Pomona College’s 10th president G. Gabrielle Starr is a recognized scholar of English literature, neuroscience, and the arts, and the former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of New York University. Starr arrived on campus in early July. TSL spoke with Starr soon after the start of the year to discuss her adjustment from New York to California, reflections on Pomona students and community, and thoughts on the most pressing issues currently facing the college.
TSL: How are you adjusting to your new home at Pomona? What do you like the most about Claremont and California in comparison to New York?
G. Gabrielle Starr: I haven’t had the time to miss New York at all because things are really busy. Right now, I like almost everything. I like the fact that I’m meeting new people. I like the fact that Pomona is full of brilliant, charming, challenging students. This is a dream come true.
TSL: At convocation, you mentioned that we should not settle for “silent acquiescence.” Can you explain that?
GGS: It’s very easy coming into a new place and thinking that everyone has something figured out, or that what you see is wrong is supposed to be that way. It is challenging sometimes to find ways to speak out about what you see is unusual, or what you think is different. I’ve been experiencing that myself coming here, wondering why things are done the way they are done, trying to figure out a bit as to why people make structures or choices.
I think it is good to wait and listen, but it is also good to stand up to act. I think this is a moment for all of us to be very intentional about what we open our eyes to, what we close our eyes to, what do we think is okay, what behavior we think is acceptable, and how do we try to collaborate instead of pushing each other apart. One of my big hopes for this year is that we, as a campus community, can model that kind of engagement.
TSL: Is there anything specific that you recommend Pomona students to do in order to conquer silent acquiescence and promote progressive conversations on campus?
GGS: I think starting off with a question is always good, a question that doesn’t assume the answer that someone is going to have or their position. I’ve had experiences when people are just so sure that they know what the answer is going to be, so they already have a frame that prevents them from listening to what people have to say. So starting with a question is a really great way to begin.
TSL: What do you believe is the most pressing issue currently facing Pomona?
GGS: I do think that we still have an inclusiveness challenge in terms of people being able to fully grab what’s available at Pomona and to be themselves as fully as they can be. I think we have a challenge in that sometimes students spread themselves too thin, and I think we need to take more breaths, frankly. I think we have an opportunity, though, to reach out to one another constructively.
And we’ve seen that very clearly with DACA and DACA students when, we realize,that, having been complacent about the status quo, that yesterday is a model for tomorrow is not functional. We have a collective responsibility to figure out how we can plan for uncertain but consequential and powerful problems and possibilities. We have a community fully capable of that, but we have to hold hands and do it together.
TSL: What do you look forward to the most at your inauguration on Oct. 14?
GGS: One of the things that I am most excited about is that there will be lots of poetry and lots of music. I just got a list of the music today, and the music is going to be extraordinary. It shows the talent and creativity that the college has to offer, and I just can’t wait to see that. The most I will look forward to is hearing what people say is best about Pomona, because, to me, that’s what the inauguration is about. This will tell me what the next 10 years are going to be about, and how we are going to get there.
TSL: Do you have any advice for the incoming class of 2021?
GGS: Yes! Of course I do. First I would say one great thing you can do this year would be to build a meaningful relationship with someone you never thought you would have a relationship with, or to someone very different to you in whatever way, and taking advantage of that new start that you have. And the second thing I would say is look for ways to have very intense intellectual experiences outside of class, and be creative about that. The third thing is don’t do what I did: Don’t shrink all of your clothes freshman year! I shrank all my clothes freshman year and I couldn’t buy more, so I had two inches of sleeve for eight months. The dryers are horrible. Dry on low.
TSL: How about for the juniors and seniors who are about to enter society?
GGS: Don’t be afraid. You actually have every single tool that you need. Be aware that your next stop is only your first stop. Nothing is preordained at this point in time. Opportunity is going to come in unexpected ways, and think laterally, don’t think linearly. Realize that before you go, please try and do something to make it better for the people who are still here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.