TSL spoke to Dr. Melvin Oliver, the recently announced President-Designate of Pitzer College, on his experience as a first-generation college student, his work on racial and economic inequality, and the benefits of small colleges.
TSL: What about Pitzer College motivated you to apply to become its president?
MO: Well, I am the graduate of a small liberal arts college and it was a transformative experience for me. I have always wanted to return to those settings. I have been at large research universities for most of my career, and when I learned about Pitzer I just became completely enchanted with the fact that Pitzer’s values represent my own. I think Pitzer’s vision is a kind of vision that I believe in, and I think that the kind of focus on your core values are ones that animate me—I am a person that believes that knowledge has to have a sense of social responsibility, a focus on social justice; that we have to have a multicultural understanding of the world…interdisciplinarity is the key. So I became completely engaged with the Pitzer vision.
TSL: How does your work as an academic—which primarily focuses on racial and economic inequality and the injustices that stem from those inequalities—inform your everyday life?
MO: It animates everything I do. I come from a background of being a first-generation college student. My mother had a ninth grade education, my father had a seventh grade education, and going to a liberal arts college was just a life-changing experience for me. And out of that experience came my belief that I could actually do something about the issues I cared about. I applied a kind of social scientific methodology to studying the world and applying it to real world problems. Luckily, I have been one of those people who are in a position to do that. I think you do that first in your daily life and when I was teaching I did it as a teacher—that is, help other students see those issues and understand those issues and address them. Then I was able to do it as a scholar to focus my work on very tough problems but to create what I hope is some light on issues that were previously not fully understood. And then I had the great opportunity to work at the Ford Foundation and I was able to put significant resources behind people that were working on the ground to try to deal with problems of racial inequality, poverty, and ecological issues. So I think Pitzer prepares students to think the way I thought and that’s why I think this is a great opportunity for me and I hope a great place for me as a president.
TSL: You mention that as a teacher you tried to instill these values into your students. You were named by the Carnegie Foundation as Professor of the Year in 1994, so I think it’s easy to say that you enjoy teaching very much. Do you miss teaching at all and are there any plans for you to teach a class at Pitzer?
MO: I certainly hope that after I get my feet on the ground and I get some level of comfort in the president’s role that I’ll be able to teach. That would be one of my great passions to do.
TSL: Would it be a sociology course?
MO: It would be a course regarding in what I’m engaged in now, which is trying to close the racial wealth gap. It would be a course that would look at the historical development of the racial wealth gap and how different groups have been affected by the political and economic policies, especially black and brown folk and look at some of the policy alternative that have been prescribed to try and address that. So it would be an interdisciplinary exploration of that subject.
TSL: Your passion to fight against these unequal structures is incredibly apparent. Could you list some of the people that influenced you to fight against inequality?
MO: My father was a very important in my life. He was not a literate man. He did read the Bible. He was a minister, but never had a church. But I can remember him putting on a suit, putting on his tie, and taking his Bible to go on a march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wasn’t old enough at that point, but my father understood the struggle from his everyday situation in which he had low wages, he was discriminated against by labor unions, he oftentimes was unemployed, but he understood the issues and he knew that only by making his voice known would something happen and he joined the Civil Rights Movement, and I think that was my first kind of knowledge on how one is motivated by an example like him.
As I read, and as I grew up, and as I started having political ambitions of my own, I think I developed from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X to very interesting social history called Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by historian Harold Cruse, which was, in my day, when I was in college, one of those books that I read about five times because I wanted to understand it. Those were important influences on me. And then it was the small liberal arts college that I went to where the faculty took me under their wing and gave me a sense that I could achieve, and it was really under that kind of environment that I think I came to have some independent thought that are part of my moral compass today, part of what I think as an important way to live and to give meaning to my life.
TSL: Who are some of the people you admire today?
MO: When I was at the Ford Foundation, I had the opportunity to work with and support some of the great grassroots leaders across the country. A woman I admired greatly is Chief Wilma Mankiller. She was the first woman chief of the Cherokee nation and she was a person that I had the opportunity to work with at the Foundation. Her wisdom, her vision, her courage, and working for her people was just really inspiring. She died a few years ago, and she was one of the few people I really admired. Among academics, I admire professor Manuel Pastor who’s a colleague of mine in the area of research that I am in. His work is amazing, addressing issues of how communities can struggle against environmental racism, how communities can create positive social change. I also have to say my colleague Tom Shapiro. He’s a person I went to graduate school with. He’s been my comrade and my closest friend. I admire him for the way he sticks to his principles, the way he continues to do great scholarly work that addresses issues that people care about…there are probably another fifteen that I could put down.
TSL: You mentioned earlier that you’re excited to come back to a small college environment. Do you feel confident about being able to acclimate yourself to such a small collegiate environment after spending so much time at larger universities where college administrations tend to be more distanced from the student body?
MO: That’s one of the things that excites me– that I can be closer to students. In my current role, I am not as close to students as I’d like to be. Another issue is that I can know every single faculty member [at Pitzer]. Right now, I have twice as many faculty in my division as the number of faculty at Pitzer. To be able to have that kind of closeness to the faculty and the students to me is great.
TSL: Last summer, Pitzer’s faculty voted no confidence in former president Laura Trombley. The vote came as a result of what the faculty perceived as Trombley’s disregard of shared governance between faculty and the administration—something that’s embedded in Pitzer’s DNA. How do you intend to foster a better relationship between the faculty and your administration?
MO: I have never worked at a university that didn’t have a strong tradition of shared goverance. I believe shared goverance creates better decisions. I plan on continuing the tradition of shared governance. I like the fact that students and staff are involved in many decisions and have a place in the governing structure. I think that makes Pitzer a unique institution. It also makes it an institution where people have a lot of buy-in, so I think we should continue having a robust model of shared governance and I don’t plan to do anything to diminish it. I hope to make it stronger in the sense that we can all work together to make good decisions and make them in a timely way and can continue to move the campus forward.