Filling Trombley’s Shoes: A Q&A with Pitzer Interim President Thomas Poon

Pitzer College President Laura Skandera Trombley announced in January that she would take a semester-long sabbatical for fall 2014. The man she tapped to take the reins during her absence, Thomas Poon, is a chemistry professor at the Keck Science Center. Last week, TSL sat down with the new acting president to learn more about him and his plans during a five-month tenure.

TSL: You have been president of Pitzer College for about a month now; what has your experience been like so far?

Thomas Poon: It’s been amazing. I’ve been able to meet people that I never would have met before, both on campus and within the consortium. It has allowed me to see how interconnected all the different areas of a college are. What I’ve learned is that all of the different people on campus are deeply committed to their jobs and the students that they serve.

TSL: What has been the most difficult part of being the acting president so far?

TP: The hardest part is not having any control over my calendar! It invariably gets populated with all sorts of meetings and obligations that come up. So it’s a very busy schedule, but it’s also a lot of fun, and I do love the pace.

TSL: Do you have any goals in the next four months that you will be president of Pitzer College?

TP: Well, keep in mind this is my last semester as president! But yes, I do have some goals; there are some projects that I have discussed with President Trombley. For example, we are planning a recognition dinner for winter graduates. We have anywhere from 25 to 35 students who graduate after the fall semester—and not all of them can make it back to the commencement ceremony—so we want to recognize them in some way. We are also convening the President’s Standing Committee on Sustainability, which is a group of students, faculty, staff and administrators who are going to work on continuing the efforts of the Climate Action Model working group that developed the plan for fossil fuel divestment last year. 

TSL: Let’s talk about divestment. You are a chemistry professor by profession, so do you bring any unique perspective to Pitzer’s recent decision to divest?

TP: Well, it’s an interesting topic, especially because of Pomona President [David] Oxtoby’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, who is also a chemist. One thing I have learned from being at Pitzer over the last 14 years is that change doesn’t happen very quickly. Change takes time, and a lot of effort, and momentum. Even though divesting from fossil fuel companies may not have any direct or immediate correlation to the chemistry in the atmosphere, it’s the collective efforts of all these institutions that have also joined this effort, which is starting to gain momentum. It’s through these collective efforts that we will eventually generate momentum in the political realm. It really does take a longer-term vision when tackling these issues of sustainability and protection of the environment; you’re not going to solve it overnight.

TSL: You obviously have a significant background in chemistry, but when a lot of people think of a liberal arts education, the ‘hard sciences’ are probably not always the first thing that come to mind. Why is this an important part of the education that Pitzer offers?

TP: In a liberal education we learn about various theories, facts and practices that will shape you as a whole person. I cannot think of one discipline that isn’t in some way connected to other disciplines. No matter what you set out to do in life, you may not necessarily need a certain discipline to influence what you do, but I guarantee that you could always benefit from it. How can we talk about climate change without talking about science? How can we talk about the economy without talking about how science education in the U.S. stacks up against the rest of the world? So science is definitely important.

TSL: This year the price of tuition [and room and board] at Pitzer hit $61,750—higher than ever before in this college’s history. Do you believe that Pitzer needs to do more as an institution to make education affordable?

TP: I think higher education in general needs to do a better job. We are still the second-least expensive of the Claremont Colleges, and the top liberal arts colleges in the country are all moving toward this $60,000 ceiling. But yes, we have to do a better job at either lowering tuition or reallocating assets to make sure that if tuition increases that students are still being served well. Keep in mind, though, that it is very difficult for younger institutions to lower tuitions; we are only 50 years old, and we have a set endowment that simply isn’t as high as other institutions. We are really trying to look at ways to hold those tuition numbers down.

TSL: You point out that Pitzer still is a very young institution, having just celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Where do you see the college heading in the next 50 years?

TP: We have so much momentum—Pitzer has certainly come a long way since its founding, even in the last 14 years that I have been here. The momentum has come from our particular emphasis on environmental sustainability, social responsibility and intercultural understanding. These are things that have made Pitzer nationally recognized as a liberal arts college, so I think we will need to continue along these trajectories and find ways for other disciplines to plug into other areas that we do so well.

TSL: A personal question for you: Who in your life has been your biggest professional or personal inspiration?

TP: I would have to say my father. He was the first in my family to come to the United States and that took a lot of bravery. He didn’t even have a high school education, but he brought us here to the United States so that we could live the ‘American Dream.’ In the process of this, he worked incredibly hard as a restaurant owner. Nothing came easy for him—he struggled but he had a vision for his family and the future.

TSL: Speaking of hard work, as you probably know, many students here at Pitzer will be starting midterms in the next few weeks. Do you have any sage(hen) advice for these students as they study and prepare?

TP: Absolutely. Don’t leave it to the last minute, and if you feel that you are struggling, don’t hesitate to utilize that vast resources we have here at the college. I have been an adviser to Pitzer students for the past 14 years, and the successful students haven’t always been the brightest or highest-performing in the class but rather the ones who have taken advantage of the resources available to them. Sometimes you will have a bad exam, but it’s what you do after that bad exam that will ultimately define your success in the class and in life.

Some responses in this article have been abridged.

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