PROVIDENCE R.I. — Brown University’s new president provided a staunch defense of the value of higher education during a public swearing in ceremony on Saturday, stressing the role universities play in driving innovation and positive change.
Christina Paxson, who was officially sworn in this summer as the Ivy League school’s 19th president, dismissed claims that American universities have somehow “gone off-track.” Instead, Paxson argued, the full value of scholarship is “uncertain, difficult to measure, and may not be fully realized for decades or even centuries.”
Flanked by representatives from some of the country’s most prestigious universities, the noted economist who came to Brown from Princeton University pushed back against critics who have questioned whether students, saddled with mounting college loan debt and dim job prospects, are truly benefiting from the cost of an undergraduate degree.
“I believe that much of the current criticism of higher education stems from a short-sighted misconception of its fundamental purpose and a lack of imagination about its potential,” she said. “We are not in the business of producing widgets, in the form of standardized ‘career-ready’ graduates. Instead, our aim is to invest in the long-term intellectual, creative and social capacity of human beings.”
While Paxson conceded that universities such as Brown are challenged by a “growing skepticism” about the value of higher education, she remained steadfast in her defense.
“Yes, these investments take scarce resources in the form of money, time, energy, and dedication but they yield returns that have a profound impact on people and societies,” she said.
Concerns over the state of higher education have become heightened in recent years, due mostly to the current economic climate, which Paxson described as “still somewhat gloomy.”
Nowhere is that more true than in Rhode Island, home to one of the country’s highest unemployment rates.
With Brown being the state’s sixth largest private employer, Paxson took time to emphasize the school’s influence on the local economy. She promised the school would invest in the development of new technologies and rethink how it views the campus community. Brown has 4,525 full-time employees.
“My hope is that Brown’s investments in education and research in the coming years will create plentiful opportunities for growth, through thoughtful collaborations with the great private and public institutions of Providence and Rhode Island,” she said.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Sen. Jack Reed and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras were among those who spoke during the ceremony. Paxson’s expertise was not lost on Chafee, himself a Brown University alumnus.
“I am particularly proud to have a renowned economist at the helm of one of our most important universities,” Chafee said.
For his part, Taveres said he stood “ready to work” with Paxson in any way.
Reed described Brown as “quintessentially a Rhode Island institution; fiercely independent, fiercely unique, yet always ready to heed the call of service.”