At least eight high-level Pomona College administrators have departed or announced their departures from the school since President G. Gabrielle Starr took office in July 2017, a significantly higher rate of turnover than in the first years of President Emeritus David Oxtoby’s administration.
The high rate of turnover has students worried about a lack of institutional memory, which they say has resulted in uninformed administrative decisions.
“[Administrative turnover] sets back any kind of student activism or any kind of administrative relationship,” said Emily Coffin PO ’19, a former ASPC senator and member of Pomona’s suspended advocates program for survivors of sexual assault program. “I question the productivity of constantly having to go back, reinvent the wheel and redefine what relationships [with administrators] look like.”
Over the last two years, Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, Career Development Office Director and associate dean of students Mary Raymond, vice president and Chief Communications Officer Marylou Ferry, and vice president of advancement Pamela Besnard have all left the school.
During the 2018-19 academic year, Dean of Campus Life Christopher Waugh, Dean of the College Audrey Bilger and associate dean of wellness Jan Collins-Eaglin followed in their colleagues’ footsteps, announcing they would be departing this summer. Treasurer Karen Sisson announced she would be leaving at the end of the calendar year.
TSL looked into Pomona’s recent spate of administrative departures; while some moved on to more prestigious positions or other careers, others left mid-semester — and some left without an official announcement to students about their departure, or claim they were fired.
“[Administrative turnover] sets back any kind of student activism or any kind of administrative relationship … I question the productivity of constantly having to go back, reinvent the wheel and redefine what relationships [with administrators] look like.”—Emily Coffin PO ’19
Raymond expressed extreme discontent about the circumstances of her departure, scathingly critiquing the Pomona administration for dismissing her with little warning. Raymond worked at Pomona for nearly eight years, according to her LinkedIn page.
Raymond went on sick leave prior to Dean of Students Avis Hinkson’s first day, and returned to the Career Development Office Oct. 1. Months later, she said she was called into a meeting where she was told she would no longer have a future at Pomona.
Raymond linked her dismissal to what she said was the Starr administration’s goal to shuffle in a new cohort of administrators.
“The circumstances in which I left were not my choice,” Raymond said. “I would have never left my department high and dry when we’re so short on staff, but it seems as if there was a goal to clean up and get rid of people.”
Hinkson denied Raymond was fired.
“I don’t know why she would say that,” Hinkson said. “As far as I’m concerned, that was a resignation.”
Hinkson cited an announcement sent to students Jan. 10, which described Raymond’s departure as a resignation to “give more attention to family matters.”
Raymond attributed the series of recent departures to Starr’s administration.
“Whenever new leadership comes to a college, it’s always with an understanding that this is a fresh start,” she said.
During her tenure, “the college became an untenable place to work and anyone who could was seeking a job elsewhere, unless they’re the type of people who just don’t get hired anywhere,” Raymond said.
Raymond said she plans on pursuing legal action against the college for firing her. Hinkson and assistant vice president of human resources Brenda Rushforth declined to comment on potential legal action because it involves a confidential personnel matter.
Ferry, like Raymond, departed suddenly from the college. Pomona issued no official announcement to students when she left in March. Ferry could not be reached by press time, though her LinkedIn page says she has begun working as a senior public relations consultant in the Los Angeles area.
Hinkson declined to comment on Ferry’s departure.
Pomona doesn’t plan to replace Ferry, Starr said in a faculty meeting April 3.
Besnard’s departure also wasn’t announced to students. In a March 19 email to faculty, Starr said Besnard is beginning a job as chief advancement officer at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in May.
Collins-Eaglin’s departure was announced Dec. 6, a day after a TSL interview with Collins-Eaglin and Hinkson, in which the two deans responded to student complaints about the then dean of wellness.
In the December email, Hinkson said Collins-Eaglin would begin a phased retirement, and will officially leave Pomona when a new associate dean of wellness is hired.
Collins-Eaglin has not yet officially left Pomona, though she’s been on frequent leave this past semester. When TSL reached out to Collins-Eaglin March 26, an email from her office said she had been on leave from Feb. 23 to March 4.
When TSL reached out to Collins-Eaglin April 28, an email from her office said she is on leave until the end of May, though no replacement has been announced yet.
Feldblum’s departure was announced midway through the spring 2018 semester, while she was on sabbatical. In an email to TSL, Feldblum said Oxtoby invited her to co-found the Presidents’ Alliance, an organization of educational leaders convened to speak out in support of immigrant rights, and she “jumped at the chance.
“It was during the sabbatical that I let the college know I was staying with the new organization and not returning,” Feldblum said.
Sisson is shifting careers after 11 years at Pomona. She said now seemed like an opportune moment for her to depart.
“My 40th reunion is coming up,” said Sisson, who graduated from Pomona in 1979. “I was reflecting that Oxtoby had the privilege of being president for about 14 years. Our hope is that President Starr will have that long a tenure, and it would be great [for her to] have someone in this job that would be there for her and that wasn’t going to be me.”
“The college became an untenable place to work and anyone who could was seeking a job elsewhere, unless they’re the type of people who just don’t get hired anywhere.”—Mary Raymond, former associate dean and Director of the Pomona College Career Development Office
Pomona history professor Gary Kates, who also served as dean of the college from 2001 to 2009 under Oxtoby and his predecessor Peter Stanley, said administrative turnover can happen frequently because administrators don’t have tenure.
“When you are a senior staff administrator, you work at the pleasure of the president,” Kates said. “And so a shift in the presidency is hard and insecure.”
Raymond agreed with that assessment.
“Staff, especially in the student affairs line, are hired at will and serve at the will of the president, and so there are really no protections for us,” she said.
Under Oxtoby, who served from 2003 to 2017, administrative departures occurred over a larger time frame, according to Kates.
Though most vice presidents who worked at Pomona when Oxtoby began his presidency had departed by 2012, Kates found that turnover felt “much more normal.
“When there was disruption, it was always over singular departures,” Kates said.
Other administrators, such as Bilger and Waugh, are departing Pomona with prestigious career opportunities in higher education in sight. Pomona politics professor Susan McWilliams, who has been at Pomona for 13 years, attributes those departures to Pomona’s reputation as a premier liberal arts college.
“These are people who are getting really good promotions, and it is a reflection of the excellence of the individuals and of Pomona that [recruiters] from other institutions are trying to poach our people,” McWilliams said.
Bilger will become president of Reed College this summer, Starr said in an email to students April 27. Waugh will become dean of students at St. Ambrose University, Hinkson announced via email the day before.
“I am excited for the opportunities people are receiving. For example, while I am sad to see her leave, I consider it a point of pride for Pomona that [Bilger] is going to become president of Reed College,” Starr said via email. “We have a very capable team in place to carry out our educational mission, and we are diligently moving forward with key searches.”
However, the departures to other schools has left some students wondering how committed administrators are to their roles at Pomona.
“We look at ourselves as this incredibly prestigious college, but are administrators just coming here to have a deanship as a stepping stone?” Coffin said.
This academic year has brought with it heightened tensions between administrators and students as a result of a series of decisions, such as the suspension of Pomona’s advocates program, the restriction of the use of electronic lists that ban guests from parties and a decision to move Pomona’s Orientation Adventure program to students’ second year, which was later reversed.
In light of these tensions and the high levels of turnover, students have expressed concerns about a loss of institutional memory and degradation of traditions and customs they hold dear.
Sam Rubin PO ’19, who advocated for the preservation of Pomona’s OA program in the wake of Hinkson’s initial decision to suspend it, mentioned the controversy as an example of the negative effects of administrative turnover.
“One administrator could make a decision that has a drastic effect, and then when they leave and another administrator comes in, they don’t know what happened or what the history is,” Rubin said. “OA is an example of that — someone new came in and made a decision without really knowing the context.”
Incoming ASPC President Miguel Delgado-Garcia PO ’20 agreed with Rubin.
“When OA and advocates and traditional things that we are used to as being a part of our Pomona experience get disrupted, that’s when students realize, ‘Oh something is amiss or something is up here,’” Delgado-Garcia said.
Administrators contend that turnover is natural and healthy in the early years of a new administration.
“I am excited for the opportunities people are receiving. For example, while I am sad to see her leave, I consider it a point of pride for Pomona that [Bilger] is going to become president of Reed College. We have a very capable team in place to carry out our educational mission, and we are diligently moving forward with key searches.”—G. Gabrielle Starr, Pomona College President
“In my experience, it is common that [when] there is a new president, there is turnover,” Hinkson said. “It’s a moment when lots of people reflect on their own careers, what opportunities they may have taken advantage of and what opportunities they may not have.”
While students blame administrative turnover for what they perceive as rash decisions, Pomona faculty members claim responsibility for protecting and preserving institutional memory.
“We’re the people here on indefinite contracts,” McWilliams said. “We’re the people here for 40 years, and we don’t need to count on administration to remember institutional history for us.”
Kates said much of Pomona’s bureaucratic expansion as a premier liberal arts institution has contributed to a loss of traditions and values.
“Many faculty feel that the administration has gotten so large that a bureaucracy has been created, and that endangers what Pomona has meant to so many generations,” Kates said.
He warned that Pomona may be becoming too large to preserve its traditions.
“In the 1950s, we were an intimate faculty-governed institution, and we’re losing it because of our fortune and resources,” he said. “The greatest danger is us becoming too big.”
Waugh, who’s been with Pomona for eight years, said administrative turnover can be a positive thing.
“Institutional memory is taking on more momentum than it should,” Waugh said. “One of the dark sides of clinging to institutional memory is a resistance to change. Every organization needs to evolve with the changing times.”
This article was updated May 3 at 2:51 p.m.
This article was last updated May 5 at 2:18 p.m.
Julia Frankel PO ’22 is from Brooklyn, New York. She previously served as one of TSL’s news editors.