perspectives of paxson

brown and the east side

This summer I had the pleasure of interning at Providence Media, which distributes four lifestyle magazines all over Rhode Island on a monthly basis. Their content is centered around local lifestyle—new restaurants, small businesses, upcoming events, and interesting people are often the centerpieces of their articles—and is therefore catered toward the local people.

One day at work I was given the task of sifting through old editions of the magazines and organizing them into boxes—intern stuff, essentially. To my amusement, I discovered an old edition of East Side Monthly, a magazine centered on the east half of Providence and distributed to every residence in the area. Its cover proudly displays Christina Paxson, smiling somewhat awkwardly in front of one of Brown’s many nondescript brown brick buildings. The date is marked October 2012, and its tagline reads, “Brown’s New President Hits the Ground Running.”

The actual article begins, “Brown University’s 19th president, Christina Hull Paxson, seems to be the real deal.” Paxson is described as “bright, charming and unpretentious” as well as “smart” and “likeable.” Her outlined goals as president include nothing about student well-being. Instead, she discusses expansion of Brown’s Medical School, Thayer Street renovations, and her plan to take a cooking class at Johnson and Wales, which they offer to her for free. She claims to be “very mindful of our obligations to be a good neighbor to the community,” a central detail that gets paraphrased and repeated several times in the article.

East Side Monthly magazine is not targeted toward Brown students. Its intended audience is made up of residents who live around Brown and probably view the University as little more than a collection of buildings with strange inhabitants. Issues that Brown has faced in recent years—alcohol policies, sexual assault, Ray Kelly—are largely irrelevant to this audience. Indeed, although an article on Brown’s adjusted alcohol policies did appear in an edition of the magazine last April, it focused entirely on how this policy might force “party-hungry 20-year-olds to off-campus apartments the way people in the ’20s sought out illegal speakeasies.” In other words, the article was not concerned with the impact this policy would have on Brown; instead, it was concerned with the impact it would have on the community at large.

Brown University is in a bubble, which works to both the advantage and disadvantage of its students. From an academic perspective, Brown’s relative insularity allows its students to focus on complex ideas, with the eventual goal of coming up with unique solutions to a motley set of issues that the world faces today. This blessing also has downsides, however, one of which is often aimed at millennials: Insularity creates a limited mindset that sometimes ignores “the real world,” whatever and wherever that is.

Paxson has faced a lot of criticism, at least some of which is warranted, from the student body she serves. It’s easy to forget, or perhaps ignore, the responsibility that she also has toward the community at large and the community that Brown students are not a part of, the community of Providence. The community’s attitude towards Paxson seems to have changed since the publication of that original article. For example, renovations of Thayer were met with strong consternation from both the magazine and from East Side residents when Brown proposed the demolition of seven “dilapidated but historic” buildings on Brook and Cushing Streets. A temporary parking lot would be constructed in their place, then perhaps a residential or academic building.

“I personally think that Brown has some mending to do within the community,” said local resident Hollybeth Runco in an East Side Monthly article on the renovations. Brown is a recurring target, and even the University’s most seemingly insignificant decisions sometimes result in outrage. Just this August, a reader wrote to the magazine to say she was “appalled to read… that Brown has given a lease to a national cookie store franchise” instead of supporting a local business. “Why would an institution that exists tax free not support the local community by inviting in a local business?” she wrote. She concluded her letter rather incisively: “That was a fail.”

The student community here at Brown has given the University—and by association, Paxson—a fair deal of pressure and criticism over the years. As members of the University, it’s natural to care about how University policies affect us more than they affect the community. But it’s important to understand this perspective, to know that there’s this whole other community a five-minute walk from Faunce that’s also affected by Brown’s policies. Their criticisms rarely make it to the ears of Brown students, but it’s hard not to occasionally feel bad for Paxson, whose responsibilities include appeasing not only a volatile student body but also an East Side community that’s just as prone to outrage.