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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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Sarah Dolinar

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David Oxtoby, who will become Pomona’s ninth president on July 1, 2003, is a man of many elements—109 of them, to be exact...

David Oxtoby fell in love with the periodic table of elements at a Quaker high school in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s.

However, chemistry was not his first love, nor even his second. He was already, at that stage in life, on his way to becoming the kind of person who attracts the label “Renaissance man.” A talented pianist, encouraged by his teacher to pursue a career in music, he had also flirted with a series of other interests ranging from mathematics to languages—none of which he would ever fully leave behind.

It was in high school, however, that chemistry took center stage, becoming the focus of a wide-ranging intellectual life that would, over the next three and a half decades, lead him to places he would never have imagined—including, on July 1 of this year, to Pomona College as its ninth president.

It has been a journey that has proceeded, as if dictated by the scientific method, from the general to the specific and back again. It has also been a journey shaped by a love for both the orderly and the unpredictable—in nature and in his own life—a combination that he still sees reflected in that deceptively simple table of elements that begins with the symbol for hydrogen and ends, provisionally, with element 109, one of those unwieldy designer atoms that exist only fleetingly in a cyclotron.

“I’m still passionate about the chemical elements,” he confesses, “the fact that you have all of these hundred or so elements, each with its own special character, and you can’t always predict how they’re going to behave.”

It’s a fact that’s ripe for metaphor, and Oxtoby, who admits to having a metaphorical turn of mind, offers it knowingly, citing one of his favorite books, The Periodic Table, an autobiographical work by Italian chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. “He wrote this book where each chapter is titled with a chemical element,” Oxtoby observes. “It’s the story of his life as it’s related to the elements, either literally—times when he was actually involved with a particular element in his work—or metaphorically—some aspect of an element that connected with his life symbolically.” He pauses, considering. “I seem to think of the elements in that same familiar way.”

“Hydrogen is the simplest element and the only one fully described by basic mathematics. As the element that all others are built from in stars, it seems representative of beginnings.”

Campus life agreed with Oxtoby right from the start. The second of three children born to a pair of mathematicians, he grew up in faculty housing on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, a small liberal arts institution for women outside Philadelphia, where his father was a professor.

“The campus was my front yard and my back yard and everything else,” he recalls, “I remember freshman students were invited to faculty homes, so students who looked very old to me would turn up at the house. And some of the dormitories gave parties for faculty families, so those were the big events of my childhood.”

Inside the Oxtoby home, the life of the mind was paramount. Sometimes, he recalls, his family would sit around the dinner table working math problems—just for the fun of it. Long after he left for college, his parents confessed to having bought a television set, but even then they generally left it hidden away in a closet unwatched.

“Education was absolutely central for my family,” Oxtoby says today. “Both my parents encouraged us to explore our passions, whatever they might be.”

As a product of that setting, perhaps it’s not surprising that Oxtoby developed a broad and eclectic set of interests early on. A bit more unusual—and certainly key to understanding him—is the fact that he is still enthusiastic about practically every one of them.

The first of those enduring passions, naturally enough, was mathematics. Like many young boys, he pictured himself following in his father’s footsteps, both as a mathematician and as a teacher. Though math would be eclipsed by a variety of other interests along the way, it would resurface in college as an integral part of his choice of careers.

Then there was theatre. At the small private school that he attended in nearby Wynnewood, he discovered the creative release to be found onstage. “That was where I did my first acting,” he recalls, “because they took acting seriously. We put on real plays, which is something you might not expect from a bunch of kids.” Years later, despite all his other activities, he’s still putting on plays, as a member and past president of the 37 Players Playreading Group.

As for musical performance, Oxtoby worked earnestly at the piano all through childhood, playing, among other things, Beethoven’s Andante Favori and the Schubert Impromptus. He reserved his greatest enthusiasm, however, for Bach. “For me, Bach is the center of music,” he says. In college, he would allow his piano skills to lapse, but characteristically, he would find himself drawn back to music years later, this time in an area where he felt devoid of talent. As a conscript in various school choirs, he had always mouthed the words, considering himself tone-deaf. But at age 40, he would decide to take singing lessons. “The first efforts were really awful,” he admits, “and don’t ask me to sing solo, but it’s something I enjoy.”

In junior high school, he became enamored of ancient Greek, inspired at one point by an encounter with Bryn Mawr classicist Richmond Lattimore, translator of the Iliad. Eventually, Greek would fade from the picture, but languages would remain a fascination. Over the years he would become fluent in French and gain a reading proficiency in German and Italian, as well as picking up a smattering of Serbo-Croatian. Even today, as he prepares for life in Southern California, he has gone back to the classroom—Berlitz, this time—to study Spanish.

In the end, however, the great intellectual passion of his life would turn out to be none of the above.

What first attracted Oxtoby to chemistry was the physical, visual, tactile appeal of the science—the thrill of actually mixing two things in a flask and experiencing their reaction. “My early interest was with the variety of chemistry, the colors, the different elements, the reactions—yes, even the explosions,” he says. “For instance, I’ve always been fascinated by electrochemistry. The idea that putting some chemicals together and connecting them with a wire can cause a light to turn on never ceases to amaze me.”

By the time he left for Harvard University at the age of 16, chemistry had risen to the top of his list, but even then he kept his options open. He toyed with European history. He pursued courses in historical and cultural linguistics right up to the graduate level. He continued his study of pure mathematics. In the end, his decision wasn’t so much a choice as an intersection.

“It was great to discover that there are deep connections between mathematics and chemistry, and that I could connect the two in my career,” he remembers. “What I discovered was that I could combine these two interests of mine—teaching chemistry and being very involved in that, but approaching it from a more mathematical point of view.”

This revelation was confirmed by the delight he took in his very first research calculation, with Nobel prizewinning physicist Ed Purcell, a project that involved calculating the spectra of highly excited hydrogen atoms in interstellar space.
From that point on, he would never look back.

“Always one of my favorite elements, gallium is interesting both because it represents France —a place that has special meaning for me—and because its freezing is so unusual. Normally it melts in the hand at room temperature, but under special conditions it can be cooled more than any other element before it finally freezes, because its nucleation is so slow.”

Today a simple list of Oxtoby’s published research fills 11 full pages of dense typescript. His published papers total 165 and counting—three more are currently on their way to print—with titles like “Dynamical Density Functional Theory of Gas-Liquid Nucleation” and “Semiempirical Cahn-Hilliard Theory of Vapor Condensation with Triple-Parabolic Free Energy.”

The titles reflect the complexity of the work that has earned him an international reputation as a theoretical chemist. When he discusses his work, however, he speaks first about simplicity.

“My basic philosophy has to be that nature is simple in some sense and that there are simple ways of getting the key features, because otherwise I’m not interested,” he says. “I don’t do large-scale computations and calculations. My goal is not to precisely mimic how nature behaves, but rather to capture some of the essence in a simple model, a model that I can develop and make predictions with.”

It’s a field that bridges the gap between chemistry and physics. In fact, by European standards, he would be considered a physicist. Like a physicist, he works mostly with numbers, describing the chemical world in ways that inform the work of experimental chemists in the laboratory.

“I interact with lots of experimentalists,” he says. “Sometimes I will go to the lab and they will show me some results which they can’t explain, and I will try to figure out why they’ve seen this. Sometimes I will make a prediction from my theory and they will go off and test it in the lab. So it’s a wonderful back-and-forth relationship between theory and experiment.”

In recent years, most of his work has concentrated on understanding something that has intrigued him throughout his career—that magical point where a solid becomes a liquid or a liquid becomes a gas, known as a phase transition.

“What’s fascinating about phase transitions is that they’re discontinuities in nature,” he explains. “Ordinarily, things change continuously. You make a small change, you have a small effect. In a phase transition, you make a small change and you have a large effect.”

Of particular interest is the initial moment, the point known as nucleation, when a tiny crystal appears in a liquid or a minute droplet appears in a gas. “Nucleation turns out to be exquisitely sensitive to conditions,” he says, “and so you can change things a tiny amount and get really orders-of-magnitude changes in rates. That, to me, is fascinating—how you get big sensitivity from small changes.”

After earning his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975, he accepted a post-doctoral job as a research associate at the James Franck Institute of the University of Chicago. It was, perhaps, the most narrowly specialized period of his life. Here, for the first time, he was able to concentrate entirely on his research, and he threw himself into it with gusto, co-authoring papers with regularity. That highly focused interlude, however, was destined to be short-lived. Even before the year was out, Berkeley had invited him back to interview for a faculty position.

“So they offered me a job,” he says, “and Chicago, where I was a post-doc, said, ‘Well, if they’re going to give you a job, we’re going to give you a job.’ So I had a choice, and I chose Chicago.”

Unwilling, however, simply to slide immediately from post-doc to assistant professor without so much as a change of scene, Oxtoby sought another year to continue his research—preferably overseas. The university was supportive, and in 1976, he packed his bags for a year in Paris.

“I was working in a couple of different laboratories, both part of the University of Paris, one north of Paris, the other one south of Paris,” he explains. “So I lived right in the middle and took the train one way or the other. The one north of Paris was the experimental lab, where I was working with some scientists trying to interpret data. The lab to the south was the theoretical lab, where I was collaborating with some people doing theory. So I had a fair amount of independence. I wasn’t tied to one narrow group. It was a great year.”

But he cherishes his memories of that year in France for a more important reason. It was in Paris that he met a young woman named Claire Bennett, a small change that would have a big effect upon his life.

Chlorine, Bromine & Iodine
“The halogens are a family of elements, but each has its own special character. Chlorine is a gas, bromine a liquid, iodine a solid; chlorine is green, bromine red, and iodine purple. I think of my three children in this way: a single family, but each highly individual.”

Claire Bennett graduated from Kansas State University with a major in French and an interest in teaching. In 1976, she arrived in Paris to spend a year studying French at the Sorbonne and art history at the Louvre while working as an au pair.

It was there that she met a tall, affable young chemist with a winning smile.

They were married a little over a year later. Settling down in Chicago, both began to test their wings as teachers—he as an assistant professor of chemistry, teaching introductory courses for the most part, and she as a teacher of French in a Chicago public school.

Then the children began to arrive. Add a new item at the top of Oxtoby’s list of passions: family.

Mary Christina was born in 1982. Two years later came John, and two years after that, Laura. Claire stayed home while the children were small. Only after they were all safely in school did she begin to think about returning to the classroom—and when she did, it was with a brand new set of goals. “She had always enjoyed children, and as our kids went through school and grew up, she wanted to stay connected to kids,” Oxtoby explains. “So she went back and got a master’s degree in early childhood education. Now she teaches nursery school—ages three and four.”

  The Oxtoby Clan—(from left) Mary Christina, 21, Laura, 16, John, 18, Claire and David—poses for a family photo during a recent family trip to the island of Kauai.

In the meantime, their own children were ceasing to be children. Today, Mary Christina, 21, is a junior at Vassar, studying history and Chinese and currently spending a semester in London. John, 18, a talented athlete who loves “quantitative things but not science,” was, as of this writing, considering Harvard and Amherst. Laura, 16, loves biology, English and music and has played the flute with the University of Chicago Wind Ensemble.

Just a year away from an empty nest, Oxtoby concedes that the Pomona presidency would have been more convenient if it had come one year later. “But these things don’t wait,” he adds with a smile. The family’s initial plan, once the move to Claremont became a reality, was for Claire to remain in Chicago while Laura completed her senior year there—a separation they all dreaded but thought best under the circumstances. Recently, however, Laura decided that the family should make the move to Claremont as a unit. “She’s always thinking about other people,” Oxtoby adds with a smile. “I think she was worried about Claire and me.”

There is pride in his voice as he says this. And some minutes later, the mood is still on him. “What has been your biggest success so far in life?” he is asked. Without missing a beat, he replies, “My biggest successes are my children.”

“Perhaps the best element to symbolize a deep involvement in the teaching of chemistry—writing books, bringing the chemistry of the real world into the classroom—is carbon. I think of chemical plants that I visited where millions of tons of carbon compounds were being processed into special new materials. Then too, carbon is an element that, in the form of carbon dioxide, is deeply implicated in issues of global climate change, a continuing interest for me.”

Teaching, Oxtoby believes, is principally a matter of relating to people, and, he insists, it’s a two-way process. “It’s not just conveying knowledge and transferring it from one person to another,” he says. “It’s hearing the questions, responding, hearing ideas from students. That’s what keeps you young.”

An award-winning teacher at the University of Chicago, Oxtoby still has a fondness for introductory chemistry, unlike many senior professors who chafe at being assigned to elementary courses. Even in his most recent assignment as the University’s dean of the physical sciences—a job that required him to oversee a faculty and an annual budget larger than those of most colleges—he made time to teach a beginning class as recently as last fall.

“Beginning chemistry is still my favorite because it’s the first chemistry that students take, and you can shape their interest in the subject,” he explains, adding that the two popular chemistry textbooks he co-wrote with colleague Norman Nachtrieb arose largely from their own experience teaching beginning students. He explains: “In teaching chemistry, you always think, when it comes to the textbook, ‘I could do better.’” As a result, Principles of Modern Chemistry was written as a “flagship” book—aimed at chemistry majors and honors courses at top colleges and universities. Chemistry: Science of Change was conceived a few years later as a text for students with a less pronounced background in mathematics.

Even as president of Pomona, Oxtoby plans to teach an occasional class, though he admits to worrying about whether his other duties will permit him to be accessible to his students. Whether or not he is able to keep one foot in the classroom, however, he believes he will always be a teacher at heart. “It’s an important part of my identity,” he says.

For Oxtoby, the move from teaching to administration at the University of Chicago was a natural evolution. “You take one step after another,” he explains. “I was very interested in curricular issues, thinking about the science curriculum, so I was asked to chair a committee for requirements in the physical sciences. Then I became associate dean.” He shrugs. “Things happen one step at a time.”

He became dean of the physical sciences at a divisive time. In 1995, new science positions were being cut and many members of the faculty were up in arms. He was forced to deal with some difficult situations, and discovered—to the surprise of a few of his colleagues who saw him as too much of a nice guy to make unpopular decisions—that he could make the tough calls and, in most cases, keep his relationships intact. “The key thing,” he says, “is to relate to people effectively as individuals, regardless of whether you, one, agree with them or, two, can do what they want you to do.”

Of his accomplishments during eight years as dean, he is proudest of his work in the area of computer science. Six of the seven departments in his division were nationally ranked, but one—computer science—was small, new and, in his opinion, one-dimensional. “Dealing with the department, the first complaints were always, ‘We just need more money, more positions,’” he says. “And I said, ‘That’s part of it, but you’ve also made some choices, and maybe they weren’t the right choices.’ So we actually had to make some tough decisions and redirect some of the focus of the department—move out of some areas to free up space for new areas.”

The most recent chapter in that story was the addition of a partnership with a private university in Japan, the Toyota Technological Institute. “They were looking for a partner and they chose us over a number of other universities,” he says. “That’s going to increase our ability to hire and the number of students and all those things. Ultimately, there were a whole series of steps that eventually turned a difficult situation into a very positive one.”

“As element 47, this must, of course, be the Pomona College element. A noble metal, it is of importance both aesthetically in the arts and as a catalyst for interesting new chemistry.”

Oxtoby will be only the second person trained in the sciences—and the first chemist ever—to serve as president of Pomona College. (Charles K. Edmunds, who served as Pomona’s fifth president from 1928 to 1941, was a physicist and an engineer.) It’s a background, however, that Oxtoby believes makes sense, for several reasons.

First, he says, is the way chemists deal with the unpredictable. To explain, he returns, somewhat playfully, to the periodic table of elements.

“You frequently see chemists going into administrative positions, in colleges,” he muses, “and I think part of it may be that we don’t have the absolute certainties of… the laws of physics, let’s say. There are more than a hundred different elements, and sure, they obey the laws of physics—we know that—but they’re also somewhat unpredictable. And being able to deal with variety and unpredictability is part of dealing with people.” He chuckles softly. “So those skills that chemists develop may come in handy in administration later on.”

More seriously, however, he believes a scientist may bring to the job of president some important tools and turns of mind. “I would say that the scientific method makes me open to experimentation, trying things, looking for evidence,” he says. “A good scientist will not assume things. He or she will ask for the evidence and test it to see if it is really true.”

Oxtoby is careful, however, to point out that despite the popular notion that scientists are somehow different from other scholars, they are really taking part in a quest for truth that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

“To me the metaphorical side of science is very important,” he says. “We are making models to try to describe how the world works, and that is one of the ultimate human activities, an activity which not only scientists are engaged in, but also humanists and social scientists. Everyone is engaged in that effort. So I don’t see a discontinuity between the way a scientist approaches the world and the way a humanist does.”

Looking back, Oxtoby believes his childhood on the campus of Bryn Mawr College set him on the winding path that eventually led him to Pomona. “If it weren’t for my experiences there, I really don’t think I’d be here now,” he says.

In 1989, Bryn Mawr invited him back to campus to serve as a trustee. Later, he would count two of the college’s presidents—Mary Patterson McPherson and Nancy Vickers—among his mentors in understanding how liberal arts colleges function and evolve. A Bryn Mawr alumna and fellow trustee, Hanna Gray, would, as president of the University of Chicago, become another important mentor—naming him to a high-level committee on the University’s financial situation that would give him his first taste of administrative problem-solving.

And the wide-ranging interests that marked both the child and the “Renaissance man” would predispose him to gravitate toward positions in which he could broaden his intellectual reach. “My interests in a range of areas and fields have drawn me at each stage to move in a broader direction,” he says. “When I moved from being a chemist to being dean and overseeing seven departments—having the opportunity, for example, to visit the telescope in New Mexico and find out what’s going on in astronomy, or to go off and talk to the mathematicians about their research—that was great. This further step—connecting to an entire college and all the areas of study that make it up—is very exciting to me.”

That excitement is clear in his voice, and in his actions. Though careful not to interfere with the final months of his predecessor’s work, he has made numerous visits to campus, meeting with staff, faculty and students, beginning the discussions that are central to his idea of leadership.

“I think I’m a good listener and a good consensus-builder,” he says. “I like to talk with people one-on-one, understand their core ideas and thoughts and feelings about things. I also like the dynamic of groups, thinking together about how to move forward and get results.”

The more he learns about Pomona, he says, the more he feels at home there.

“There’s a certain openness at Pomona that I find really exciting—if you will, a lack of inner angst. I would characterize some of the New England schools as very good, very high-quality, but very worried about whether they’re really as good as they think they are, and really not looking forward in the same positive way. There’s a certain pessimism about things going downhill, that things are going to get worse in the future. But I don’t see that at Pomona. Maybe it’s partly the location—that it’s the new world, the West, the connection to the way the United States is heading.” He smiles. “I think it’s just the right place to be.”

—Mark Wood