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Episode Transcript

Stephen DUBNER: So Professor, Doctor, President, Boston Fed Reserve Chair Paxson, what the heck do we call you? 

Chris PAXSON: You can call me Chris, that’s fine.

Chris Paxson is an economist, first and foremost. She does also sit on a few important boards — the Boston Federal Reserve and the Association of American Universities — and, in her spare time, she’s president of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the eight schools in the Ivy League. But, again, she’s also an economist.

PAXSON: Being an economist in this role is really useful because what am I trying to do? I’m trying to build an organization in collaboration with lots of other people. Resource allocation is everything. You’re thinking on the margin, you’re thinking about alternatives, you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to get the biggest impact for every dollar that you spend. Those are kind of economics-y-type questions.

We wanted to speak with Paxson because we thought she could answer a lot of our questions — about college generally. This is the third episode in a series we’re calling “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.” We have learned quite a bit so far. We’ve learned that American higher education is particularly market-driven and therefore has many of the best universities in the world — but that these top schools, including Brown, are better at producing research than they are at moving students up the income ladder. That’s because they admit most of their students from families that are already fairly well-off; they also keep their admission rates very low, in order to preserve their exclusivity, and prestige. The schools that are likely to move students up the income ladder are the so-called mid-tier universities, public and private, as well as historically Black colleges — but we’ve learned that many of these schools, as well as community colleges, have been struggling for attention, for funding — and, lately, for students. Total college enrollment in the U.S. was rising for many decades — but in the last decade, it’s been falling. What does this mean? It means that even though economists like Chris Paxson say that a college education is one of the best investments you can make, more and more people are rejecting that argument. They say college has become way too expensive and that it fails to prepare students for the real world; some critics say college campuses have become too politicized and too feminized. So, yeah, we have a lot of questions for a college president like Chris Paxson. Today on Freakonomics Radio: why has college become so expensive? Why do the top schools refuse to grow? And what are schools like Brown doing with those billions and billions of endowment dollars?

PAXSON: An endowment is not a giant savings account that we can use for whatever we want.

We’ll also talk political taboos; we’ll discuss the frictions between town and gown; and we’ll ask whether colleges are doing enough — or anything, really — to shrink income inequality.

PAXSON: There is a big gap and it’s disturbing.

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Chris Paxson got her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore, a tiny and prestigious liberal arts school just outside of Philadelphia. She was studying English and philosophy but then, in junior year, she took her first econ course.

PAXSON: I thought, well, maybe this will help me get a job. And I just fell in love. 

Paxson went on to get her Ph.D. in economics from Columbia, in 1987. She then spent many years at Princeton as a professor, researcher, and administrator, and became president of Brown ten years ago, in 2012. Brown dates back to 1764, when it was called Rhode Island College. It’s known today as a major research university and it is famous for its open curriculum — undergraduates can take whatever classes they want and design their own major. Among its best-known alumni: Janet Yellen, John F. Kennedy Jr., Bobby Jindal, Emma Watson, and Andrew Yang. There are about 10,000 students in all, 70 percent of them undergrads.

DUBNER: There’s recent research from two economists, Peter Blair and Kent Smetters, which finds that elite colleges have pretty much frozen their enrollment since the 1980s and that this has to do with concerns over prestige. The paper was called “Why Don’t Elite Colleges Expand?” Which I think is a fascinating question. What’s your thought on that? 

PAXSON: I can’t speak for other universities. I can speak to Brown. And Brown has always been very a high-touch, residential undergraduate education, where there’re really close relationships between students and faculty. We have grown, actually, but getting too big, you start to lose that. Expansion is not as easy as it sounds, especially given that there are big, fixed costs associated with education. I’m building a new dorm now, two new dorms, and it’s hit some opposition in the neighborhood. I have recently given neighborhood associations assurances that we have no plan to have more students on campus anytime soon, and that’s a major factor for us.

DUBNER: But since Brown produces knowledge and since knowledge is power, theoretically at least, wouldn’t you want to empower as many people as possible? Are there other routes you could think about expanding the Brown philosophy and education? Maybe not in Providence, but maybe it’s campuses around the country, maybe it’s campuses around the world, maybe it’s a more intense virtual offering. 

PAXSON: Yeah, I don’t think that’s something — where we can really expand knowledge is through our research. And that’s an area where we’ve made a lot of investment. So it’s important to remember that major research universities, their mission is to expand knowledge. They do it through education. They also do it through knowledge-production research.

DUBNER: And of course, what you’re saying politely to me is that the leverage there is much, much, much greater than taking on an extra couple hundred students a year, yes?

PAXSON: Well, I think if you do it right, the impact on society can be tremendous. If we have somebody who could invent a cure for malaria, think what that does for the world. If we really want to change higher education, if we really want to expand access, I think we have to focus on the publics and also shore up support for the not-for-profits that just don’t have the resources to give the financial aid that I know their presidents want to give.

DUBNER: So, the old cliched phrase that would describe the relationship between a college and the town was ‘town and gown,’ which implies a certain kind of 1950s era enmity or at least friction. I’m curious what that’s like for you in Providence? The city of Providence has changed so much over the past 40 or 50 years.

PAXSON: Yeah, it has. It’s a great city, by the way. But there are some justified hard feelings that have built up over years. When Brown was first expanding — this was well before my time — a lot of neighborhoods were basically taken over by the university and torn down and turned into dorms. And people remember that. Providence is a really interesting place. And one of the reasons is that there’s a highway that used to go right through the city, and the highway was actually moved to the side. And what that did was leave this big swath of land vacant. It’s called the 195 land. And in addition, a lot of jewelry factories were in this area, and they all moved overseas. Brown has been acquiring land and working with developers on land that we don’t own to really build in that area. There is an old power plant that had been derelict for years. The first time I went into it, there were holes in the roof and there were pigeons flying around. It’s now occupied by Brown and the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, who have a nursing program there, right across the street from a medical school.

DUBNER: So, in New York City, where I live, Columbia and N.Y.U. are two of the biggest property owners in the city, and universities — as well as hospitals and houses of worship and so on — traditionally do not pay property taxes. Can you talk for a minute about that tradeoff of having those sort of nonprofits — which are very different, you know, the difference between a church and university and a hospital, but these are all public goods to some degree — what do you think of that tradeoff as an economist for those institutions not paying taxes to the city? 

PAXSON: Well, one thing, just to be clear, is many of us do. We have voluntary agreements and we’re making financial contributions to the city. Brown has done that for years and we make agreements to continue paying real-estate taxes on property that converts from being commercial to being owned by Brown. There’s more going on than I think most people know about. But to your point, the public goods that we’re providing to the city and the state are substantial. I think over 50 percent of the physicians in the state of Rhode Island are associated with Brown. That’s why they came. We’re doing a lot in the schools; we’re doing loan forgiveness for people who stay and teach in the urban core in Rhode Island.

DUBNER: So if I were to ask you to take your research background and administrative experience and I were to plop you into, let’s say, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the White House today — not that they don’t have a good one — and I’d say to you, “I’d like you to make the most compelling argument you can for why the U.S. is not doing anywhere near what it should be doing to promote the economic development especially of low-income families,” whether it’s from the childcare perspective, early-education perspective, whatever it is. How would you make that argument?

PAXSON: Oh, that’s a big question, and it’s a very good one, and I agree that we aren’t doing nearly enough to support the development and well-being of lower-income families and especially children. There’s talent everywhere and people have tons of potential, regardless of what economic strata they’re born into, their social class — if you want to use that word, which I don’t really love — and as a society, not only is this inequitable, but we’re leaving growth untapped. So, there are strong economic arguments for making larger investments in early childcare, larger investments in higher education.

DUBNER: So the Ivies, I understand, collectively educate less than 1 percent of all U.S. college students. Why do you think we collectively pay so much attention? I realize this is an absurd and hypocritical question because here I am seeking out you, the president of Brown, but why do you think there’s such an undue attention paid to the Ivies for everything — the way we talk about wokeness on campus, the way we talk about a liberal-arts education generally, the way we talk about returns to education, and so on.

PAXSON: I’ll give you two variants of an answer to that question, and one is a little bit flip, but I think there may be something to it. I was meeting with a group of reporters once who were talking about the Ivy this, the Ivy this, Harvard, Yale. And I said, “Hey, where did all of you go to college?” And they all went to Ivies. So, I think there is a little bit of journalists — no offense intended — focusing on the education that they experienced. I also do think, though, that there’s something about increasing income inequality in America, that is driving attention on the places that are really seen as being the golden tickets to not just prosperity, but to really high-end prosperity. One thing we know is that the very most selective colleges and universities are very good at propelling people into the top 1 percent of the income distribution. 

DUBNER: And when you say “propelling” — can you give evidence that this is actually causal?

PAXSON: I knew you were going to ask me that as soon as I used the word “propelling.” Among the people who go to these elite schools, a very large fraction of them end up in the top 1 percent. I don’t know how much that is causal. I think a lot of it probably is. And especially the low-income students who end up coming to a place like Brown, who wind up having wildly successful careers, it’s hard for me to imagine that that would have happened if they’d gone to their local community college.

DUBNER: Although if we want to make the devil’s-advocate argument, we could say the kind of student who comes from a low-income background who is able to get themselves accepted at Brown plainly has so much going on that theoretically they might have had great financial success even without Brown.

PAXSON: Yeah, theoretically. But I know what you learn at Brown, and I know where it positions you in terms of access to jobs and connections. I think there’s the learning itself that’s valuable, and I also think the social networks are really valuable.

DUBNER: So, let’s talk about the rich getting richer, not in the country, but in the university ecosystem. One fact is that many of the elite universities, including and especially Brown, have really nice big endowments. And if you have a good endowment investing program — which you really do — that just grows and grows. How do you think about that? Maybe just the notion of the rich getting richer, as you look down the college and university pyramid at all those other schools that have so much less.

PAXSON: First of all, I think a lot of people don’t understand endowments. They don’t understand what they’re for. An endowment is not a giant savings account that we can use for whatever we want. It’s actually comprised of literally thousands of gifts from donors that are targeted to very specific purposes. And when the endowment grows, the extra money that comes out has to go to that purpose. The largest use in our endowment is scholarships, and it’s because of that growth that we’re able to be need-blind, have such generous financial aid. A lot of it is supporting faculty research and discovery. Now you can say, would it be better in some sense if whoever donated money to Brown had donated it to some other college or university? That’s a really hard question for me to answer, because it depends on the priorities of the donor and what they want to accomplish with their funds. And if it didn’t come to Brown, would it necessarily go to some other place that people think might be better from a societal point of view? I tend to doubt it, but I don’t know.

DUBNER: So last year, Brown had an amazing return on your endowment investment, 51 percent return in one year.

PAXSON: We did.

DUBNER: Are you drug-smuggling? What are you doing? How do you earn 51 percent on an endowment? Seriously, I want to know. 

PAXSON: Early on, I really focused on building up a very, very good investment office because that’s what’s going to power the mission of the university. And over time, they have been getting stronger and stronger. One thing I heard was, “Oh, if Brown is getting these kind of returns, you must be taking excessive risk.” That’s not true. You can measure risk. We’re not taking excessive risk. The other thing we know is that within any asset class, last year, we outperformed our peers. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we were all in one type of asset and that did well.” So, I think the focus of the Brown endowment team is on identifying the highest-quality investors, people who are high integrity and place our money with people who are really good and really smart. Now the magic of doing that due diligence, I don’t know how to do that. 

DUBNER: So, since Brown is in the business of education and since the investment growth of the endowment lately has been so spectacular, should Brown, as a public service, maybe publish the investing menu of its endowment and maybe, I don’t know, create an E.T.F. that matches it so that other, less well-endowed universities could copy it? 

PAXSON: I don’t think that would be a good idea. I think the people we invest with would not like that. In fact, there are a lot of confidentiality agreements around who we invest with. So that’s not going to work. And I think there are federal laws that prevent us — We’re not registered investment advisors. So no, that’s not going to work. 

DUBNER: But saying that there are confidentiality clauses — as I’m sure there are in many, many, many investment ecosystems — doesn’t it make it sound a little bit more like there’s this cabal of elite universities with billions of dollars who have ways of making even more money than all the rest of us don’t have access to? Are you concerned about that perception?

PAXSON: Well, I think that we’re trying to do what we can to advance our mission the best way possible. 

DUBNER: So, if we think about income inequality at large in this country, are we seeing essentially the same setup in the college ecosystem? 

PAXSON: Well, what we’re seeing is that the schools with large endowments are ones who have alumni who have the means. And that’s why I feel really strongly that we have an obligation to use that endowment to bring students into Brown who couldn’t afford to pay full freight. If your family income is less than $125,000 a year, you don’t pay tuition to come to Brown. What we know from the data is that once students come to a place like Brown, there’s really very little difference once they graduate in their earnings at age 30, regardless of whether they came in as wealthy students or as lower-income students. So, it is an equalizer, that’s really important. 

DUBNER: Right, that’s a handful, obviously, relative to the population of students who would like to go to a good school. In the same way that we look at, let’s say, the 1 percent in income distribution in the U.S., or maybe the one-tenth of the top 1 percent, and we think about the downsides of that income inequality — which economists have come around to making that argument, it took a while, but economists now argue that inequality of that level is really damaging to a society — do you see a parallel damage between the rich, successful universities where the rich get richer and richer because of those alum, and all the rest of the colleges and universities?

PAXSON: Well, I think what we have to remember is focusing your attention on a few schools that educate 1 percent of students and ignoring the funding that you’re giving to the great public institutions — some of which actually have pretty large endowments, too — let’s not divert attention away from where we’re really going to be able to make an impact. My grandfather taught at the University of Tennessee. He went there as a student, and he could not have done what he did in his life if he hadn’t found his way there. So, for somebody who’s president of a private institution, I’m a huge proponent for building public education. If you look at trends, the amount of funding that’s coming to public institutions is just being chipped away, especially four-year publics. And the burden that’s being placed on families is going up and up over time. If you’re a family, and you earn $60,000 a year, it’s cheaper to come to Brown — if you get in — than it is to go to the University of Rhode Island. That’s not right.

DUBNER: So, it’s recently been alleged in a lawsuit that Brown, along with several other schools — Yale, Georgetown, Northwestern — have colluded on financial aid. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the universities engaged in price fixing and unfairly limited aid by using a shared methodology to calculate applicants’ financial need.” So, that sounds bad. What’s your response from the Brown perspective? 

PAXSON: Well, we’re just at the early stages of digging into this lawsuit, so I can’t really speak to the specifics. What I can say is, there is a group called the 568 Group, which is a group of universities. There’s a federal antitrust statute that basically says if schools are need-blind, they can share information, not on specific students, but on general methodology. The fact is, Brown hasn’t been a member of the 568 group since 2012. That’s when I started as president. So, I have no personal knowledge of this group, what information they share, what they do. I can speak for Brown, which is that our admissions officers do not know whether applicants have or have not applied for aid — for first-time domestic students and soon to be international students. We’ll learn more about what the allegations are, but it’s a little bit perplexing that we’re included, given that we haven’t been involved in this group for a decade. 

DUBNER: Why did Brown leave the group, do you know?

PAXSON: I don’t know. 

DUBNER: Can you explain why college-tuition inflation has outpaced most other inflation — maybe outside of healthcare costs and maybe real estate in some places — but college tuition is way up at the top. Why is that over the past, let’s say, 30 or 40 years? 

PAXSON: So, there are different answers depending on the type of school you’re looking at. If you look at publics, the increases in tuition are largely driven by declines in state aid to those institutions. 

DUBNER: Makes sense. 

PAXSON: Their sticker prices are going up, what they’re charging is going up, and they’re bringing in more out-of-state students really out of economic necessity. And I think for the privates that aren’t as well-resourced, they’re actually giving out a lot of aid, so the sticker prices aren’t what a lot of students pay. But the competition on the margin is a mixture of need-based aid and merit aid. So, high sticker prices, but a lot of competition so that, like on an airplane, not everybody’s paying the same price. And then you go to places like Brown, Harvard, if you actually look at the average net price of tuition — so the average cost that students really pay — it has gone up more than inflation, but not by that much. 

DUBNER: You’re saying that a lot of students, are paying much, much less than the sticker price because there’s so much aid, yes? 

PAXSON: Yeah. And in fact, a large fraction of students are paying nothing. And so in a way that people focus on the sticker price, they should focus on the net price.

DUBNER: It’s hard, though, because the net price is not published, is it?

PAXSON: Actually, it is. The Department of Education requires that we have net price calculators on our websites. You can go in, you can put in your income level, your family characteristics, and it can give you an estimate of what it will cost to go to that school. 

DUBNER: The net-price calculator is for you, as an individual family. But if I want to know the average net price for a given university, I can’t find that, can I? 

PAXSON: Oh, that I don’t know. You could do it. It would take a long time.

DUBNER: What about, you know, one story we read was that especially during the ’90s and early 2000s that the easy availability of federal loan money really, really drove tuition inflation? Is that a fact? 

PAXSON: I don’t know if it’s a fact. I haven’t seen any really good evidence for it. I know that’s been an argument, that loans should be restricted to force universities to keep prices down. 

DUBNER: Can you talk about healthcare costs as a contributor to college costs overall — not just faculty and staff, but students as well — and how that’s changed over the past few decades? 

PAXSON: I just don’t have good data on that.

DUBNER: I did hear you say in another interview something really interesting, which is that in the old days, if a student on campus got sick — whether it was physiological, mental health — that in the old days they would go home. And now you are serving that function as well. So, that’s got to be some cost, obviously. 

PAXSON: Some cost, obviously. And I haven’t looked at this from a cost perspective as much as, you know, what do societies expect universities to provide? And the expectations have really changed.

Coming up: more on what’s been driving the cost of college tuition. We also ask Chris Paxson about the growing gender gap on college campuses, and whether the overwhelming liberal tilt of many colleges is driving away a generation of would-be students. If you want to hear more about college, check out the first couple episodes of this series — they’re called “What Exactly Is College For?” and “The University of Impossible-to-Get-Into” as well as episode 377, which is called “The $1.5 Trillion Question: How to Fix Student-Loan Debt?” Also, “Freakonomics Goes to College,” Parts 1 and 2, from way back in 2012.

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We’re speaking today with Chris Paxson, an economist by training who since 2012 has been president of Brown University. One of the main themes of our conversation so far has been the extreme rise in the cost of attending college.

DUBNER: Can you talk for a minute about what you economists call “cost disease” — the idea that in certain fields, wages rise much faster than productivity, and this would certainly apply in higher ed — maybe in all education. I wonder how much that is responsible for tuition inflation?

PAXSON: Ah. So, one of the arguments is that we haven’t seen the same amount of technological change in higher education. By and large, it’s still one faculty member in one classroom with a whole bunch of students, and what that’s going to do is drive prices up in higher education. We’re not seeing the same type of technological change that other industries are seeing. Now, it’s interesting because Covid has forced us all online. And for years, I heard from people who would say, “Look, put everything you do online, you can deliver the same quality of education. You can charge a tenth the price. Why aren’t you offering college degrees for $5,000?” Usually when I hear that from an alum, I say, “Would you send your child to school that way?” And the answer is no.

DUBNER: “Because I don’t want them in my basement.”

PAXSON: “I don’t want them in my basement, in their pajamas, pretending that they’re going to school when they’re really playing video games.” No. What we learned in Covid was, actually we can impart knowledge well virtually. But that’s not the kind of experience students or faculty want, and the social aspects of being in school — and when I say social, I don’t just mean fun, I mean the interactions between faculty and students, between students with each other as they learn — that’s a really important part of college. I do think that the experience with online learning has been better in graduate programs, professional programs, more targeted skill-based programs. Can you learn how to code online? Yes, you can. There’s more we can do with new technology, but I’ve become persuaded that the model that we have probably won’t change wholesale in the coming years.

DUBNER: Let’s talk for a moment about the effect that Covid has had on the elites versus all the other colleges in the U.S., especially if you go down the chain to the community colleges, where I understand most of the student population loss has happened. Can you just talk about that gap? 

PAXSON: Yeah, there is a big gap and it’s disturbing. What I like to focus on is how many high-school graduates are going straight to college, because if they don’t make that transition, the chance of them making it in the future is much smaller. And what we’ve seen are declines, especially among young men and especially in public institutions, two-year institutions. Places like Brown, Tufts, and Emory and many, many four-year institutions, privates are doing well in terms of bringing students onto campus, but some of these other schools are struggling. I am worried that this could be a driver of increased poverty and another factor exacerbating inequality going into the future. We have a group of people who normally would have gone to college; they’re not going to college, maybe they’re taking that job for good short-term reasons. And their prospects for earnings into midlife, late life, have just been drastically altered. I do think we’re going to have to make an effort to reclaim some of those students and get them back into higher education.

DUBNER: Let’s talk about the gender split in college populations over time. So, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that for the last school year, women make up 59.5 percent of college students, that’s an all-time high, and men, about 40 percent. So Brown, I understand, has a gender distribution of about 52 percent female.


DUBNER: How should universities approach this — I don’t want to call it a problem, but this scenario — because there are a lot of men who are not getting on that track now.

PAXSON: Well, there are really two things going on. For years, the fraction of men and women going to college has been going up, but the fraction of women going has been going up faster. On top of that, you layer in the Covid effects where there were decreases in college-going and those decreases were much more for primarily low-income men and men of color. One question is, are we going to revert back to where we were before, or is this going to continue or exacerbate the trends that we were seeing before? I don’t think anybody really knows the full answer. 

DUBNER: Now, what some conservatives might say is, “Well, of course, men aren’t going to college as much anymore because college campuses have been so feminized as to be anti-male.” What do you say to that argument? 

PAXSON: I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. 

DUBNER: Because why? Show your homework.

PAXSON: Well, okay, fine. What does it mean for a campus to be “feminized”? I just don’t see it. And also, if you look at where the gender gaps are the biggest — it’s all over the place. It’s in community colleges. I don’t think anybody’s claiming that community colleges have become feminized. So that argument to me just doesn’t hold any water. 

DUBNER: Let’s talk for a minute about the downstream effect in the economy of so many more women getting college degrees, especially compared to men. There is a lot of fascinating research from economics and psychology and sociology about the differences between men and women, and we’re still sorting out what’s learned, what might be inherent, and so on. How do you think having a lot more well-educated women in all these different fields — finance, medicine, in politics, and so on — how do you think that might change society long-term? 

PAXSON: Well, it’s a really good question. I think it’ll change the way workplaces operate and my hope would be that we would finally reach a tipping point where issues around childcare — which have long been thought of being really women’s issues — would become societal issues. When women grow in numbers in organizations, the conversation shifts, the culture shifts.

DUBNER: How would you describe that shift? 

PAXSON: It becomes more attuned to issues of flexibility in the workplace, how we balance childcare and work, and that’s a really good thing. 

DUBNER: One argument is that women may be more collaborative — either by nature or by practice — than men, who tend to be more competitive. Do you see that or buy that?

PAXSON: I’ve never seen any good empirical data on that. Casual empiricism, I think there may be some truth there. 

DUBNER: So, the economist Amalia Miller has research showing that women may reap the benefits of elite education more than men. And one thing she finds is that, while selective, elite schools increase earnings for women maybe at a higher rate than men, they also decrease their likelihood of marriage by about 4 percent. If you think about that fact, coupled with the fact that so many more men are not going to college, I’m curious what you think this may imply about family formation, about fertility rate.

PAXSON: I don’t know. If that’s really being driven by difficulties incorporating family life into work life, I think that is a problem. If it’s something that people are choosing because that’s the way they want to live their lives, that’s great. 

DUBNER: Is it crass to say that we may also want the best-educated women to have children — because if we think about our population generally, it’s really nice to have high I.Q. in the population. Is that a crass thought? 

PAXSON: Yeah, that’s a really crass thought. 

DUBNER: Okay, I’ll stop there, then. So, speaking of high I.Q. people, how would you say an economist such as yourself is suited to being a university president? Because I think of sitting in a university economics seminar — let’s say at the University of Chicago — where you hear some of the most candid and brutal language ever. It’s as though the economists there are absolutely impervious to the notion of kindness, subtlety, or emotional intelligence.

PAXSON: I mean, that may be a little bit true. We can come back to that. But if you’re trying to build a strong program in a university, the economic arguments are not going to carry the day, often, and you really have to pay attention to: well, what kind of culture do you need to develop to make this work? How do you engage people in the conversation? What are the factors that are preventing people from wanting to do something that by all kind of rational analysis makes a lot of sense? And so, leading in an institution, if you lead only as an economist, I think you fail pretty fast. You need a lot of sensitivity.

DUBNER: And I would say no offense to you at all, and no offense to my many economist friends, but sensitivity is not a trait that I would put in the top 100 characteristics of most economists in terms of engaging with the public, certainly, or even maybe with their students. Do you find yourself ever having to hold your economist tongue? Is that a maybe? 

PAXSON: Yeah. No, no. I think — you talk about culture, the culture of the field of economics — and I think it’s shifted some — but any idea can be asked, any idea can be put on the table. I think what a lot of people don’t understand about our tribe is, people will put out ideas not because they believe them, but because they think that they’re worth interrogating. And I actually think that’s really what universities should be doing. We’re places that should be interrogating ideas. but on the other hand, you have to raise those ideas with some sensitivity to who’s in the room.

DUBNER: I would like to think that almost everyone who hears what you just said would agree. And yet, I know that when we talk about interrogating ideas as a useful endeavor in itself, the mere mention of an idea — sometimes the mere mention of a word or a name these days — will raise hackles to the point where the opponents can’t even hear the rest of the sentence. There is this concern that fundamentalism or anti-free speech sentiment is infiltrating college campuses. So, how do you try to find that fruitful medium? 

PAXSON: One thing I do — and this is what presidents do — is I talk about it. When I’m talking to students who are coming for admitted day on College Hill, I talk about the kind of environment that we’re trying to create, where something that I call constructive irreverence, which is you want people to interrogate ideas and question things, but you want them to do it in a constructive way. This isn’t about ripping people down, it’s about questioning and understanding where others are coming from. Brown has been kind of tarred — or was for a while — as sort of the liberal campus where there were safe spaces and things like that, and University of Chicago was thought of as being the opposite. Well, Bob Zimmer and I are good friends, and for a long time we were being asked to be on panels together

DUBNER: We should say, Zimmer was the longtime president at UChicago, he stepped down last year. 

PAXSON: And I think they were expecting this to be some sparring match with, you know, Brown saying, “Yes, you know, we need safe spaces” and Bob saying, “No, we need free speech.” The truth is, we agree on everything. So the people who are putting us on panels were very, very badly disappointed. They didn’t get the fireworks they wanted. 

DUBNER: So if you had to write a headline of your shared beliefs, what would it be? 

PAXSON: I think that we believe that universities are places where you can’t advance knowledge if you can’t question things. You have to be able to interrogate ideas, but on the other hand, we don’t want to be places where people feel like they’re harassed or discriminated against or are unwelcome. And I don’t see those two things as being at odds. 

DUBNER: I’ve heard you say that people will complain to you that Brown should, for instance, hire more Republican professors. And your response is that, “Well, we don’t ask someone’s political party, we actually look at their research.”

PAXSON: Exactly. 

DUBNER: But surveys show that college professors overall are overwhelmingly liberal. So, in a country that is politically heterodox, isn’t that a significant problem? 

PAXSON: Well, yeah. And I think what you have to do is very self-consciously ensure that there are programs and opportunities for students to hear from people with different views, but also get out into the world and talk to real people. I remember once we had Jeb Bush came to talk at Brown and the room was packed, and he was marvelous. Students would ask him hard questions and he’d say, “You know, I think we disagree on that and here’s why I believe what I believe,” but in the nicest way possible. And it was kind of a great example of how you can talk about differences and really start to understand where other people are coming from. 

DUBNER: So, you’re plainly a big believer in the value of education. Not only are you a university president, but as an economist, you also understand the returns to education are massive. How concerned are you that a college education these days in our social-political environment is increasingly being seen as an elite product which is a signifier of tribal divide, rather than something that everyone would want to acquire?

PAXSON: The polling data on views of higher education are really interesting because if you ask parents what they want for their kids, they want them to get a college degree. I don’t think the country is turning away from college. Most American families really want to send their kids to good colleges. They may not connect it to the level of investments that have to be made at a state and federal level. So, we have some educating to do, and maybe we haven’t been as good as we could be at making the case — as economists and also as higher-education administrators.

What kind of case do you think Chris Paxson made today? And what’d you think of the questions we asked? What are some other, better questions you would have liked to hear? We are always interested in listener feedback, so let us know; our email is

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This series is being produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Ryan Kelley, Mary Diduch, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Emma Tyrrell, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman; we had help this week from Jeremy Johnston. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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