Innovation Ecosystem

One on one with Brown President Christina Paxson

Paxson’s leadership is reshaping the university’s footprint as Brown continues to make strategic investments in seeding Rhode Island’s future economic development

Photo by Richard Asinof

Brown University President Christina Paxson speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Wexford Innovation Center, in which Brown will be one of three anchor tenants.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/30/17
In an interview with ConvergenceRI, Brown University President Christina Paxson discussed the importance of research, the importance of women leaders in academia and science, the strategy behind Brown Physicians Inc., and the desire to find a new home for the Family Medicine program.
How will affordable housing become part of the plans for the Providence Innovation and Design District? How will the redevelopment efforts of the former 195 highway land connect with the West End and Olneyville neighborhoods? What are the kinds of public health research could Brown undertake in support of health equity zones and neighborhood health stations? Is there a way that a community health center, such as Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, with its Neighborhood Health Station in Central Falls, could become the new home of the Family Medicine Program at Brown?
In her talk at Rhode Island College last week, sociologist Shannon Monnat described in detail the landscapes of despair, with research that documented the demographics of drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates in the nation and in Rhode Island. Sen. Joshua Miller called it one of the most valuable presentations he had seen in a long time.
Yet, for the most part, the conversation around the landscapes of despair and the connection between economic stress and addiction and overdose deaths remains under the radar screen when discussing the epidemic, both in Rhode Island and in Washington, D.C.
Is there a way for the Brown Medical School and the School of Public Health to bring Monnat back to Rhode Island as a way to jump start a broader conversation, one that includes both physicians and researchers, nurses and physician assistants, and university leaders from across the Rhode Island academic landscape? And, to include the recovery community as an equal partner in the conversation?


PROVIDENCE – In many ways, the linchpin holding together the financial wheel for much of the future economic development in Rhode Island is Brown University President Christina Paxson, although it is unlikely that she would ever describe her role in such terms.

Brown University is one of three anchor tenants in the $88 million 195,000 square foot Wexford Innovation Center now under construction, one of the jewels in the crown of Brown’s strategic investments in the former Jewelry District. The center will serve as the new home for Brown’s School of Professional Studies.

At the groundbreaking ceremony held on Monday, Sept. 25, Paxson said that the real benefits of the public-private partnership created to build the Wexford Innovation Center was that it would “leverage the talent we have” at Brown.

The groundbreaking, in many ways, served as the official consummation of the Providence Innovation and Design District.

Brown is also a major tenant in the $220 million South Street Landing Project, which recently opened this fall. In addition to serving as the home of the Rhode Island Center, a collaborative effort between the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College nursing programs, the new facility be the new home for many of Brown’s professional staff, who will soon be making an exodus from the College Hill campus.

There is, of course, the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown, which recently celebrated an additional $27 million gift from the Warren Alpert Foundation.

Full plate of strategic investments
With the formation of Brown Physicians, Inc., earlier this spring as a new clinical group of providers under the wing of Brown University, the borders of the medical school have expanded. In addition, under Paxson’s watch, the School of Public Health at Brown has become an accredited institution, separate from the medical school, and a new engineering school building has been completed.

And, there is Brown’s partnership with the new Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute, launched two years ago.

Paxson said that Brown had expressed interest in potential collaboration as a participant in one of the proposed innovation hubs in Rhode Island, but told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview it was premature to say anything else the project.

In addition, Paxson said that Brown was monitoring closely the situation regarding the current home of the Family Medicine Program and its residency program, now located at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, given the impending closure of the hospital. “Obviously, we can’t be a first-rate medical school without a Family Medicine program,” she said. “It is one of the crown jewels of the Brown medical school.”

Investment in research
In answer to a question about the strategic focus of Brown around investments in research, Paxson answered: “Yes, we are investing heavily in research. Brown is a first-class research university.”

More than just serving as a veritable rocket fuel for the 21st innovation economy, Paxson said that research was a fundamental component of education at Brown to advance students’ knowledge and understanding, in order to deliver an excellent undergraduate education as well.

In addition, through research, there were opportunities to influence and improve state policies in Rhode Island.

“The state is small enough, there are enough connections across different domains, to have a better chance of having research influence policy,” Paxson said, when asked about the way that Brown researchers might influence future policy decisions for the better, particularly around social and economic determinants of health.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Brown University President Christina Paxson.

ConvergenceRI: I have heard that you are serving as a mentor for Anna Aizer and her research connecting childhood lead poisoning with disparities in educational outcomes, such as reading levels and school suspension rates. Could you talk about the how the economics of health disparities serve as a powerful analytical tool in refocusing health care priorities, and why, despite the evidence, those research findings sometimes have a difficult time changing policies?
PAXSON:
That’s a great question. I’ve known Anna for a long time. I’ve switched from being a mentor to being an admirer.

Much of my research, when I did research, was on health disparities, a subject near and dear to my heart. It was focused on the disparities in access to the health care system.

Anna’s work is focused on the non-medical aspects of the determinants of health – things like where you live, exposure to pollution, exposure to stress, environmental contaminants. These are things that don’t have neat medical solutions.

There is often a hard time changing how policy is made around those [issues], because many people don’t think as those policies as health policies.

The trick is to help inform [policymakers] that housing policy is health policy, that nutritional policy is health policy; this is hard thing to do.

Research like Anna’s is so compelling; it provides a very different perspective.

What I am excited about in Rhode Island is that the state is small enough, there are enough good connections across different domains of policy, that there is a better chance of getting policy changes.

I look at the work being done by Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott at the R.I. Department of Health on health equity, as an example.

ConvergenceRI: Research is often said to be the rocket fuel for the 21st century innovation economy. How are Brown’s investments in research driving the strategic agenda of Brown, and elevating its role as an innovation hub of world-class university research?
PAXSON:
Yes, we are investing heavily in research. Brown is a first-class research university. One of the things that people don’t understand is how research is an integral part of Brown’s education to advance knowledge and understanding.

Your question seems to be focused on STEM research. We’ve been growing our research portfolio: we now have $900 million in active research awards; that’s a lot of money to bring into the state.

I think one of the really interesting things is not just how research jumpstarts and pushes innovation in the economy in the aggregate through the global economy. But we’ve been thinking how research at Brown can jumpstart innovation and economic development in Rhode Island, knitting these two things together, collaborating with the state in a productive way.

ConvergenceRI: Recently, the for-profit drug discovery firm, MindImmune, developed an MOU with the University of Rhode Island to serve as a partner in a new research hub. Would Brown ever consider a similar kind of arrangement? Is Brown considering becoming a participant in the innovation campus initiative proposed by the state of Rhode Island?
PAXSON:
If you look across the university, we actually have a substantial corporate and industrial partnerships, they are scattered across numerous departments, in engineering, in computer science. There is a long list of industry partners. What those do is to create potential job opportunities for our students.

We have not embedded a firm, as URI had done, but with the right partner, that’s something we would be delighted to consider.

Our new executive director of corporate relations, Daniel Behr, is working to help Brown to have a more coordinated approach with corporate and industry partners.

And yes, we are interested in interacting with a potential innovation campus.

ConvergenceRI: Do you see yourself as a role model for other women to become leaders in science, medicine and education? Did you have strong role models and mentors?
PAXSON:
That’s a very good question. If you look across academia, the majority of college presidents are still men. In the Ivy League, we have a great track record.

Shirley Tilghman at Princeton was very much of a mentor for me. So was Nanneri Keohane, who was at Wellesley and then became president at Duke. She came to Princeton as a researcher and a teacher.

I was very lucky to be in a situation where I had two very, very good female role models and who had been university presidents.

I never thought that my being a woman was an impediment [to becoming a university president.]

Now, in my current role, I am very careful to make sure that when we are filling leadership positions at all levels of the university, to make sure that the under-represented do not get overlooked.

Jill Pipher, the founding director of ICERM, she is an outstanding mathematician.

And, I look at the Brown Institute for Brain Science, which is a huge priority, the director, Diane Lipscombe, is doing a terrific job. She was recently elected to be president of the Society for Neuroscience. Diane is really first class in every way; she is an excellent scientist and an excellent leader; that’s a great combination.

We are building some really great women leaders at Brown. My only trepidation about doing this is that they often tend to be recruited away by other schools.

ConvergenceRI: Has the recent revelations about sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein and others, and the viral #MeToo campaign, roiled the Brown campus at all?
PAXSON:
That’s an interesting question. Earlier [some two years ago], we had started an intense conversation around sexual misconduct, sexual assault and harassment, which led to a complete revamping of Brown’s policies, with a lot of attention on sexual assault and rape, and also about harassment between students, staff and faculty.

We have done a lot of training about what the issues are, what the problems are.

The response to the #MeToo campaign hasn’t roiled the campus. We’ve been really involved in this work for quite a period of time. We’ve been talking about this for years; we’ve known all along that this is not just a college problem but a societal problem.

ConvergenceRI: Could you talk about the convergence of Brown’s plans around health care, and the relationship between the School of Public Health and the Medical School, the creation of Brown Physicians, Inc., and the potential future location of the Family Medicine program if and when Memorial Hospital is closed down?
PAXSON:
Brown Physicians, Inc., is a very important accomplishment. While the Brown name is on it, it is important to recognize that it is a physician-led faculty practice plan. We’re part of something really terrific.

For years, Rhode Island has had a critical care system that is quite fragmented. What we have created is [the union] of freestanding faculty practices that cover different specialties.

These had been separate organizations, while they are all part of the medical school and Brown faculty. While they work together and collaborate [as part of their academic affiliation], in terms of their clinical operations, they had been separate.

It had weakened their ability to collaborate as much as they might. With Brown Physicians, Inc., there is an economy of scale in billing and in the ability to recruit new physicians to Brown, as well as in creating a strong, more successful group of physicians who can provide higher quality clinical care for less money. And, who can think more strategically about the medical school. It’s pretty exciting.

Brown is but one member of this new organization; it is a faculty led practice plan.

ConvergenceRI: What are your thoughts about the future of the Family Medicine program?
PAXSON:
It is hard for me to answer that question in great detail. Obviously, we can’t be a first-rate medical school without a family medicine program. It is one of the crown jewels of the Brown medical school. We are engaged in discussions about where we can move that program. We will find a new home for that program. It’s critically important.

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