Oxtoby, who will become Pomonas ninth president on July 1, 2003,
is a man of many elements109 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 languagesnone
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 imaginedincluding,
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 unpredictablein
nature and in his own lifea 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.
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 cant always predict how theyre
going to behave.
Its a fact thats 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. Its the story of his life as its related
to the elements, either literallytimes when he was actually involved
with a particular element in his workor metaphoricallysome
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
problemsjust 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 its not surprising that Oxtoby
developed a broad and eclectic set of interests early on. A bit more unusualand
certainly key to understanding himis 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 fathers
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, hes 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, Beethovens 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 dont ask me
to sing solo, but its 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 classroomBerlitz,
this timeto 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 sciencethe 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 reactionsyes,
even the explosions, he says. For instance, Ive 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 wasnt 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 mineteaching 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
meand 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 Oxtobys published research fills 11 full
pages of dense typescript. His published papers total 165 and countingthree
more are currently on their way to printwith titles like Dynamical
Density Functional Theory of Gas-Liquid Nucleation and Semiempirical
Cahn-Hilliard Theory of Vapor Condensation with Triple-Parabolic Free
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.
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 Im
not interested, he says. I dont 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.
Its 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 cant
explain, and I will try to figure out why theyve seen this. Sometimes
I will make a prediction from my theory and they will go off and test
it in the lab. So its 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 careerthat magical point where
a solid becomes a liquid or a liquid becomes a gas, known as a phase transition.
Whats fascinating about phase transitions is that theyre
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 fascinatinghow
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 theyre going to give you
a job, were 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 researchpreferably 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 wasnt
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
They were married a little over a year later. Settling down in Chicago,
both began to test their wings as teachershe 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 Oxtobys
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 classroomand 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 masters degree in early
childhood education. Now she teaches nursery schoolages three and
Oxtoby Clan(from left) Mary Christina, 21, Laura, 16, John,
18, Claire and Davidposes 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 dont wait, he adds with a smile. The familys
initial plan, once the move to Claremont became a reality, was for Claire
to remain in Chicago while Laura completed her senior year therea
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. Shes always thinking about other people,
Oxtoby adds with a smile. I think she was worried about Claire and
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 chemistrywriting books, bringing the chemistry of the
real world into the classroomis 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, its a two-way process. Its not just
conveying knowledge and transferring it from one person to another,
he says. Its hearing the questions, responding, hearing ideas
from students. Thats 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 Universitys dean of the physical sciencesa
job that required him to oversee a faculty and an annual budget larger
than those of most collegeshe made time to teach a beginning class
as recently as last fall.
Beginning chemistry is still my favorite because its 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 bookaimed 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. Its 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
discoveredto the surprise of a few of his colleagues who saw him
as too much of a nice guy to make unpopular decisionsthat 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 onecomputer sciencewas
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, Thats
part of it, but youve also made some choices, and maybe they werent
the right choices. So we actually had to make some tough decisions
and redirect some of the focus of the departmentmove 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. Thats 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 sciencesand
the first chemist everto serve as president of Pomona College. (Charles
K. Edmunds, who served as Pomonas fifth president from 1928 to 1941,
was a physicist and an engineer.) Its 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 dont have the absolute certainties of
the laws of physics,
lets say. There are more than a hundred different elements, and
sure, they obey the laws of physicswe know thatbut theyre
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
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
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 dont see a discontinuity
between the way a scientist approaches the world and the way a humanist
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 werent for my experiences there, I really dont
think Id 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 colleges presidentsMary Patterson
McPherson and Nancy Vickersamong 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 mentornaming him to a high-level committee
on the Universitys 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 departmentshaving the opportunity, for example, to visit the
telescope in New Mexico and find out whats going on in astronomy,
or to go off and talk to the mathematicians about their researchthat
was great. This further stepconnecting to an entire college and
all the areas of study that make it upis 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 predecessors 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 Im 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.
Theres a certain openness at Pomona that I find really excitingif
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 theyre really as good as they think they are, and really
not looking forward in the same positive way. Theres a certain pessimism
about things going downhill, that things are going to get worse in the
future. But I dont see that at Pomona. Maybe its partly the
locationthat its the new world, the West, the connection to
the way the United States is heading. He smiles. I think its
just the right place to be.