The Leadership Lab: Christina Paxson

In this new episode of the Leadership Lab, the President of Brown University talks to me candidly about her role, what it means for a university to be a community, the dangers of making statements, why small minded self serving interests make her angry, what brings her joy and so much more.

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Christina Paxson is the 19th President of Brown, the second female one. She is, in a word she used repeatedly throughout our interview, someone who actively and intentionally “builds” – strong teams, a clear vision, pathways, task forces, inclusion and diversity, opportunities and most of all, people. In this timely, frank and forthright interview we talk about the war in the Middle East, conversations around her in-laws’ dining table, what I have misunderstood about the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action and why it is not a university’s job to take sides on geo political issues. I hope you enjoy it, and learn as much, as I did.


00:26 | We talk a lot with our Scholars about leadership being a journey, not a destination. Can you share with us how you reached this position?

02:20 | You were raised a Quaker and then converted to your husband’s Jewish faith - could you talk about that, and does that surprise people about you?

05:48 | Do you think people treat you differently when they find out about your  faith?

06:49 | You've spoken before about how it's not the role of the university to take sides in geopolitical issues and conflicts. Yet, a lot of people expect universities to take sides. How are you dealing with that?

08:58 | From my own experience, even with some of our Laidlaw Scholars who are incredibly smart, they can still be astonishingly quick to judge and condemn points of view that differ from their own. How do you help them see the blurry areas in these situations?

11:45 | Do you think that the universities who are acquiescing to donor pressure or student pressure to make a statement may eventually regret their decisions?

13:30 | You are the second female President of Brown. Ruth Simmons of course made history when in 2001 she was named as President. Not only was she the first female President of Brown but she was the first black President of any Ivy League institution. What was it like to follow in her footsteps?

16:03 | There are now more female Presidents of Ivy Leagues, than male. What do you think are the implications of that?

16:45 | CEOs at Fortune 500 are still predominantly male. Why has academia been faster to change?

19:10 | I have been incredibly impressed by Brown’s commitment to financial aid. An Ivy League degree is approximately 10 times more expensive than a degree at Cambridge or Oxford. Even allowing for the extra year of study, that is quite hard to fathom. Why is a university education so expensive in the US?

22:47 | In 2016 you launched your Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion. What made you do that and how has it developed over the years?

25:20 | What does the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action mean for your pathway and your vision?

27:09 | One of the projects we had talked about was providing Scholarships for women to earn their Executive MBAs. With the new ruling, we can’t offer that which I find deeply saddening. What are your thoughts?

30:38 | In 2021 you appointed a Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty. Why did you think it was important to do that and what has been the impact?

33:26 | What do you think are the most important traits to cultivate as a leader?

35:29 | What is the hardest thing you have ever had to do as a leader?

36:47 | What is the thing that you are proudest of?

38:02 | We asked our first guest, François Ortalo-Magné, what is the question he would ask of other leaders, and he said “What makes you angry?”. Does anything make you angry?

39:05 | Our second guest Sally Mapstone, is motivated, daily, by what makes her angry, which is any form of social injustice. In fact, she has a mantra which is what motivates her to lead. Every morning, she asks herself, what she is going to do today to address injustice. Her question is therefore, what do you set yourself as a target when you wake up in the morning?

40:20 | If you were to ask another Vice Chancellor, another President, a question about leadership - what would you ask them?

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