Pitzer’s Melvin Oliver Inaugurated First Black President at 5Cs

Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver speaks at his inauguration on March 24, 2017. (Courtesy of Anna Chang)

Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver was officially inaugurated on March 25, making him Pitzer College’s sixth president and the first African American president of the Claremont Colleges.

The inauguration began with Interim Dean of Faculty Nigel Boyle welcoming 5C staff, faculty, and students, along with guests such as university professors and presidents from across the country and across the globe, and Oliver’s former students and colleagues.

Shahan Soghikian, chair of the Pitzer Board of Trustees and presidential transition committee, was the first to speak about Oliver. He had worked with the president to develop and organize meetings and events, familiarized him with Pitzer College’s mission, priorities, and community, and helped organize the inauguration.

“As [the Board of Trustees] worked with Dr. Oliver, we have come to know him as a man of patience, empathy, courage, discipline, thoughtfulness, vision, and understanding,” Soghikian said. “Dr. Oliver comes to Pitzer College armed with a full quiver and arsenal of professional experiences tailor-made for the challenges and opportunities we face on campus and on the national stage.”

Oliver’s former colleague, University of California, Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang, spoke about Oliver’s unrelenting academic leadership as UCSB dean of social sciences and the executive dean of UCSB’s College of Letters and Science.

“He reshaped and enhanced the academic profile of social sciences on campus during his 12 years,” Yang said.

Yang also talked about Oliver’s commitment to social justice, specifically regarding racial and economic inequality.

“Pitzer College was born from a commitment to improve the world, to put liberal arts to the grand purpose of addressing challenges in the human condition,” Claremont McKenna College President Hiram Chodosh said. “And today, Pitzer College inaugurates a great president, an inspiring leader who personifies the college’s institutional commitments as well as those of the Claremont Colleges as a group.”

Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver at his inauguration. (Courtesy of Anna Chang)

Janelle Wong, director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, was mentored by Oliver when he was a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“President Oliver has dedicated himself to equipping undergraduates with the research skills and critical intellectual approach necessary to devote their own lives to confronting systematic inequalities in their own ways,” Wong said.

Erica Robinson PZ ’18, student representative for the presidential transition committee, told TSL that she hopes Oliver listens to marginalized students.

“We need better institutional support, whether it is financial aid, diversity of faculty and staff, or accessible and culturally competent mental health services,” she said.

Pitzer College vice president of communications, marketing, and public relations Mark Bailey wrote in an email to TSL that Oliver’s past scholarship and leadership in areas of social inequality and diversity of ideas contribute to his ability to bring the community together in critical dialogues.

“President Oliver has led efforts to update and educate the community about possible impacts of federal support of higher education, including likely impacts on financial aid, study abroad, support for qualified international students, and undocumented and DACA-mented students,” Bailey wrote.

In an email to TSL, Oliver wrote: “Pitzer’s strength lies in its commitment to multiple perspectives in the search for elusive truths, in its commitment to the sanctity of the individual and its belief in the interdependence of humanity. The college has been a trailblazer in developing academic programs — one of the first in the nation to offer environmental studies, and the first in the U.S. to provide secular studies. Pitzer has been proud to lead in areas of social and environmental change, even when it may not feel comfortable. But the world does eventually catch up.”

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