PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In recent months, several federal actions have prompted leaders of colleges and universities across the country to contribute to national discussions about issues affecting higher education. We asked Brown President Christina Paxson to share her thoughts on four policy areas that have been a focus of Brown’s advocacy and attention: research funding; transgender issues; immigration policies; and Brown’s role in a politicized landscape.
Q: As the leader of a research institution, what are your thoughts on the national discussions about potential budget reductions for federal research funding agencies?
Brown is among leading research institutions that make a transformative impact on a vast array of fields of discovery, funded in part by federal agencies. To give a sense of the magnitude, Brown was awarded $192 million in new federal research grants in Fiscal Year 2016. We’re concerned about the uncertainty surrounding future funding of innovation and discovery in this country.
There have been many times in our history when science and evidence-based facts have come under attack. We find ourselves again in a moment where we’re seeing science denial and questions raised about the value of scientific research.
I spoke on this issue last month at the annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). In addressing this issue, I shared three primary arguments that higher education institutions and scientists need to put forward in our advocacy and communications: We stand for science as an engine for economic growth and prosperity. We stand for the role that science plays in establishing sound, evidenced-base policy that improves the lives of people and communities around the country and the world. And we stand for the value that science brings to the global marketplace of ideas.
It’s up to us to tell the world why research matters. Our communities, the public and our legislators need to hear our stories about the ways that science and research and discovery benefit the public good. We’re doing so much — tackling disease, and poverty, and climate change, and issues of security, and the sources of geopolitical conflict, and so many other complex challenges. And we are doing basic research that will become the foundation for future innovations. We need to keep doing what we’re doing and letting the world know why it’s critically important.
Q: Last month the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education withdrew guidance on the protection of transgender students in schools. What effect has this had on Brown’s policies?
The decision to rescind federal guidance protecting transgender students has created tremendous anxiety, and so I want to be absolutely clear that this has no effect on the protections and support that we provide to our transgender and non-binary students at Brown. Our policies have not changed.
As a private institution, we are fortunate to have choices that not all public high schools, colleges and universities enjoy — this includes demonstrating to our transgender and non-binary communities that we value and support them and will protect their rights. Brown’s LGBTQ Center has been communicating with our community to ensure that it’s clear that every faculty, student and staff member is free to use bathroom and other facilities consistent with their gender identity. This applies also to visitors to Brown.
Both the LGBTQ Center and the Title IX Office at Brown are counseling and advising students who have questions and concerns. The Title IX Office supports students who have concerns about gender-based harassment or violence, and the office has a strong and experienced team in place.
Q: A persistent issue in the news has been federal policy changes for immigrants and refugees. Has the March 6 revised executive order on immigration affected Brown’s position on recent changes in federal immigration policy?
I feel strongly that the revised travel limitations imposed March 6 by the federal government on six countries remains in direct opposition to the research and teaching mission of Brown, as well as our nation’s other higher education institutions. The new executive order (revising the Jan. 27, 2017, federal executive order on immigration) offers new forms of relief, including exemptions for current visa and green-card holders, but the order itself continues to impede the free exchange of ideas across borders and restricts talented students and scholars from six Muslim-majority nations from studying, teaching and conducting research in this country.
We’re experiencing a period of continued uncertainty and anxiety for our international community. This is a tumultuous time when it feels that barely a week passes when a new federal policy discussion is announced that personally affects international students and their families in very real and difficult ways. Brown has been very actively engaged as a campus to ensure that members of our international community feel safe, secure and supported.
We have been very public about joining with educational associations and peers in signing letters to government leaders, and in joining a filing supporting litigation against the original executive order. Our work is not done. This includes our continued advocacy to maintain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (which allows undocumented students who arrived in the country as children to work and study in the U.S.). This includes efforts to explore legislative remedies to recent federal policy changes for processing new visas for employing international faculty and staff. And this also includes providing counseling, advising and a wide range of services and resources for community members affected by the travel limitations imposed by the recent executive orders.
I continue to be proud to see how much our campus has embraced and supported our international students and scholars. We remain committed to doing all we can to ensure all international faculty, students and staff understand how important they are to us.
Q: What do you think is the appropriate role for Brown as an institution to confront political changes affecting members of the University community?
This is a question I get often from members of our community who want to ensure we are safeguarding Brown’s future. We have a dual role. The first is to educate and care for our community of students, faculty and staff, and the other is to advocate as an institution to address changes in policy that directly affect our research and teaching mission.
As a nonprofit, tax-exempt institution, we cannot be partisan or political. We cannot campaign for a political candidate or take a political position. But we can and must stand up for our values and defend and protect the core of what we do.
Belief in evidenced-based facts and science does not — and should not — belong to any political party. Condemning discrimination, hate and bigotry, and upholding the value of students and scholars to feel safe and secure in their pursuit of research and learning, is not a partisan position. And certainly, advocating for the rights of students and scholars to benefit from and contribute to a global marketplace of ideas that transcends nationality and country of origin is not defined by any party affiliation.
To uphold our values and safeguard our research and teaching, we work with our state and federal delegations, we file briefs in support of litigation, and we work with civic leaders in our communities. Also, to remain vigilant regarding additional federal actions with implications for Brown, we have created a government relations working group, chaired by the provost, which is responsible for monitoring and addressing federal changes that may have an impact on our community.
I also see this as a teaching moment. Students, especially, want to learn how they can be effective at making changes in the world, and this is a perfect moment to educate members of our community about civic engagement. The Swearer Center for Public Service is running workshops to teach students about effective activism, engaging in state and local politics, and more. Also, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs has been hosting speakers from a range of political perspectives who speak about current national and international policy issues.
And while we’re doing all of this, we take care of the Brown family. I feel that through our actions we demonstrate that every member of our community makes us who we are and helps us sustain and build the best of all that is Brown.
Multiple divisions across campus — including Campus Life, Office of Global Engagement, the Office for Student and Scholar Services (OISSS), Vice President for Research, Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, the provost, deans of the faculty and the graduate school, and numerous others — will continue to communicate directly with affected members of our community regarding resources for counseling, advising and other forms of assistance.
I really do believe that together, as a community, we must do all we can to support each other and uphold the values that are true to Brown.