Students Reflect on Pitzer Presidential Politics

On Jan. 13, Pitzer College announced the end of its 13-month presidential search by appointing Dr. Melvin L. Oliver as its sixth president. Oliver’s selection signals a decisive step forward for the college as the student body looks beyond the leadership of President Dr. Laura Trombley, whose final days in office were clouded by a controversial vote of no confidence by the faculty.  

President-designate Oliver will be the first black president in 5C history. Currently serving as an executive dean at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Oliver is an award-winning teacher and author and nationally recognized for his academic and administrative commitment to tackling racial and economic inequality.

At UCSB, he increased minority graduate student enrollment in social sciences by 40 percent. He also pioneered an initiative that recruits and prepares minority and low-income students for doctoral programs.

As a professor of sociology at UCLA from 1978 to 1996, Oliver co-founded the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, which funds studies in racial and urban inequality. From 1996 to 2004, Oliver briefly left academia, serving as Vice President of the Asset Building and Community Development Program at the Ford Foundation. There he focused on building the social and economic assets of the world’s poor and he led, among other efforts, a grant program offering $50 million in home mortgages to 35,000 low-income households.

In a note announcing his selection to the Pitzer community, Oliver stated, “I am eager to join you in moving Pitzer to its next level of excellence – one that includes greater economic and racial diversity among students and faculty, an ever-deepening commitment to social justice issues and a larger national spotlight for the brand of liberal arts education that Pitzer College represents.”

“He has accomplished so much at UCSB,” Grace Geller PZ ’16 said. “I am excited to see what steps he will take to make Pitzer a more diverse and socially aware campus. As a first-generation student, it is really inspiring to be represented by a president who is [a first-generation student] like himself.”

For many Pitzer students, his task ahead looms large. Former President Trombley left a mixed legacy at the college that some feel eroded students’ faith in the office.

According to the 2014 Pitzer College President Newsletter, during Trombley’s tenure as president the endowment increased 195 percent, the student-faculty ratio dropped from 14:1 to 10:1, student financial aid increased, salaries and benefits were enhanced, and eight new mixed-use residence halls were built.

Despite these achievements, many across the Pitzer community disapproved of her presidency.

“The actual priorities of the college and the core of Pitzer has been completely neglected,” senate member Lindsey Burkart-Lima PZ ’16 said. “She made it so that every student that comes into Pitzer feels as though they are paying into a profit machine, but the issue is that the machine does not pay for enough administrators, so Pitzer is incredibly dysfunctional. We are paying $65,000 a year to live in buildings that are falling apart. We don’t have any academic coordinators. We do not even have a tutoring center. Our academics have been completely neglected,” said Burkart-Lima.

Students expressed frustration that increasing Pitzer’s reputation and beautifying the campus came at the cost of Pitzer’s core values.

“Where is the money for academics? Why is there not a focus on actually strengthening the quality over the image and the aesthetic of the school? She definitely has put Pitzer on the map, but there is a huge cost to that,” Burkart-Lima asked.

Trombley’s leadership style at Pitzer also made waves among the faculty. Eight days before she left office in 2015, the Pitzer College faculty convened at an unprecedented summer meeting and issued a vote of no confidence in her leadership. According to a statement released by the Faculty Executive Committee, “the meeting was held to address ongoing challenges to the shared governance process at Pitzer College, where shared governance is a founding principle.”

According to the co-founder of the Claremont Student Workers Alliance, Caroline Bourscheid PZ’16, “The faculty and the board of trustees used to have a close relationship. They used to have retreats every year. They would talk about different issues and collaborate around where funding should go. When she came in, she stopped that completely. She isolated the board.”

The confusion of Pitzer’s core values is a topic of much discussion among Pitzer student activists. Issues of academic resources, worker rights, housing, and better support for students of color and marginalized identities on campus are among the largest complaints.

“The stuff that goes on at Pitzer is against what we preach and what we supposedly believe in,” said Bourscheid, who has dedicated her time at Pitzer to advocating for labor rights. “The way that workers are treated is horrifying. I would love it if someone in the administration would take it seriously and move some sort of initiative forward to help workers.”  

Although there is frustration amongst the student body regarding the office of the president and its role at Pitzer, many still have hope for what Oliver will bring to the table.

“As a Latino, first-generation student, I look forward to seeing what the new president can do within this institution to make it a more inclusive and diverse space,” Student Senate vice president, Josue Pasillas PZ ’17, wrote in an email to TSL. “He will have to work with students, staff, and faculty to move Pitzer forward. Shared and community governance has been the tradition at this institution and is expected,” Pasillas wrote.

While excited about the prospect of change, especially in light of issues of racial discrimination on the Claremont campuses, Trombley’s legacy caused several students to pause before setting their expectations of the new president too high.

Bourscheid places her faith in the President selection committee. In October, Pitzer formed a more community-based secondary presidential search committee composed of students, faculty, and staff to meet and interview the final four presidential candidates.

“A lot of the people I know that were on the committee are people I trust. I believe in their judgment,” Bourscheid said. “Hopefully, after everything Trombley did, he will redeem the president’s position. At this point most people have very little faith in the administration and it is pretty sad.”

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