Melvin Lee Oliver grew up with a simple, powerful refrain in his household: “You’re going to college.” While neither his mother nor father had graduated from high school, there was no question in their minds that their son was college bound. Oliver’s parents also instilled the belief that social justice and racial equality are human rights—convictions that would lay the foundation for his 45-year career in education and philanthropy.
“My life experience and passion for understanding social inequality drove me to college and beyond,” said Oliver, who co-authored with Thomas M. Shapiro the seminal work Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.
On July 1, 2016, the man who was the first in his family to go to college became Pitzer’s sixth president and the first Black president of any of Claremont’s five undergraduate colleges. President Oliver went on to lead the College for six years. They were challenging, tumultuous, and triumphant times at Pitzer, in the nation, and around the world—and personally, too, as he underwent treatment for a rare bone marrow disorder.
“As a community, we have struggled together through critical campus issues, come together to develop a strategic plan for our future, planned thoughtfully and strategically for the expansion of our sciences program, and faced down a global pandemic to preserve the health and safety of our community,” he wrote in February when he shared his plans to retire. “All these things we did together, and always with Pitzer’s best interests at the forefront.”
In April, at the last College Council meeting of the academic year, Dean of Faculty Allen Omoto thanked President Oliver for his leadership and highlighted many of his accomplishments.
“During your time here, you have championed faculty scholarship and teaching, supported the work and professional development of staff, been attentive and receptive to students and their needs, and heard the concerns, and praise, raised by families and alumni,” Omoto said.
The dean said President Oliver strengthened and diversified the Board, increased communication between the Board and on-campus community, and effectively represented the College within the Claremont consortium and many external stakeholders.
“You have done all this with full commitment, humanity, and compassion,” Omoto said. “You have been steadfast and steadying for the College while pointing us toward a brighter future.”
President Oliver’s wife, Suzanne Oliver—who he calls his best friend and “MVP in the game of life”—was his partner throughout. Both Olivers have been “stalwart supporters and promoters of Pitzer and everything Pitzer stands for,” said Jill A. Klein P’15, Pitzer’s interim president.
One of President Oliver’s signature contributions now bears his name: the Melvin L. Oliver Racial Justice Initiative. When he announced the initiative in 2020, five days after George Floyd was murdered by police, Oliver said he had spent his professional life studying the sources of racial violence and developing ways to address it. The initiative would infuse this work throughout the curriculum and beyond, drawing on what Pitzer does best: to take “scholarship and community engagement and direct it at the most intractable of problems,” he wrote.
On President Oliver’s last day in office, June 30, 2022, he thanked Pitzer’s students, faculty, staff, alumni, families, and friends for “moving the College from strength to greater strength.”
“I am grateful to you for your devotion to this special institution,” said Oliver, who became a trustee emeritus upon his retirement. “It is a devotion to our core values, a devotion to challenging the status quo, and a devotion to always seeking to create a better world.”
Right Person for the Right College: The Presidential Search
Interim President Jill A. Klein calls herself “the transition to the transition” to the next president who will share that devotion to creating a better world.
Klein stepped into office on July 1, bringing to the interim role 21 years of experience as a professor, dean, and administrator at American University. An academic leader and educator, Klein is also a former Pitzer trustee and forever Pitzer parent (her daughter, Susie, graduated from Pitzer in 2015).
In a recent message to the community, Klein said Pitzer is approaching the presidential search by “listening, learning, and considering a variety of viewpoints.” After conducting listening sessions and developing a profile of the qualities desired in Pitzer’s next leader this spring, the Presidential Search Committee and the executive search firm WittKieffer embarked on national outreach and recruitment.
Interviews with semi-finalist candidates are scheduled for this fall. The committee aims to interview finalists and make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees by the end of November, putting the College on track for the next president to take office by the start of the 2023–24 academic year.
Pitzer Trustee Thomas Brock ’83, chair of the presidential search committee, said candidates for the position will be drawn to Pitzer by the opportunity to lead a college whose core values are “right for this moment.”
“Presidential candidates see that Pitzer’s commitment to social justice, environmental sustainability, and intercultural understanding are not just words on paper but are reflected in the College’s academic programs and strategic initiatives,” Brock said. “Candidates also see that Pitzer is in a strong position institutionally, with intense interest from prospective students, remarkable alumni, and exceptional faculty and staff.”
Pitzer’s seventh president will continue what its first president, John Atherton, described as the College’s “common quest for truth, justice, and love in a world desperately in need of them all.”
To learn more, please visit Pitzer’s presidential search page.