Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 2.
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More than a year into his presidency, David Oxtoby talks candidly with PCM editor Mark Wood and former editor Don Pattison about general education requirements, the arts, diversity and College priorities.
One Year Later

: I’ve heard a number of students comment on how many places they’ve seen you this
year—from sporting events to concerts and plays. How much of that is pleasure, how much

David Oxtoby: Basically, it’s pleasure. I do it because I enjoy it, and it’s
fascinating to see students in different settings. But it also takes discipline,
because the calendar fills up. When I received the fall sports calendar, I attempted to
get to at least one or two games for each team. I then realized that my travel schedule
was too busy to do that, but I did manage a reasonable amount.

What do you think the students expect from you as president of the College?

I believe students are looking for a sense of community in the College, and they probably see the president as symbolic of the institution as a whole; thus, they want the president to connect with them, individually and as a group, intellectually and in other ways. They’re also expecting the president to help make things work—to make sure that support services are there, that the curriculum makes sense. And, as I say, it has been lots of fun to have so many individual conversations. Pomona isn’t an anonymous
place where you’ll never see the president. I’d love to have students take more
advantage of my office hours. It’s fine if they have an agenda, but it’s also nice when
students simply show up and say, “I just want to come talk and meet you.”

The other day, a student came by to say, “You probably get a lot of complaints, so I
simply want to tell you that I love Pomona, and these are the reasons.” She then
proceeded to mention a couple of faculty members, the dining hall staff, the financial
aid office, and said, “These are great people, and things are really done well here,
and I wanted you to know that.” That was the whole reason for her visit.

What do you think the faculty expect from you?

Basically, they are looking for leadership and vision for the College. That isn’t a
matter of one person deciding what to do, but of working with the whole College to
identify necessary steps to make important changes. Clearly, the faculty has lots of
ideas, but they want assistance and leadership to put them into practice. So, while not
every faculty member would agree on priorities, there’s real trust in the administration to look at the whole picture and try to move forward. I’m gratified by the support I’ve received from the faculty.

One of the notable events of your first year would have to be the start of a re-evaluation of Pomona’s general education requirements. Did you arrive as a critic of the current system?

I believe there are many systems that work, and it’s impossible to judge them by
reading catalog descriptions. The real test, I think, of whether something works is the
investment people have in it. Is the faculty really supportive? Are they committed to it? Do they believe in it? Likewise, how do students feel? Does everyone understand the reason for the requirements, and has there been a conversation between faculty and students about why we have these requirements? Lastly, is there buy-in, if you will, from both sides? I felt the PAC [Perception, Analysis, and Communication] requirements were plausible, but to me the
real question to be answered concerned how committed faculty and students were to the
system. To be candid, after broaching the subject with both groups, I had the feeling that these were requirements that had been in place for 10 or 12 years and for which many current faculty and students had no real passion. At Chicago, we had real battles in which people were deeply committed to a particular curriculum. I wasn’t sure that was the case at Pomona. I felt that for students, it had turned into a matter of checking off a list, rather than something fundamental, and for the faculty I was concerned that there were too many rules for deciding what would satisfy one requirement versus another. I wasn’t sure how active the support was any more for the PAC system, though I felt sure it was strong at the beginning. Definitely, I had some questions. The system could work, but it really needs the commitment of faculty and students.

Was there any negative reaction to examining it?

Not really. I was surprised at how ready the faculty was to do a wholesale reexamination rather than just make small changes. I would have expected at least some members of the faculty to be in favor of the status quo or modest adjustments. In fact, virtually the entire faculty seemed ready to start over again, and see where we wanted to go. Typically, students tend to be a bit more conservative than faculty, and ours seemed to want to keep the system with a few changes. They were more ready to tinker with it than the faculty was. I found that an interesting result of the discussion.

Since we’ve asked about the general education requirements, tell us what processes lie
ahead and where you hope they’re going to take us?

First, let’s remember that this is a two-year process, and it has been a very healthy one so far. Last year the discussion concerned the PAC system, an evaluation of where things stood, what types of courses are involved, and what students and faculty think about it. This year we are determining what we want to do now. The faculty—in particular, the Curriculum Committee—has played a leadership role, and they have brought students into the discussion through open forums. Student members of the Curriculum Committee are heavily involved in this discussion, too. At the fall student-trustee retreat, the PAC system was discussed, and there have been subsequent conversations. It’s hard to predict exactly where it will end up, but I’m hoping that it will be an inclusive process and that by spring there will be some consensus.

Without getting into specifics of what a new or revised general education system might be, what, in general, do you hope to see?

I hope to see real commitment from the faculty for whatever system we end up with and
an understanding from students of what its basic goals are. I hope we have a passionate
endorsement from both sides. Second, I think any new system will need stronger and more
systematic advising, which is one of the things that a small college can do very well. And, finally, I’m hoping to see a bit more flexibility than we have in our current requirements, so that students can pursue more interesting, ambitious combinations of programs. For instance, under the current system, a student would find it difficult to pursue a pre-med curriculum, with a major in English, and also be able to study abroad; very few, if any, free electives would remain. Finding a way for students to choose more courses that excite them is very appealing, and that seems to be the direction the discussion is going now.

You’re the second scientist to be the president of Pomona. And, yet, one of your first
emphases in your inaugural address was the arts. Would you talk about curricular challenges and opportunities in the arts for Pomona?

I tried in my inaugural talk to describe what I thought we should be thinking about in the next five to 10 years. For instance, during my first few months on campus, I tried to figure out how to complete the plans for science that were initiated by President Peter Stanley, particularly the proposed buildings at Sixth and College. I agreed with the College’s focus on science over the last decade, but I wanted to look beyond that to other areas. Among the longer-range challenges we need to focus on are the arts and the international arena. The arts because they should be a key part of a liberal arts education, especially now that they’ve disappeared from so many secondary schools. Current students have much less exposure to art, music, and theater than in the past. Part of that is a result of a new emphasis on pre-professional subjects in which the arts are discounted. On the contrary, I think the arts prepare students for all sorts of interesting careers—both within and outside the arts. I’ve met alumni who majored in music and went into business. I believe every educated citizen should have exposure to the arts. At a place like Pomona, this means positioning the arts as a vital part of the curriculum. My goal is to strengthen the level of activity, facilities and faculty
support in the arts. In terms of international emphases, we are strong in such areas as
Latin Americas Studies and Asian Studies, but I would like to see a greater connection, for instance, with the social sciences and the humanities. Over the last 20 to 30 years, the number of language majors has decreased, but if we’re going to be truly international, language is a critical component. I would like to see added vitality there. We have opportunities for renovating Mason Hall for the languages, for exploring how we want to teach languages in the future, and for how more creatively to use the Oldenborg Center. In short, we have an opportunity to think about how languages and international relations fit together.

A small college can’t do everything, so it has to make choices. How are priorities set
at Pomona?

First, I think the ideas need to come from as many sources as possible. A college’s lifeblood is new ideas, and they can come from faculty, students, trustees, staff and alumni. The next strategic planning process for the College will get under way next year, once we have finished the discussion of general education requirements. We will probably start with a blue-sky approach, assembling as many ideas as we can, and then begin to formulate a plan through smaller discussions and with opportunities for the full community to participate. I’m looking forward to a process that will involve everyone. The senior staff will lead the process, and we’ll guide and shape the discussions as institutional priorities are identified. And, because we’re in Claremont, we need to think about implications not only for Pomona but for the other institutions. One of the task forces of the Board of Trustees next year will examine the Consortium and Pomona’s place in it. I’m looking forward to discussing ways in which we can have closer connections within the Consortium.

What do you bring to the planning process and what do you expect others to bring?

Well, I like thinking in process terms, and it’s something I think I’m good at. I enjoy working with disparate groups and trying to build consensus. I don’t have a particularly firm agenda, but I’d like to work with the community to find ways to make Pomona really distinctive. From others, I expect creative ideas and a willingness to listen to different points of view, to share and to compromise. I’m hoping to see some visionary ideas and enthusiastic engagement in the process.

Diversity was an important theme of your inaugural address. What efforts are being
pursued by the College?

First, we need to talk about diversity and community, together. Bringing diverse students, faculty and staff to campus is only the first step. The second step is to make sure we are connecting with each other, that we’re not fragmenting or separating into groups that don’t talk to each other. We’ve worked on that second aspect very effectively, but there’s always more one can do. The numbers are quite solid—our faculty diversity numbers are among the highest of peer liberal arts colleges. On the other hand, most of those gains were made some 10 years ago; in the last few years, changes have been relatively small at a time that peer
institutions have been making improvements. Diversity isn’t measured by two or three
numbers but by a whole range of criteria, so we need to look at the issue more broadly
than through a couple of aggregate numbers.

In terms of the student body, we should be a leader in diversity because of the remarkably diverse population around us in Southern California. Of course, we draw nationally, but the diversity of this area should be an attraction, should give us advantages in recruiting a very diverse student body. Our numbers are reasonable, but I don’t think we’re being quite the leader we’d like to be in that area. There is also the issue of socio-economic diversity. We are blessed with very strong resources for financial aid, but there are still large communities out there who don’t know about us. To me, the crucial step is to get the word out that we’re here and that we’re an excellent college that can be afforded even by lowest income students.

Attitudes toward diversity seem to be very positive here on campus, but nationally,
diversity remains a divisive issue. Why do you think that is?

Unfortunately, it’s because some people outside of this community don’t see a link between diversity and talent—they see it as one versus the other, and that’s not the issue here at all. We have an applicant pool that’s extraordinary, and we’re not making compromises in our admissions standards. Sometimes people feel that if you increase the pool of people, you lower the level of quality. That has led to a real misunderstanding of the key issues that is, I think, responsible for the divisiveness of the issue nationally. Here the task is to encourage the broadest possible group of people to apply and then for Pomona to select a very diverse and also highly talented class.

What diversity do you see in terms of political opinion among students and faculty? There still is a strong impression that academia is liberal. How would you address that in regard to Pomona?

Of course, we don’t have any test of political ideology in hiring faculty. But if you look across the country, the political leaning of the average faculty member is somewhat to the left of the American public, and that is, naturally, reflected at Pomona, as it is at almost every institution. I certainly don’t want to try to enforce balance by asking people what their views are before we hire them. On the other hand, we want to make sure that the community is open to all types of ideas, that students from all sides of the political spectrum get challenged both by other students and by faculty, and that there’s healthy conversation in the classroom. It would be a real problem if one group felt that it couldn’t speak up because of a prevailing ideology. I have the sense that in Pomona classrooms there is encouragement to express different ideas, talk things through, argue—that’s very positive. I’ve seen some good things happen. For example, the Pomona Student Union is a student organization whose goal is to foster political dialogue and bring in speakers who represent different points of
view to debate issues. Their programs have been very successful in drawing large numbers of students, and I think that’s a reflection of the fact that students want to engage in and hear the other side. They don’t just want to hear people who agree with them.

Moral values seem to be on people’s minds these days. Could you enunciate two or three
guiding principles for students?

I would begin with respect for other individuals. Seeing fellow students, faculty, staff as individuals and not stereotypes or categories, that’s an important moral value. There’s a recognition that others may have different views from me, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right and I’m wrong, just that we’re different and that we can live and work and talk together and learn from each other. To me everything begins with respect for other individuals. That’s number one. A willingness to engage is number two—to want not just to keep to ourselves, talk only to the people who are on our side or are completely in sympathy with us. If we can speak to others who have different views and learn from them, and if the campus can be an environment where that’s encouraged and supported, then we will all have gained tremendously. Ultimately, education is about preparing students for citizenship, and the College needs to be not a closed environment but one that thinks about the outside world. Students are only here for four years, and we need to do the best we can in that time to prepare them. Part of that preparation involves discussions of values—moral, religious, spiritual values—so that, when they graduate, they can take that dialogue with them and make the world a better place.

We’ve discussed several challenges and issues facing the College. Are there any others
that we haven’t mentioned that you feel are important?

I frequently say that our biggest challenge is to avoid complacency. Pomona has generally been successful in that regard, but it’s something we always need to be aware of. By “complacency” I don’t just mean our saying “We’re great, we don’t need to change,” but a tendency to avoid tough decisions, to think everything we’re doing is good and, therefore, all we need is to do it all a bit better, use our resources evenly, and help every area a little. To me that would be a risk and a danger, because I think we need to make some choices, decide on a few areas where we really want to make some significant changes. Even with our resources, we need to make choices.

Speaking of resources, Pomona has a billion-dollar-plus endowment. How do you explain
to people that we have considerable resources compared to many other colleges, but that
there are needs in the future that will require additional funds?

First, our endowment is very generous and is based on what alumni, parents and friends
have contributed in the past; they have brought us to where we are now. That endowment
supports our current program—and it’s a wonderful program—but if we want to improve and
broaden that program, move in new directions, do different things, then we need new resources. That’s one of the messages that we need to keep getting out. The second message is that excellence has a cost. For example, we are one of few liberal arts colleges able to meet the full financial need of all admitted students. Each year there are fewer institutions able to do that, and to maintain that commitment, which is a deep value we all hold, requires us to keep raising money so that we can provide a Pomona education to any student who is qualified. Our endowment makes this commitment possible.
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