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Q&A: Melvin Oliver Reflects On Medical Leave

Melvin Oliver, Pitzer College president, recently returned to campus after spending five months in treatment for a protein condition. (Courtesy of Pitzer College)

Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver left campus in September to undergo treatment for a rare protein condition, AL amyloidosis. He returned to Pitzer Feb. 5, and recently spoke with TSL about his journey.

TSL: What was your experience in treatment, and what has coming back to campus life been like for you?

Melvin Oliver: It’s actually been great. I came back on the fifth of February, and everyone was excited to have me and I was excited to see them. One of the things that you miss when you’re away from campus is the excitement of the students –– we have such talented, energetic, and engaged students, we have a faculty that’s amazing, and our staff is so committed to the college. So you know, those personal connections you miss. Throughout my whole treatment I was involved in governance of the college, but I didn’t get to see people, I didn’t personally get to hear their concerns or excitement about things, so just being able to do that again has been wonderful.

Of course, everyone has been concerned about my health, and I came back, and I feel stronger every day. I feel very optimistic about things. It’s been a great homecoming.

TSL: You mentioned that you were involved in governance of the college while you were in treatment. Did the Pitzer community live up to your expectations in terms of how it would function in your absence? Before leaving, you said you hoped this experience would build community, shared understanding, and unity. Did that live up to your expectations as well?

MO: It more than lived up to my expectations. Of course I relied very heavily on my cabinet, and I have to say my cabinet came through in a[n] [extraordinary] way. Led by my dean of faculty, Nigel Boyle, they picked up every piece of slack that I wasn’t here to handle, and probably performed it as well I could. I was very happy that Nigel also took the mantle of working in the Claremont College Consortium aspect of the job, which is one of the hidden parts of a president’s job. You don’t think about how much time it takes to work with your colleagues across the consortium, and he did that in an exceptional way. Matter of fact, when I went back to the first meeting of the consortium my colleagues said “We had a great time working with Nigel.” And my other colleagues, likewise, just stepped up to all the challenges they had to face.

I received a lot of support from faculty, staff, and students. One of the things, when you’re kind of down and out, when you get an email from someone saying “how are you doing,” “we miss you,” it really did lift my spirits, and that’s part of that community that I was hoping would develop, and it did.

TSL: Has your outlook on Pitzer changed at all after being diagnosed with an illness and undergoing treatment? Has your vision for the school changed?

MO: I don’t know if my vision has changed, but I think my commitment to it has deepened. Anytime you have an illness, I think it causes you to reflect, and illnesses also bring up the finiteness of life. You get a little more committed to what you’re doing. My vision for Pitzer, moving it forward, has just been fortified.

TSL: Similarly, has your outlook on life changed at all?

MO: You do ask yourself what’s important when you’re ill, and it really emphasized how important family is. Family is so important, and my wife was with me throughout my whole treatment process. I often say that she kind of gave up her life for me, but of course her life and my life are intertwined. But what she did was just a marvel to behold, and made me recognize that the important things in life are your family and your relationships, and those are the things that sustain you during those difficult times.

TSL: What are your goals for this semester?

MO: We have a lot of things that we are trying to do. Major among them are senior level cabinet positions that I need to fill. We just made an announcement about a new vice president of advancement yesterday, Neil Macready, formerly vice president of advancement at the University of Redlands, and we’re excited about him. I have interviews for my chief of staff today — we have two candidates — and we have several other positions to assign. [My number one goal] for the year was to fill those open positions that we had, and make sure that I had a fortified cabinet going into the next year.

My number two goal is ongoing, but I’m working with my two colleagues, the president of Scripps [College], Lara Tiedens, and the president of [Claremont McKenna College], Hiram Chodosh, to move Keck Science innovation forward. That is a very important aspect for all three of our schools, and a challenge. We’re meeting regularly to make progress on that project.

Finally, I think there are a number of things internal to Pitzer related to strategic planning and visioning about our future. We’ve been slow about getting that going, and I want to ramp that up going into next year so that we can move into that right away.

TSL: More specifically, what about the Pitzer vision do you want to ramp up?

MO: Well, the Pitzer vision is one where we give students the opportunity to independently chart their education. We want to make sure we have the resources and support available for students to do that, and we want to make sure that our students can develop both socially and economically, and in terms of social justice and their engagement with the world. We want to make sure that they have what need at Pitzer to do that, which means making sure we have those resources and personnel in place. You need to have the infrastructure to the support the vision, and that’s kind of what a president does.

TSL: What specifically are you hoping to achieve with regard to the Keck Science Center?

MO: Well, Keck Science has been an overenrolled part of our curriculum. Many students come in with a emphasis on science, and so we have had more students in Keck than we would like. So, in order to increase the number of faculty, we need to have increased facilities. Right now, every year we have to figure out how to build a lab to hire a professor. So, we need to really renovate the current building, or construct a new building.

What that means for students is that there will be more tenure line faculty, and fewer temporary faculty teaching courses. Students can engage with our tenure line faculty in the research that’s the hallmark of Keck. Keck is one of the gems of Scripps, Pitzer, and CMC, and that those students have opportunities to work directly with their faculty, who as a matter of fact over a period of three years publish over a hundred articles. So it’s a very rich opportunity that we want to support in the best way we can.

TSL: Do you have any advice for students, faculty, or others in the 5C community who might have family diagnosed with an illness, or who might be going through a struggle similar to the one you endured?

MO: I would say that when you’re facing a challenge like that, remember your friends and your family. They want you to get well, they’ll help you get well, and they are actually the key to sustaining yourself during that period.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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