together as a community joined by shared ideals and goals. In addition to all this, she must be an understanding confidante to professors and parents; a financial acrobat whose decisions will shape the careers of faculty and provide opportunity for students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds; a calm presence in times of campus crisis; and an orator who can engage alumni in the life of their alma mater.

Mike Cohea
President Paxson unveils the BrownTogether mission.

She must also raise money. Lots of money. In October, four years after the end of the historic Boldly Brown fund-raising campaign led by her predecessor, Ruth Simmons, President Christina Paxson announced that she was ready to lead a new one. Called BrownTogether, this comprehensive campaign is the University’s most ambitious yet.

To put this ambition into perspective, remember that by the time Boldly Brown concluded at the end of 2010, it had surpassed its stated goal of $1.4 billion dollars and tallied an astonishing $1.61 billion—roughly three times the amount raised by Brown’s previous effort, the Campaign for the Rising Generation, which ended in 1996. BrownTogether aims for a similar increase. During kickoff festivities held on campus in late October, Paxson announced its goal as $3 billion, or almost twice the amount raised through Boldly Brown.

Demonstrating that BrownTogether was off to a good start, Paxson added that the University had already raised almost one-third of the money—$950 million—during the campaign’s “quiet phase.” This means that the University had persuaded donors to contribute almost twice as much as the entire Campaign for the Rising Generation before BrownTogether had even gone public.

“When people hear about the size of the campaign,” says Provost Richard Locke, “they know it’s unheard of for Brown.”

Shoring Up Success
Why is $3 billion needed, only four years after the success of Boldly Brown? The short answer is that the University leadership wants to sustain and nurture all the initiatives it has begun in recent years, while working to ensure that Brown more deeply embodies its own identity and ideals well into the future. Paxson aims to preserve the previous administration’s successes while pushing Brown to be even more itself: more diverse, more rigorous, more interdisciplinary, more innovative, more highly esteemed. The longer explanation for BrownTogether’s $3 billion goal involves a two-year process of complicated calculations by dozens of faculty and staff who have identified an extensive menu of pressing needs.

Paxson’s first assessment of where the University should invest emerged in Building on Distinction: A New Plan for Brown, which went public on October 26, 2013, and became a centerpiece of the 2014 celebration of Brown’s 250th anniversary. To understand where the University needed to go, Paxson and her staff, after consulting with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, first had to articulate where it is now. Building on Distinction defines what is most distinctive and successful about Brown and sketches out how it might build on that foundation. In particular, it identified four areas of emphasis that have carried over to BrownTogether: integrative scholarship, educational leadership, academic excellence, and campus development.

“Integrative scholarship” means taking the collaborative, interdisciplinary approach encouraged by Brown’s open curriculum to an even higher level, including better integrating research and teaching, faculty and students. “Educational leadership” refers to building on the open curriculum through innovative programs and real-world experience that prepare students to tackle twenty-first-century challenges. “Academic excellence” highlights the University’s ambition to attract and retain the best faculty committed to cutting-edge research and lively teaching in a way suited to the inclusive nature of the Brown community. Fundamental to academic excellence is also sufficient financial aid to allow Brown to continue attracting the best and brightest students, regardless of their ability to pay. Finally, included in “campus development,” is the need to make sure that faculty and students have the classrooms, labs, residences, and social spaces that will allow the campus community to flourish. With College Hill already brimming with Brown buildings, some of this development will take place off campus, especially in Providence’s former jewelry district, home of the Warren Alpert Medical School.

“Our primary ambition,” Building on Distinction concludes, “is to pursue Brown’s mission at a higher level of distinction, to raise Brown’s stature as a leading university that unites innovative teaching and outstanding research.… Success will mean new discoveries that advance human well-being and new research that helps us understand the human condition. It will be reflected in an increase in the productivity of faculty members working at the forefronts of their fields, a rise in the standing of Brown’s graduate and medical programs, and a continued stream of outstanding undergraduates who go on to equally outstanding careers that reflect the high value of a Brown degree.”

This was a ringing call to action. But it didn’t address the details about how the lofty rhetoric would be implemented. “Building on Distinction,” Paxson explains, “very purposefully said, ‘We will make Brown even more excellent than it already is by building on existing assets and staying true to our existing philosophy of education and scholarship.’ But how do you actually put that into practice?”

Indeed, Building on Distinction calls for new discoveries—but what kind? It identifies the need for a more diverse faculty and more time for research, but does not explain how this will be accomplished. Will Brown need to expand its faculty? In what academic disciplines? And what does “integrative scholarship” look like in the lab and in the classroom?

Outlining Specific Needs
Over the next two years, Paxson and her team worked on answering those questions and others, and in September, she and Provost Richard Locke issued the road map for BrownTogether. The Operational Plan for Building Brown’s Excellence, subtitled “Realizing the Goals of Building on Distinction,” is not likely to become a Books on Tape selection any time soon. But it does contain the clearest and most detailed explanation yet of where this president will be taking Brown over the next decade.

The detailed operational plan identifies sixteen separate areas of focus: everything from “Understanding the Human Brain” and “Undergraduate Financial Aid” to “Creating Peaceful, Just, and Prosperous Societies” and “Catalyzing Entrepreneurial Innovation.” The areas of focus are as disparate as disease and diversity, technology and creativity, but are united in the hopes Paxson places on their development. They are the underpinnings of the University’s future growth and success. The plan inventories Brown’s existing strengths in these sixteen areas, describes how additional funds will be spent to make them stronger, and, finally, imagines the end result of that investment.

While Boldly Brown covered a lot of ground, it did have some clear focal points—people somewhat inaccurately referred to it as a campaign to raise money for need-blind undergraduate admission and the addition of 100 faculty. BrownTogether has no such easily identified big-ticket items to headline, and no one is more aware of that than Paxson. “This is a somewhat more nuanced message,” she says. “This is not all about creating just brand-new things and leaving behind what’s already there. Sustainable academic excellence means we have to use what we already have as well as possible."

For example, although one of the biggest expenses in the plan is for 115 endowed faculty positions, it will not result in an additional 115 professors. Many, though not all, of these endowed positions will fund existing faculty slots, freeing up resources for other things. Similarly, rather than calling for a lot of new buildings, Paxson says, much of the facilities spending will be on renovating existing buildings, mostly to improve teaching, research, and student-living space—an approach, she adds, that is consistent with Brown’s increased emphasis on environmental sustainability. “The point of the campaign,” Paxson explains, “is not to become bigger. It’s to become better. Growth is almost incidental to the desire to achieve greater excellence.”

Three exceptions are the recently completed building for the applied math department; a new engineering building, for which ground was broken in October; and a proposed building to serve as a large, modern performance space. “Our philosophy,” Paxson says, “is that if want to do something, and we just can’t do it with an existing building, we will build a new building.” She illustrates this by pointing out that the Brown Orchestra now rehearses in Sayles Hall: “Sayles Hall is beautiful, but it’s not designed for the performance of an orchestra.” She envisions the new performance building as existing “at a Brown scale.” In addition to rehearsal space, practice rooms, and a dance studio, it will have advanced technology to accommodate multimedia creations, and the performance space will be “intimate enough so that audience members are really connected with the performance.”

In all, BrownTogether calls for spending $600 million on facilities, including renovations to student living areas and athletic playing spaces and buildings. The inclusion of athletics is particularly notable for Paxson: “I didn’t really know a lot about collegiate athletics before I came to Brown,” she says. “I probably came in with some of the biases that academics have about athletics. Then I met our student athletes, and my respect for collegiate athletics really changed. All my biases quickly disappeared.”

Investing in People
Paxson says that what excites her most about BrownTogether is that more than a third of the money raised—$1.1 billion to be exact—will be spent on people. This includes not only the endowed faculty positions but also more spending on financial aid, graduate fellowships, and diversity outreach programs. “Some alumni think, ‘Oh, we’re need-blind, we’re done with that. Financial aid, that’s taken care of,’” she says. “It’s not taken care of. We are seeing more and more students from lower income, middle income, even upper income families who need support so they can come here.” Director of Financial Aid James Tilton points out that the University is increasingly concerned with families in the $100,000 to $200,000 income range who are in danger of falling into the cracks between existing programs.

The faculty component is especially interesting. All universities are constantly on the lookout for better faculty, and the competition for top talent is becoming ever more intense. “One of Brown’s biggest challenges in the coming years will be retaining our best faculty,” Paxson says. “As we hire and promote and develop better and better faculty, there will be more and more institutions—and there are some very close by—who can look down the road and persuade people to move.”

Paxson’s approach on retaining faculty begins with making sure Brown hires the right professors in the first place. Which brings us back to the overarching theme of “integrative research.” Fundamental to Brown’s identity is the rejection of academic silos in favor of interdisciplinary research and teaching, and the campaign looks to deepen and expand that concept. But the choice of the word integrative broadens this concept to include such things as Brown’s inclusion of undergraduates into research at all levels.

“If you want to be great at education,” Paxson says, “you need to have faculty who are engaged in scholarship, and if you want innovative ideas in scholarship you have to engage students. Brown is not a university where research happens off in one space, and then faculty come out of their labs and walk across campus and teach in the other space. We think of students as partners in discovery.”

Honing Brown’s Advantage

Paxson sees this integrative approach as the essence of Brown’s competitive advantage in the higher-ed marketplace, and she points to the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES) as an example. After an external review of the University’s offerings in environmental research and education, the undergraduate concentrations in the field were realigned, and two programs, one focusing on research and the other on teaching, were combined into the institute in order to increase the blending of teaching and research. Hunter Lab, the former psychology building on Waterman Street, was renovated and renamed the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching, and became the home for IBES, which was given start-up funds by the Corporation of Brown University.

Recognizing that such issues as climate change, environmental justice, and sustainable development can’t be contained in any one academic department, Paxson and her leadership team identified IBES as a young and growing academic area whose success could further develop the University’s competitive advantage. And so although six of the endowed professorships in BrownTogether are new IBES positions, they are likely to be faculty members working in two different departments. Already IBES is pooling resources with the history department to fund two positions in environmental history that would provide expertise to both departments.

“We had a faculty line on our roster,” says Amanda Lynch, director of IBES, “History had a faculty line on its roster. Instead of their going out and hiring someone in history, we merged our lines and hired two people who will focus in different areas of environmental history and who be will working fifty-fifty in both programs. That’s the kind of thing the administration is enthusiastic about.”

Two relatively new schools—the School of Engineering and the School of Public Health—are also looking to grow as a result of BrownTogether. A $12.5 million gift from the family of retired Hasbro chairman and CEO Alan Hassenfeld has established the Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute to work on such facets of children’s health as nutrition, autism, and asthma. “Public health is by definition multidisciplinary,” says Dean of Public Health Fox Wetle. “We collaborate not only with the Alpert Medical School and departments at Brown, but with state agencies and hospitals, for example.”

Dean of Engineering Larry Larson reports that the School of Engineering hopes to add about ten new faculty members funded by the campaign. “Our new building will provide great facilities,” he says, “and we will need great start-up packages for them.” The school hopes to expand its work in bioengineering, nanotechnology, and environmental science and engineering. Larson adds that engineering has undergone a radical cultural shift toward more entrepreneurial activity, and he hopes to hire faculty members with an entrepreneurial background.

The racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of faculty and students at Brown is another issue BrownTogether aims to address. In addition to continuing to fund need-blind admission, the campaign pledges to double the proportion of faculty from groups that are underrepresented at Brown and to try a “cluster hire” approach for underrepresented minorities in science and engineering, an approach aimed at easing the isolation a faculty member from a minority group may feel in such a department. In addition, the campaign calls for funding a new President’s Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship Program to bring more scholars of color to Brown, where they can complete work that gives them a leg up on obtaining a tenure-track university position.

All these are just some of the initiatives that Brown believes $3 billion will help establish or expand. When asked what she hopes alumni understand most about BrownTogether, Paxson says, “This is an opportunity to make a big push, to raise Brown’s standing, to raise its level of excellence, and to show the world that what Brown has is very special. We’re building on Brown’s distinctive ability to bring people and ideas together to address very important issues. And I think this ability comes from the open curriculum, and it comes from a philosophy that values academic rigor but also intellectual openness combined with a passion for making a difference in the world. So everything we’re doing builds on that.”

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November/December 2015