2023 TIAA Institute Theodore M. Hesburgh Award Winner


Christina H. Paxson

Surya P. Kolluri: Welcome. Uh, it is my great pleasure to introduce, uh, Dr. Christina Paxson, President of Brown University. Uh, President Paxson has served as Brown's 19th president, and professor of economics and public policy since, uh, 2012. Uh, Brown University has grown significantly as a premier research university that produces high-impact scholarship, while remaining committed to excellent undergraduate education. Uh, President Paxson has effectively positioned Brown also as a leading center for arts education and innovation as well. Uh, President Paxson's impact can also be seen beyond the campus borders, uh, with her steadfast commitment to invest in college access, uh, for Providence Public School children, working to improve, uh, health and healthcare for Rhode Islanders, and spurring, uh, local economic development. Uh, so President Paxson is this year's TIAA Institute Hesburgh Award recipient, in recognition for, uh, her leadership in higher education, uh, and, and the excellence, uh, that she embodies in the spirit of Father Hesburgh and the greater good. Uh, so President Paxson, uh, thank you very much for taking the time for having this conversation with us.

Christina H. Paxson: Tha- thank you for inviting me.

Surya P. Kolluri: Um, so, let's just begin. By addressing, uh, what leadership, leadership excellence, uh, means to you, and what are the most important traits needed to be a leader in higher education today?

Christina H. Paxson: Uh, that, that's a very big question. I will do my best to answer it. I, I would say first, and maybe a little bit facetiously, endurance. I mean, Father Hesburgh was the president for 35 years. I don't know how he did it, so-

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: ... energy and persistence is very important. Uh, more seriously, uh, the ability to listen, to collaborate, to... You know, you're surrounded by amazingly brilliant people, and to kind of draw on those great ideas, and then put together the teams of people, uh, to, to move those ideas forward. So, I, I've spent a lot of time putting together a strong leadership team, and I couldn't do it without that group of people, so I spend a lot of time cultivating them.

Surya P. Kolluri: Uh, pulling on resources, pulling on talent, pulling on a team-

Christina H. Paxson: That's right.

Surya P. Kolluri: ... uh, to make it work together.

Christina H. Paxson: That's right.

Surya P. Kolluri: Uh, President Paxson, also, we are, uh, dipping into the 21st century, going deeper and deeper into it. Uh, so the world is changing. The world of work is changing. The world of education is changing.

Christina H. Paxson: Mm-hmm.

Surya P. Kolluri: Uh, so how different was it, uh, to lead a university today than it was 10 years ago? Uh, and, uh, talking about the pandemic, how has that impacted your leadership approach?

Christina H. Paxson: So, so those are really interesting questions, and when I think back 10 years, the conversations that we were having in higher education, uh, it was, you know, "Are massive open online courses going to take over the sector?" Or, you know, "Are students going to stay home and, and go to college in their pajamas?" Uh, that was something people talked a lot about. Uh, the, the other thing that was really different, I think, was, uh, we hadn't yet really seen the erosion of trust in the institution of higher education that we've seen in the public.

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: And we hadn't seen the same extent to which, uh, higher ed is being used as a foil in the culture wars. So those have been things that have been difficult to manage over the last 10 years, and you know, as, as I like to say to my team, we have to think about what our goals are, what the big picture is, and, uh, articulate our values, use data to make decisions, and keep driving towards what we want to do, and not let a lot of the other things get in the way of, of what we're trying to accomplish. Now, you asked about the pandemic.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: That was not anything I had suspected.

Surya P. Kolluri: [inaudible]

Christina H. Paxson: And we literally did have students at home, going to college in their pajamas. They did not love it very much.

Surya P. Kolluri: No.

Christina H. Paxson: And, the, you know, the leadership challenges there were... I, I found that I did have to lead differently, because we had to make a series of very fine-grained, detailed decisions, in a very short period of time, with no playbook, no idea of what, what was coming next, what we were going to do. And, I thought of it, really, in, uh, the context of risk management. You know, what are the risks, what are the, what, what are the things we can do to mediate those risks? At the same time, I was very vocal about the need to bring our students back to campus, because I do think at Brown, the value of the education is in being in community, with students, with faculty, those conversations. So I pushed very hard to bring them back to campus as soon as I possibly could.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah. Uh, and as a... anecdotally, as the parent of a college-age (laughs) student, I experienced, uh, those kind of, uh, leadership, uh, decisions that leaders were grappling with. It also seems to me that your decision-making domain in- increased beyond what your natural... normally do, given the pandemic, and healthcare concerns, and et cetera, et cetera.

Christina H. Paxson: That's right. I mean, we all became experts in public health.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah. (laughs)

Christina H. Paxson: Or we thought we were. I mean... (laughs)

Surya P. Kolluri: Exactly.

Christina H. Paxson: We made mistakes along the way-

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: ... for sure.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: So we had to learn that, but then, it, the other thing that was really fascinating was, uh, as a university president, there's so much happening on a campus that just happens, and you take it for granted, and it's the, you know, facilities work, the custodial work, the production of food. Universities are small cities, and the pandemic upended not just teaching, but every single aspect of what we do at a university.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah.

Christina H. Paxson: And, so everything had to be rethought. And again, you needed a lot of collaboration, a lot of really good communication, to make sure that we were moving forward in a good way.

Surya P. Kolluri: I mean, you were making decisions on things that you would normally not even think about-

Christina H. Paxson: Not even think about it.

Surya P. Kolluri: ... making decisions. (laughs)

Christina H. Paxson: Yeah, like how, how close can students sit together in the class-

Surya P. Kolluri: In the cafeteria.

Christina H. Paxson: ... classroom [inaudible] What i- How often do the rooms have to be cleaned, right?

Surya P. Kolluri: Amazing. Just amazing.

Christina H. Paxson: Things like that.

Surya P. Kolluri: Amazing.

Christina H. Paxson: Yeah. How do you keep a lab open?

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes. Amazing. Um, uh, President Paxson, if you wouldn't mind, I want to shift to a kind of a gender lens type of a question. Uh, your background is in the field of economics. I'm a fan of it. Um, uh, but it seems to me that that field has been dominated by males.

Christina H. Paxson: Mm-hmm.

Surya P. Kolluri: Uh, and perhaps, perhaps not naturally inclusive of females in that profession. Uh, so how might that have shaped your experience and perspective?

Christina H. Paxson: Uh, that's an interesting question. So, you know, by the time I, I became an assistant professor, I was used to being in the minority. I, I think in my graduate school class of 30-something people, there were maybe five women, and you know, that was pretty normal. When I got to Princeton, uh, there were two other assistant professors who were women, and they both left within two years. So I was the only one for a while. And, you know, yeah, it felt a little bit lonely. What did I do? One, one thing it helped me do was to build connections outside of the field of economics.

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: So, you know, political science, sociology, there were more women there, people who I became friends with. That actually helped me professional-

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: ... because I had broader networks than just my own discipline.

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: That was a good thing. And, the other thing I, I think it helped me do was to say, "Look, if I want to..." You know, uh, I, I can build things myself, and so when I started a research center on health and wellbeing, and I know that's something that's near and dear-

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: ... to your heart.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes, yes, yes. (laughs)

Christina H. Paxson: Uh, i- people will come onto the floor, and they'd say, "Wow. Look at all the women who are here." I'm like, "Well, it's only half," but compared to the rest of the world of economics, it was actually quite a lot.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah.

Christina H. Paxson: So, uh, it gave me motivation to build it myself.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes. And, and, uh, and be innovative, because you're now suddenly multidisciplinary.

Christina H. Paxson: Right.

Surya P. Kolluri: Um, and uh, so you've rightly pointed out that this area is a passion of mine, because I do think health and wealth are two sides of the same coin.

Christina H. Paxson: Mm-hmm.

Surya P. Kolluri: And, as professionals, we might think of them as differently, but individuals don't. (laughs) It's the same decision, because they go, both go hand in hand.

Christina H. Paxson: That's right.

Surya P. Kolluri: So that brings me to this, uh, next question I want to ask you. Uh, the United Nations, uh, the World, uh, Health Organization, the World Economic Forum, they've all named this decade that we're in, uh, the decade of healthy aging, um, which aligns well with the organization I'm with, uh, TIAA Institute, an interest in building knowledge and implications for an aging society, uh, with considerations for wealth, health, and socialization, as we, as we age. So, I, I wonder how this topic resonates with you.

Christina H. Paxson: Well, uh, th- this is something I did a lot of research on.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah.

Christina H. Paxson: Uh, whe- whe- when I had time to do research, before I became a president. But, I started off doing research in economic development, and became very interested in issues of poverty and inequality, and, and realized in short order, that you can't really think about poverty and inequality without thinking about health.

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: Because, at, at old age, they are very, very tightly interrelated. You just look at differences in mortality rates across income groups.

Surya P. Kolluri: Correct.

Christina H. Paxson: And those patterns are true in the developing world. They're true in the US too-

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: ... and other industrialized countries.

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: Very universal. And so for me, the intellectual journey was saying, "Okay, we see this mortality gradient, morbidity gradient, in older age. Where does it come from? Where does it start?" And starting to unwind that and unpack that actually brought me back, uh, to doing a lot of work on health and educational attainment among children and young people, because those early decisions in life set the stage for what happens for decades to come. And, you know, that's why I think you, you really have to take a holistic, whole life perspective when you're thinking about these issues. It's very hard to fix things by the time you're 65, 70, 75.

Surya P. Kolluri: Right, right. I'm so excited about this that I, I wish to become your graduate student and-

Christina H. Paxson: (laughs)

Surya P. Kolluri: ... pursue this research. (laughs) It's so, it's so intriguing, and so relevant, uh, for our, for the age we live in. Um, so when we think about the 21st century, naturally we gravitate towards technology. Uh, naturally, we gravitate towards, uh, the gig economy. But there's something else going on, related to aging, which is the multigenerational workforce. Uh, it is said that we could have four or five generations in the workforce. That completely changes how we manage, uh, the workforce. So, I was wondering your, about your perspective on this. Is it an opportunity? Is it a challenge? Is it both? I mean, what's your take on this?

Christina H. Paxson: It's very interesting to think of five generations in the workforce at the same time, and it, it, I can speculate about how that might change things. I, I would say, though, that universities are actually... In some ways, they could be leaders in how to manage this, because historically, you know, we've always had young people in our midst. They're part of our community, starting at the age of 18, sometimes earlier. And then, you know, (laughs) we, we have faculty who are currently teaching, very successfully, who are pushing 90.

Surya P. Kolluri: Amazing.

Christina H. Paxson: Right? And, so you get the intergenerational links within a university community in a very natural way. Uh, I, I, what I, one thing I think about a lot, though, is that as people go through their careers and their lives, the idea that they're going to do the same thing, right? If they don't want to retire, that they're going to continue to study the same topics, teach the same classes. I don't think that's going to be very satisfying to people.

Surya P. Kolluri: Totally agree.

Christina H. Paxson: So we're going to have to think about how to help people, mid career, late career, shift into new areas that keep them excited and engaged.

Surya P. Kolluri: Totally agree. This makes me think of a point, that uh, if we look at our longevity since Social Security was introduced, we've added a bunch of years, and let's call it the longevity bonus. So, would we stick it at the end of our, uh, life, or would you take the bonus and spread it throughout? And to your point, how would we use that bonus? How would we reeducate ourselves? How do we retrain ourselves? How do we reimagine, uh, continuously educating ourselves?

Christina H. Paxson: And, and the other point that I know you care a lot about is how do you maintain good health, so that those added bonus years are healthy years?

Surya P. Kolluri: Healthy.

Christina H. Paxson: Because otherwise, they're not going to be productive.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: They're not going to be happy.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: And, that's, that's something for people in, you know, health, public health, to really think about and co- and, and focus on.

Surya P. Kolluri: Totally agree, and, and, uh, the number one feedback that folks give us about when they think about aging, is that they do not want to be a burden on their family.

Christina H. Paxson: Yeah.

Surya P. Kolluri: Well, you, you will not be a burden on your family if you stay (laughs) fit and healthy.

Christina H. Paxson: That's right. That's right.

Surya P. Kolluri: And socially engaged.

Christina H. Paxson: Yeah, yeah.

Surya P. Kolluri: Um, I'd like to switch to the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion, that I know you're a leader in, and you're passionate about. So, Father Hesburgh was a leader in our country's civil rights movement, uh, during the '60s, and was, uh, uh, steadfast in his co- uh, commitment to social justice, and under your leadership, Brown University has demonstrated deep commitment to this topic of equity, diversity, and inclusion, so I would love to hear some success stories on why this work has been so important to you, and, and some anecdotes.

Christina H. Paxson: Thank you. Uh, I, I do feel very strongly about it, and we've worked hard at it at Brown. So, about, oh, eight years ago, we created something called Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which was a roadmap for the entire campus, and I, I think the reason why it's been successful, and I can tell you some of the success stories, is we constructed it in a way that it wasn't a plan that was top down. We were really saying every department on campus, academic department, administrative department, needs to think about how they can become more diverse, how they can become more inclusive, what their goals are. And what makes sense for the classics department is going to look very different than what happens in buildings and grounds.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: Right? They're very different units. And so, that was great, to get people energized in those discussions about what they can do. And some of the success stories, you know, we have doubled the number of faculty from historically underrepresented groups, which is great. And it's, you know, you, uh, you can feel it on campus.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: It feels like a very different place. A lot of growth in the graduate student body, students from historically underrepresented groups. We're worried about the upcoming Supreme Court decision. We'll see how that plays out, but it goes beyond compositional diversity, and it's really thinking about how do you take this, you know, 250+-year-old institution and make it a place where students coming in from a wider breadth of backgrounds can really thrive. So one of the things I'm very proud of is we were one of the first, if not the first, I'm not quite sure, universities to start a center for first-gen low-income students, first in their families to go to college, are lower income. We added in undocumented to that, so it's now the U-FLi Center.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes.

Christina H. Paxson: And, that center engages students, and, and draws on their assets and their strengths to help them succeed at Brown and feel comfortable at Brown. I met with a group of those students a couple weeks ago. They were phenomenal. Uh, and it was kind of cute, because they were telling me about the history of the U-FLi Center, and I kept reminding them that I was kind of there when we started it.

Surya P. Kolluri: (laughs)

Christina H. Paxson: But, but their institutional [inaudible]

Surya P. Kolluri: Yes, yes, yes.

Christina H. Paxson: ... their mind. But that's something that's been really rewarding. And, and I would say we started that. That was a collaboration between administrators and students. Students-

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: ... were very engaged in the creation of that center.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah. It also, uh, to me, signifies their eagerness to share the story.

Christina H. Paxson: Oh, yes.

Surya P. Kolluri: (laughs)

Christina H. Paxson: No, it was, it was just... It was, it was really lovely. It was lovely.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah, but it's very inspiring to hear all these success stories, especially the one about the youth. Um, so perhaps in closing, uh, it would be great to get some of your advice. We're, we're going to have a new generation of leaders coming into the workforce. Uh, you know, aspiring for roles such as the one you've been leading, so what advice might you have for them to become the kind of leaders we recognize with the Hesburgh Award?

Christina H. Paxson: Uh, okay. You know, everybody's path is different.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah.

Christina H. Paxson: And I do get questions from a lot of people who are thinking about a presidency, and they're saying, "Okay, you know, what should the steps be to get from where I am to where you are?" And, my explanation is I never thought of it like that.

Surya P. Kolluri: Mm-hmm.

Christina H. Paxson: I, I did things that I thought were important, and that I loved doing, and when there were opportunities to do new things, I always put my hand up. And so it was more... You know, navigating it more like we ask our students at Brown to navigate an open curriculum. It's a process of exploration, of what you're good at, what you love, and that may move you towards a leadership position. It may move you in a very different direction, but that's okay.

Surya P. Kolluri: Yeah.

Christina H. Paxson: So, I encourage people to keep an open mind, and, and just continue to explore, uh, as they, as they move through their, their working lives.

Surya P. Kolluri: Very much appreciate your advice on that. I'm sure it's going to be very valued. Uh, so thank you again, President Paxson, for sharing your time and wisdom. Uh, and welcome to our family of distinguished Hesburgh Award winners.

Christina H. Paxson: Thank you very much.

Surya P. Kolluri: Thank you.

Washington, D.C. – Christina H. Paxson, President of Brown University, has won the 2023 TIAA Institute Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence in Higher Education. The award was presented at the annual meetingOpens in a new window of the American Council on Education (ACE) in Washington, D.C. The TIAA Institute also hosted a special dinner in President Paxson's honor.  

Sponsored by the TIAA Institute and administered by ACE, the Hesburgh Award is given to a current college or university president or chancellor for outstanding leadership of their institution and broad impact on higher education generally. The winner is chosen by an independent panel of judges.

The award is named in honor of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., past president of the University of Notre Dame and longtime member of the TIAA and CREF Boards of Overseers. A world-renowned educator and humanitarian, Father Hesburgh (1917-2015) was a lifelong champion of human rights, the cause of peace, and care for the poor.

To learn more about the award, visit our Awards page.