Our Mandate Is to Change the Universe

Given by President Laura Skandera Trombley on December 5, 2004, at the CASE 2004 conference in San Francisco.

I am happy to be here with you today and I am honored to be invited as your keynote speaker for the CASE annual conference. I would like to especially thank Regina Webster, Chair of the conference committee for all her efforts on behalf of all of us. I am very glad that your conference theme this year is “embracing diversity,” and it is my hope that what is now an embrace will become a lifelong hold in terms of commitment.

Let’s all take a moment and imagine that waiting outside this lovely hotel is a beautiful bus, as my eight-year-old son would say, a “magic school bus.” It’s enormous with room for us all to hop on board, containing all the amenities you could ever hope for (and fundraise): designer decorated classrooms, ergonomic staff and faculty chairs, whirlpools, a wireless environment with limitless bandwidth, brand new laptops, a superb library, even an intramural playing field with a climbing wall. Why, this bus even sells emblematics.

We all climb on board, buckle-up and replenish ourselves with sushi and fruit smoothies. Our destination? Diversity. Diversity is a place we hear about all the time, in presidential speeches for example, and we read about it in alumni magazines and in admissions pieces. As the bus gets underway we look through the windows and see directional signs with messages like “our college is committed to diversity” and “diversity is an institutional priority.” We ride on and on and in between reading positive institutionally produced materials—the majority of which framing diversity in terms of students—we also read other less prosaic articles. For instance the cover story in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education was entitled: “The elite gender gap, how higher education is now turning out more female than male Ph.D.'s. But at major research universities, the professoriate remains largely a male domain.” Or predictions about the ramifications of the Michigan decision or to what extent Cal and Pell grants will be cut this year.

We then begin to notice that we’ve been on this bus for a long time. Myself, I’ve been a passenger for 21 years, ever since my first semester teaching composition at USC. After being a passenger on what seems to be an endless bus ride, I must pose the question: How far have we journeyed and when will we reach our destination? How will we know when we’ve reached it?

And, more to the point for those of us here at this conference, How may we apply diversity to furthering the goals of Advancement? In higher education we are accustomed to discussing student diversity; today I’d like to talk a bit about how to expand that discussion to include a consideration of diversity within and among our institutions. How can we secure the position of higher education among a welter of needs and institutions seeking support of the public and private coffers and, moreover, seeking the support of the public and private will and imagination?

Just the other day, in resigning his post as Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge included higher education in his list of tributary institutions that are required to shore up the security efforts of the nation—a point that deserves serious critical scrutiny from every angle. Our society is based on a culture that values pluralism, the notion that it takes ideas from all sectors to advance the cause of democracy, progress, and freedom. Multiple perspectives have long been associated with strengthening the discourse for building strong institutions, and for being optimally inclusive. I thought I might stretch the principle of diversity a bit today to address the good and noble work we have to do to secure higher education’s future, and thereby security in the broadest sense of our society in the future.

We must understand that as institutions of higher learning we are the bearers of the responsibility for advancing the idea and value of diversity in society, and that there are a number of ways of defining it as it applies to our mission. We must learn how to articulate the multiple diversities within our institutions in order to affect the sort of change we wish to model in society at large, and to do so might ask ourselves a series of questions about our own individual institutions. How do we demonstrate that our institution fulfills a diversity of needs and public goods? How do we show our institution represents a diversity of populations? What diversity of challenges of survival and growth does our institution face? And how do our institutions serve a diversity of individual needs?

Of course, first we must demonstrate what makes our institution uniquely valuable. While it is true that we are all working together to keep higher education and its need for support before the public, the way we actually do this is to tell people how our institution is worthy of their support. I’d like to comment on how one institution, my own, Pitzer College, fits within these categories.

Pitzer College offers an innovative liberal arts education focused on a deeper understanding of humankind within a governance structure that was designed to allow every voice to be heard equally and fully. Pitzer is part of a select group of just 30 national liberal arts colleges with acceptance rates under 39%. Women represent 58% of entering first-year students with students of color totaling 30%. Fifty percent of the Class of 2008 is from outside California, with students from 28 states and seven countries. Of course I think Pitzer is a very special place and with good reason.

Forty-two years ago selectivity was the least of Pitzer’s concerns. In February 1963, the College was founded—and today we remain the youngest undergraduate college among the five undergraduate Claremonts: Pomona, Scripps, Harvey Mudd, and Claremont McKenna. In April of 1963 our first president, John Atherton, a poet and artist, was installed, and over the next seventeen months he recruited students, faculty and trustees, established a curriculum, and constructed the campus’ academic and residence buildings—just time for the beginning of the fall 1964 semester. The first academic year began with 153 students from 16 states and five countries, and ten professors. In President Atherton’s brave words:

“Pitzer was built of dreams. We were the wonder child who came to transform the world. We certainly weren’t short of expectation. Our Claremont family had plans for us and we were to be a polite respectful new child and not unduly disturb our gracious grandmother Pomona—but like most healthy infants, we soon began to kick with our own desires. We thought a new College with ‘an emphasis on the social and behavioral sciences’ had a mandate to change the universe.”

For 42 years Pitzer has built its reputation around that statement. Every society needs a school for the loyal opposition, and at Pitzer, we built the “question authority” institution, and they came. Upon our founding we practiced determined egalitarianism, 42 years later we pride ourselves on recruiting many first generation and minority students. This student demographic is not noted for the deep pockets of parents. But it is noted for its spirit of community. Pitzer grew as a community of support and mutual respect and we continue to struggle to realize those ideals.

Schools like Pitzer are one part of the varied fabric of higher education. Select liberal arts colleges are a subset within the total 217 national liberal arts colleges and are defined by their admissions policies. Here are some data points to help you visualize just how small as a class of institutions our market share represents. Between the years 1967 and 1990, 167 private four-year colleges disappeared from the academic landscape ( Hawkens in Daedalus). Economists Michael McPherson and Morton Shapiro, in their 1999 article “The Future Economic Challenges for Liberal Arts Colleges,” estimated that out of the total 14 million students enrolled in higher education, only a quarter of a million were enrolled in liberal arts colleges. Of that number, fewer that 100,000 attend select liberal arts colleges—or approximately the capacity of the Los Angeles Coliseum. Today, only 4% of all American baccalaureate degrees are awarded by liberal arts colleges (Koblik in Daedalus). The west coast, to be specific Southern California, now boasts the greatest concentration of liberal arts colleges in America—a total of ten. We are a small slice of the pie indeed, yet I would argue that we are an enormously important contributor to the public good. Our successful alumni include such diverse individuals and careers as Fabian Nunez ’97, Speaker of the California Assembly; Debra Yang ’81, the first Asian American woman to serve as US Attorney; Gary Kates ’75, Dean of Faculty at Pomona College; and Bridget Baker ’81, Senior Vice President, NBC Universal Cable and 2004 winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Cable and Communication.

In a paper about select liberal arts colleges and diversity presented as part of a panel I chaired at the 1999 Modern Language Association conference, Elaine Hansen, President of Bates College, wrote that among this group of 45, “over the last two or three decades, we have seen enormous changes in the campus demographics… they are purposively, even aggressively aiming to be diverse communities, open to students from all parts of the globe, of various racial and ethnic cultures and, insofar as financial aid budgets allow, of different socio-economic backgrounds. Faculty and students at larger universities may in fact experience less ‘diversity’—even though their campuses will look more expansive, less bounded, more multicultural—because individuals need not associate across identity groupings with people whose backgrounds and interests are unlike their own. It is actually much easier to avoid close contact with difference on a large campus than on a small campus, where institutional practices and structures, together with the size of the community, oblige students and faculty to live and learn together.”

This ideal of community is practiced on a daily basis at Pitzer. We are a charter member of Project Pericles, a consortium of schools that emphasize education for social responsibility and participatory citizenship as an essential part of their curriculum. One of our core values is that excellence can only be achieved through diversity, and taken as a whole, the Pitzer community of faculty, staff, students, and trustees is a national leader for liberal arts colleges. At the close of the 2004 academic year, we set new institutional benchmarks for diversity: 46% of our staff are people of color and 65% are female. Our faculty also is increasingly diverse: 40% of the faculty are women and 32% are faculty of color. In the last three years the diversity of the Pitzer College Board of Trustees has steadily increased—Latino membership has doubled and women now outnumber men. The majority of my senior staff are female, with women holding the positions of Chief Financial Officer, Vice President for Advancement, and Associate Vice President for Public Relations and Marketing.

Since our interest here is Advancement as well as diversity, let me put a fine point on a question that may be inserting itself somewhere between the lines. Can a college that prides itself in the diversity of its students meet its fundraising goals? Within our community there is a strength of will that goes beyond pure economics and disposable income measures. During my time at Pitzer I have been greatly encouraged to see that as our college has increased its diversity our fundraising has been strengthened. Last year, the Annual Fund broke through and exceeded an ambitious goal of a 10% increase by in fact raising 15% over the previous year. Gifts from alumni and parents to the Fund grew at an even faster pace—21% for alumni and an astonishing 38% for parents—growth never before experienced. Our trustees continued to lead the Annual Fund giving efforts and exceeded their ambitious goal of a 10% increase. Where the Board leads, others will follow. The on-campus community continued to support the Annual Fund with participation from faculty and staff totaling 90%. I am particularly proud of the remarkable efforts of the 2004 senior class, who set a 96% participation rate for the senior gift. Last spring the College achieved an important milestone in our fundraising history as we surpassed the $40 million goal of our first comprehensive campaign, thus ending the campaign over its goal and early.

My college, like most of yours, faces myriad challenges in terms of survival and growth. It has been said that experimental colleges of the sixties such as Pitzer were meteor-like. That is, they were meant to burst brilliantly across the academic skies—and then disappear forever. Pitzer might have fit that description, yet these days we resemble less a meteor and more a comet. And speaking of comets, I’ll extend that allusion and make a Mark Twain connection. When Twain was born Halley’s comet was visible in the heavens. At his birth, Twain like Pitzer faced his fair share of skeptics. Unlike Pitzer, Twain’s first doubters were his parents. No one in his family much expected him to survive infancy, and his mother Jane later wrote, “he was a poor looking object to raise.”

Like Mark Twain, Pitzer College has made a tradition of reinventing itself every few years—we don’t bother with the easy questions and accountability is demanded. A novel I read often, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, possesses that same intentionality of spirit—Twain asked questions of himself and society so complex and multi-layered that we are still trying to come to terms with them today. Pitzer College’s success has always been measured in terms of how well we are doing with our mandate to change the universe.

A crucial measure of our success is how students feel about their Pitzer experience upon graduation. Last spring, a departing senior sent me a moving letter thoughtfully mirroring her four years with us: “The only thing that I have ever known about myself, and the way I wish to contribute to the world, is that I want to improve quality of life... my Pitzer education has reinforced that in me and broadened it, as I finally realize that I can fulfill my social responsibility in any way I choose, as long as I choose to do so... One of the most valuable things that I have learned here at Pitzer is that I can change the world from any angle.” Jessica's letter assured me that as more of the world learns of who and what we are, it will encounter a broadly applicable model for thought and action, and a model that will be solidly supported by alumni and friends of the College.

In Advancement, what is it that we do beyond but not apart from fundraising to promote the well-being of our institutions? We present our image to multiple publics. By generating among our listeners an appreciation for what we do individually, we can create a broad appreciation for, and provide a reminder that, higher education is the best resource for national strength, security, and prosperity. Within the broad divisions of labor that characterize higher education, we collectively work together to supply the world with critical thinkers, leaders, technically trained and competent specialists. At our best, we provide habits of analytical and reflective thought that democracies depend on.

We do not need to carry altruistic motives into the field in order to be effective in generating an appreciation of higher education in general. We do it by highlighting the strengths of our own university or college. Perhaps the one thing that we might stress more in our work is that it is the diversity among our institutions, the pluralism of our mission in higher education, that lends texture and fiber to our educated citizenry. And what do we offer our potential supporters? We give wider public institutions an opportunity to partner with us and become part of our mission.

The goals of diversity, both in the traditional sense of representation of the population in every opportunity area, and in terms of the strengths that arise from the diversity in higher education, are important to me. As an administrator and professor, my age, gender, and maternity have sometimes been conflated in attributing suitability or unsuitability to my effectiveness as a professional leader. When I was nominated for the presidency at Pitzer, I was immediately impressed with the College’s outstanding faculty and outspoken students. I also noted with appreciation that I would not be the College’s first female president, nor would I be its youngest or even second youngest president. I was well aware that women account for 21% of college and university presidents nationally. (According to ACE, the proportion of presidents who are racial or ethnic minorities totals 13%.) What convinced me to move my spouse and then six-year-old son to California were the institutional values that Pitzer actively practices.

Like Pitzer, I came into the world in the early 1960s and believe that this is the college I was destined to join. I was fortunate to have parents who were irrepressibly optimistic educators who dreamed of a greater society. It was my parents who taught me that life is about dissolving boundaries, not abiding by or creating them. My time spent in college as a student was largely well spent, all thirteen years of it, although it was marked by certain absences. In my decade plus as a student, I never saw a woman president (or heard of one) and never had a class with a professor of color or a tenured female professor. My role model for female leadership was my mother, an elementary school principal. When I started my teaching career in 1990 in the SUNY system, the literature courses I taught, African-American literature, Chinese-American Women’s literature, 19th century women’s literature, were all considered electives, not required for English majors. Encouraged by the President to move into administration, I discovered after the birth of my son that being the mother of a young child was an awkward fit within the administrative culture. Years later, I was invited to write an essay about this phase of my life by the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Labor Pains.” I wrote about the gender-based pressure that demanded me to prove that my motherhood would not “interfere” with my professionalism. The piece was affirming to write and with mixed feelings I received dozens of letters from women who had endured the same experience. I moved from New York in 1997 and accepted a position as Dean of the Faculty at Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I was often reminded that I was the first female dean in their 150 year history and that I didn’t “look” like a dean. I can understand why people were so disconcerted because frankly I was a statistical anomaly. Female chief academic officers constitute an even smaller number than female presidents. In 1999, while Dean, only 208 Chief Academic Officers were women out of a total of approximately 1,400 nationally. An indicator of the difficulty people had in placing me came when the local newspaper decided to do a story about my arrival, and the photographer asked if he could photograph me in my kitchen. I selected a different room.

I'm aware that I have shaped the concept of “diversity” in a number of ways, and some of the statistics I’ve cited indicate that much work remains to be done. Clearly we have not yet reached the end of our bus ride: Diversity in higher education remains an unfulfilled goal. On a more altruistic note, we must make sure that the people we work with and for represent a society that we are striving to create. In order for our journey to be successfully realized we must remain dedicated to fulfillment in all areas—admissions, faculty, staff, and administrators. We need to become sophisticated in our understanding of our achievements.

We are no longer in a pioneering phase of inclusion, even while we grow impatient that our goals have not yet been achieved. Let us speak with pride, and feature achievements to date so that we can raise the general public awareness of the importance of an evenly inclusive society with regard to all categories of person.

Each of us, by promoting the strengths of our individual institutions, do a service to enhancing the image of all. We must, though, extend our work to pointing to the strength that is contained within the diversity of the institutions of higher education in our country. Certainly at this juncture the future holds substantial challenge for the nation in many areas. Educational needs within a broader appreciation of the strength of increased diversity must be among our topmost priorities and not just a sign we quote along the way.

I will close today with a nod to a fellow magic bus rider and favorite son of San Francisco who began his tour in 1964, just like Pitzer College. Author Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters rode across America in their bus named “Further” and into American literary and cultural history. Their search was for meaning and creating a new understanding of existence. That too is where we must go—further. There is enormous promise waiting for us just around the bend. All we need to do is remember that “Our Mandate is to Change the Universe.”