From the Magazine: David Alexander (1932-2010)
Like all those who have had the honor of serving as president of Pomona College, David Alexander left the College better and stronger than it was when he took office, but David did more--he took the College to another level as he guided it to the very top ranks of the country’s liberal arts colleges. His vision was boundless, and his ability to articulate and realize that vision matchless. On this sad day, Pomona College is able to reach for the stars with great confidence in our future because David shared his “added riches” with all of us for so long and so well.
--Paul F. Eckstein ’62, trustee, July 2010
The death of David Alexander, Pomona’s seventh president, on July 25, 2010, cuts wide and deep for precisely the reasons that his life was so profoundly significant. In a presidency that touched four decades, Alexander did more than fulfill a role--he embodied it, seamlessly blending work and life, doing and being.
The position of college president requires a daunting array of talents and skills, of intellect and practical mastery. As Emerita Professor Virginia Crosby commented at the time of Alexander’s retirement, “Pomona College is a single institution but not a single community. ... To maintain direction for the College, to give consideration to the particular while keeping focused on the whole, has required courage, passion and the art of the invisible hand.” When a day’s work might take one from welcoming an insecure new student to soothing a disgruntled senior trustee, from resolving a philosophical conflict within the faculty to securing an important donation, how does one strike the necessary balances, remain simultaneously open and true to oneself, sympathetic and firm, accessible and authoritative? Patently impossible, one might conclude. And yet, as both the historical record and personal tributes reveal, David Alexander accomplished all this, and more.
Alexander’s 22-year tenure (1969–91) was unusually long in the history of higher education--at the time, the average college presidency lasted six years--and, at Pomona, was second in length only to that of his predecessor E. WilsonLyon (1941–69). Like Lyon, who took office on the eve of World War II, Alexander assumed the role at a tumultuous moment, with the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War dividing the country in ways that manifested with particular ferocity on campuses. The two presidents had much in common, including a clear and unswerving moral stance (Lyon had risked his career by opposing the McCarthy-inspired “loyalty oath” of 1949 that posed a grave threat to academic freedom; Alexander, as the recent New York Times obituary noted, had taken a similar risk, proposing the desegregation of fraternities at Southwestern at Memphis in 1965). They also shared an abiding commitment to the concept of the residential liberal arts college as community, as family, and when Alexander succeeded Lyon, he inherited the legacy of one who had admirably maintained the near-impossible balancing act that comes with this familial ideal.
Immediate family was an important part of that balance. Alexander arrived in Claremont with young children--Kitty, aged 10, John, 9, and Julia, nearly 2--and an extraordinary partner who understood and embraced the challenging role of presidential spouse. Catharine Coleman Alexander, intellectually gifted and endlessly gracious, played a critical role in creating and maintaining the deep sense of community that marked the Alexander years.
Born in Springfield, Tenn., in 1932, David Alexander attended Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), graduating in 1953, Phi Beta Kappa with honors in Greek. At Southwestern, he intended to major in music but soon discovered that the required keyboard proficiency was beyond his reach. Undaunted, he turned to the French horn, which remained an abiding interest. A classical scholar with a lifelong interest in theological history, he went on to study at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and, as a 1954 Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford University’s Christ Church (College). He earned a D.Phil. degree in church history, Greek and Hebrew from Oxford in 1957. In 1965, after teaching for eight years at San Francisco Theological Seminary, Alexander, then 32, was named president of Southwestern at Memphis, his alma mater. Four years later, he succeeded E. Wilson Lyon as Pomona College president; the day of his induction, Oct. 18, 1969, fell on his 37th birthday and within days of the 82nd anniversary of the College.
By all objective measures, Alexander’s presidency was extraordinary. During his tenure, Pomona’s endowment increased more than tenfold, from $24 million to $296 million, the value of its assets from $71 million to $450 million. The College prospered equally in terms of the quality and geographic and ethnic diversity of its faculty and students. The faculty grew; the student body changed dramatically as SAT scores and GPAs rose and the College made the transition from a primarily regional institution to a national liberal arts college with the majority of its students from outside California; and the curriculum expanded significantly. As Professor Deborah Burke comments, “David moved the College in a direction that greatly improved the quality of the education it offered: He increased the number of women faculty, improved understanding of gender issues by creating the Women’s Union in a Walker Hall lounge, and initiated the First Year Seminar program (ID1) to provide students with a small class designed to improve writing and oral presentation.” Enhanced in size, diversity, quality, and curricular innovation, Pomona joined the top tier of the country’s liberal arts colleges.
During Alexander’s tenure, the campus was also significantly transformed by the addition of 15 new buildings and, equally important, the preservation and renovation of many others, perhaps most notably Little Bridges, which, condemned as unsafe in 1969, was saved by a desperate fundraising effort. In 2007, Alexander remarked “I was in office long enough that every building, I think, was renovated at least once, and several residence halls more than once.” Knowledgeable about architecture and the landscape arts, and respectful of tradition, Alexander worked hard to balance the inevitably conflicting needs for continuity and growth. It is significant that when Holmes Hall, one of the College’s oldest structures, had to be replaced in the late ’80s, the new building, modeled on its historic predecessor, was named the David Alexander Hall for Administration.
Pomona presidents are appointed by the Board of Trustees, arguably its most important responsibility, and the relationship is critical. Trustee Marylyn Prosser Pauley ’64 comments: “David led with a quiet and keen intellect that automatically drew the respect of students, faculty and fellow administrators. Trustees felt a steady hand in his leadership that enabled the College to attract top administrative staff and outstanding faculty during a time of rapid growth in the endowment and the built environment. At the same time, Pomona’s outreach to a more diverse universe of prospective students broadened during his presidency.” H. Russell Smith, chair of the board for 18 years, puts it simply: “David Alexander, in all respects, was the personification of excellence.”
The responsibilities of the college president extend far beyond the home campus. For Pomona College to gain in national stature, to take its place among the country’s elite liberal arts institutions--as it did under Alexander’s leadership--required its president to participate actively and effectively in the wider world of higher education. In this arena too, Alexander excelled. Early in his tenure at Pomona, he served as a trustee of the American Council on Education and later as a trustee of the Fellows of the Society of Phi Beta Kappa. Among his many long-time associations over the years to come, he served as a trustee of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA, 1970–2002), the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (1978–99) and on the Board of Overseers of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (1991–2010). He was also a director of KCET, the Seaver Institute, the Great Western Financial Corporation and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. In 2006, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
One of Alexander’s longest and most distinguished roles beyond the gates was as American secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust (1981–98). In this capacity, he was responsible for overseeing the selection of American applicants for the Rhodes scholarship, highly prestigious, that brings exceptional students to Oxford University. While maintaining and furthering the long and distinguished Rhodes tradition, a task that required close contact with hundreds of institutions of higher education, Alexander worked successfully to diversify the American applicant pool. He was also, as Eliot Gerson, Alexander’s successor in the role of American secretary, noted recently, the “leading historian of the American Scholarships,” having written the American chapter of the history of the Rhodes Trust. “David loved the Rhodes Scholarships, and Oxford, like few others ever have.” In 1998, his service was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II who ordained him Commander of the British Empire.
David Alexander had a deep respect for academic tradition, a trait amply demonstrated in his effort to maintain continuity with Pomona’s history and founding principles while also leading the College forward, in his conviction that a certain distance between faculty and students should be maintained, in the decorum of the College’s ceremonies, and even in his insistence on signing graduates’ diplomas (parchment, of course) with a special pen and India ink. As John Dreyfuss wrote in a 1984 Los Angeles Times profile titled “The Paterfamilias of Pomona College,” Alexander’s formality, which ran counter to the culture of the early 1970s, was sometimes mistaken for aloofness. This was painful for a gregarious individual who cared deeply about people. “I think I am shy in some respects,” he told Dreyfuss. “I’m not hail fellow well met. In a way, I’m sorry about that.”
It may be axiomatic that we all, of necessity, develop a variety of personae to fulfill our various roles. Many of us have had the experience of attending a memorial for someone we knew well--a special friend or mentor with whom we enjoyed a uniquely privileged relationship—only to find a roomful of others who felt the same and, moreover, whose experiences were different, who knew aspects of the person we never glimpsed. Remarkably, one finds in the tributes to David Alexander both breadth and consistency--reflections by a wide variety of individuals who knew him in a wide variety of ways, and who identify not only many of the same characteristics but also qualities rarely found in a single individual. Brilliant, scholarly, accomplished, eloquent, wise, appear side by side with genial, accessible, witty, charming, nurturing, compassionate; reflections on inspired leadership accompany touchingly personal stories. We all knew David Alexander differently from one another, but such was the embrace of his nature that we also, it appears, knew the same extraordinary man.
It was Alexander’s habit to deliver, at Commencement each year, a “charge” to the graduating class. As Lee McDonald ’48, emeritus professor of politics and dean of the College from 1970–75, wrote recently, these were “classics . . . a worthy legacy”; that alumni remember them to this day proves his point. Delivered with an easy eloquence that belied the hard work involved in their preparation, each year’s charge encapsulated Alexander’s convictions and hopes for the graduates, exhorting them to embrace qualities of mind and heart that, one now comes to realize, were those he embodied. In the way of exceptional art, they serve as a portrait of the artist.
Pomona College and your experience during your collegiate years should have taught you one lesson of transcendent value: temper your self-confidence with the assurance that there is more to learn, mitigate your certainties with the awareness of opposing points of view, and bolster your resolve to try always to improve yourself and to work for the improvement of the world around us. The summation of that transcendent lesson is openness: to be open to new and different ideas, to be open to the needs of others, and to be open to learn as much as your life can bring you. (1980)
--By Marjorie Heath and Don Pattison
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Pomona College Magazine.