Q&A with G. Gabrielle Starr, Pomona College's Tenth President

G. Gabrielle Starr was selected as the tenth president of Pomona College on Dec. 8, 2016. (Courtesy of Pomona College)

G. Gabrielle Starr, currently the Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science and Professor of English at New York University, will become the 10th president of Pomona College on July 1, 2017, the college announced in an email to students on Dec. 8 following a vote by the Board of Trustees earlier that day. Starr will be the college's first woman president and first Black president, taking over from David Oxtoby, who has served as president since 2003. TSL had the chance to speak with Starr shortly after the announcement to discuss her passion for the liberal arts; her experience with diversity, inclusion, and education access; and her thoughts on sanctuary colleges and inclusive classrooms.

TSL: What are you excited about in terms of being president of Pomona? What attracted you to Pomona?

GS: I went to a really strong liberal arts college as an undergraduate, and it is one of the great passions of my life to work with undergraduates and with faculty colleagues and to really think about what the value is and the strengths can be of a liberal arts education, and Pomona is one of the great places in the world for doing that. The history of Pomona is one of transforming students’ lives with extraordinary education, and the very possibility of being at that school was in and of itself a draw. But the fact that Pomona is part of the consortium, which is a really different kind of model for higher education in which you have very distinct—but, in many ways likeminded—institutions committed to academic excellence that come together as a group to really build off of each others’ strengths collaboratively—that’s a pretty special thing.

TSL: What would you say are your biggest short-term and long-term goals as president?

GS: I think part of the short-term goals really are continuing some of the work that President Oxtoby and the Claremont community have already done around diversity and inclusion. I really believe that diversity and inclusion are things that never stop because people are always changing and humanity is always changing, and diversity isn’t a problem that needs to be solved. Continuing this work to make sure that everyone feels that they live in an equitable environment is a key priority.

[Another goal is] working with the faculty to continue to strengthen the resources available to them, the resources available to students, helping faculty to live really full lives—rich lives of scholarship, teaching, and lives outside the classroom—and work with the consortium to find financial stability in challenging economic times.

TSL: Could you talk a little about your past experience and how that will benefit you in your new position?

GS: I spent much of the last couple of years doing work across NYU on questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I co-chaired that task force for the university, and I’ve been doing work on preventing sexual violence at the university, and these are all things that every college is really focused on right now. I’ve done a lot of program building around pipeline programs for college access that I think could matter within the region around Claremont, thinking about ways to make sure that college really is available to people from a variety of different kinds of backgrounds and to bring them into college in a way that helps them to be successful.

TSL: Recently students have been pushing to add an inclusive classroom requirement to the criteria for tenure. What does it mean to you to have inclusive classrooms?

GS: An inclusive classroom really is one in which we meet students where they are; the classroom is equally accessible to individuals that have bodies of all different sorts. It’s an intellectual space, in which we have challenging ideas that are freely shared—but ideas are what are debated, ideas are what can be attacked, but people never are. Faculty—certainly they’re active in guiding and shaping discussion—but they enable students of all different identities and opinions to be fully present in the classroom without feeling that they’ve left too much of themselves behind, or that they’re being asked to leave themselves behind, or to represent things that go far beyond their own individual experience.

But in terms of how that plays out in the way that faculty is supported, in the ways that faculty experience ongoing professional development, that’s something that the faculty really have to take to itself. The great thing about the Pomona faculty is that they’ve shown an extraordinary willingness to do this. So I think that the job of the president certainly is not to direct but really to engage with faculty to work together to come up with ways so that every student can have that sense of challenge in the classroom but also really feeling like this is their place to live and learn.

TSL: Another topic that has prompted a lot of discussion on campus recently is about sanctuary colleges and how to support immigrants, undocumented students, international students, and other members of marginalized groups in the wake of the presidential election. Do you have any thoughts on how to address these concerns?

GS: First of all, I was really deeply proud to see the leadership that David [Oxtoby] showed in bringing other college and university presidents together to make a strong statement about why it is that as institutions of higher education we should have our doors open to everyone. The work that Pomona has done in welcoming students regardless of their immigration status has been a beacon in the United States, and that will not change when I take over in July. So the sense really that everyone belongs at Pomona will be at the heart of my presidency.

I should hasten to add here that I’ve had conversations on the campus here at NYU, that there’s students and faculty who have been experiencing significant distress and worry, not just students who are not citizens, but others who are afraid that their civil rights that have been gained over the years may be under threat. But one of the things that I think is most fundamentally important for the future of colleges and really for the future of our country is that we insist that colleges and universities have to be places where everyone of whatever partisan political belief can express that respectfully and be heard. Because the truth is that until we come to a position where we all speak to one another and listen to one another openly, there will be no cause for change in the world.

TSL: What are your thoughts on student journalism?

GS: I think every student press has to be independent of any administration. It’s a crucial part of a well-governed and really functional campus. The fact that The Student Life exists within the nexus of the Claremont consortium really gives it the perspective that makes it more of a community—and is a kind of perspective that I think is good for students, faculty, and members of the community because it increases the diversity of opinions and the diversity of perspectives.

TSL: Is there anything else you want to add?

GS: I’m really just excited! I’m going to bring my two kids with me and my husband. They are nervous about being in a new place but really excited. We got to visit again this past weekend, and we started to wander around Claremont and really started to feel at home. We had a great welcome from David and Claire Oxtoby, from faculty whom I happened to run into on the street, and I’m really looking forward to the next chapter.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.