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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
One Year Later
PCM: 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
fascinating to see students in different settings. But it also takes
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
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
I believe students are looking for a sense of community in the College,
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
place where you’ll never see the president. I’d love to have students
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
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.”
proceeded to mention a couple of faculty members, the dining hall staff,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.