Rising Stars: Leading a College with a conscience

Rising Stars: Leading a College with a conscience

Laura Skandera Trombley, Pitzer College

What does it mean to be recognized as a "college with a conscience"?

The phrase denotes an institution with "an administration committed to social responsibility and a student body actively engaged in serving society," says Robert Franek of The Princeton Review. "Education at these schools isn't only about private gain; it's about the public good."

At Pitzer College (Calif.), one of The Claremont Colleges, the label is a validation of the ideals and principles followed by President Laura Skandera Trombley, her staff, and her students. "Our students really try and practice what it means to be socially responsible on a daily basis," she says. "But the faculty, in their curriculum and in our various centers, really use that as an important academic component in what they do."

Pitzer prides itself on linking intellectual inquiry with interdisciplinary studies, cultural immersion, social responsibility, and community connectivity, a trait that even carries over to the school's alumni.


"Are we there yet? No, there are always things that you want to strive for that will make the institution stronger."

Skandera Trombley says the school received a generous monetary gift from alumni and parents last year, with a condition that most presidents could only hope for. "The funds came with the expectation that the college would know how to use this money in the appropriate way," she recalls.

A week after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast region, a first-year student told Skandera Trombley he wanted to assemble a group of Pitzer students to spend their fall break helping people in the affected areas, but he needed financial support. Because of the gift, the school was able to provide financial support to send the students to help with rebuilding efforts.

"This is why our community is so strong," Skandera Trombley says. "I have funding that's come from people who have a great deal of trust in our institutional integrity."

Skandera Trombley is known for her close connection to students and faculty at Pitzer, sharing regular meals with them in the cafeteria. "I consider myself at heart always a faculty member. I just have enormous respect for faculty, and I find our students to be incredibly inspiring, and really interesting, intelligent young people."

It's no secret that college presidents lead demanding lives, and it's certainly not uncommon for a president to get home at 10 or 11 p.m., after a day of meetings and events that began at 5:30 a.m. Skandera Trombley tries to make the most of her day, whether it is at Pitzer or on the road on a fundraising trip or speaking engagement.

"I absolutely pack in as much as I can, so what for most people might be a three- or four-day trip, I do in two," she says. "I don't want one minute where I'm not meeting somebody or engaged in business. I try and maximize my efficiency away from home, so I can maximize the time that I'm at home."

For her it's not a question of balance but of priorities-first of which is her family. She and her husband, artist Nelson Trombley, have a 10-year-old son, named for his father but known to all as Sparkey.

"Fortunately, Pitzer is an institution that appreciates working mothers, so I don't have to try and fit into an environment that would not be as accepting. My family is very much integrated into the life of the college, so in some ways there's a kind of seamlessness that exists at present."

With more college and university presidents assuming the role at a younger age, Skandera Trombley says the work-family issue is one that they need to be very vocal about. "You need to remain a human being and a family person," she says. "I've worked for two presidents and I've seen the toll that the position can take on them. I've seen how families can sometimes be pushed to the margin, but that's not something that I want in my life."

Between official duties and family life, most people would have a full day, but Skandera Trombley says she has a lot of energy, and "between the hours of 5 and 6 in the morning, and 10 and 11 at night" she can usually be found working on her other passion: the life of Mark Twain. She's nearly completed her third book on the author, and says the information she has uncovered is so compelling that it keeps her trudging back to the desk at 5 a.m. "I wouldn't recommend writing a biography this way, but it's the only way I can squeeze it in," she says.

Over the years, Skandera Trombley has become a leading Twain scholar, even appearing as a commentator in Ken Burns' 2002 documentary on the author. "I had all the sad parts," she jokes. "Whenever somebody died, I was on screen talking about it."

Her fascination with Twain began while she was at the University of Southern California, working toward her Ph.D. "I had fully intended to do my dissertation on the neo-platonic progression of William Wordsworth's The Prelude," she says, but a chance discovery set her on a very different path.

A professor asked her to check out a report that someone had a hundred letters supposedly written by Samuel Clemens. She traveled to Sacramento to meet with a philatelist who purchased the letters from a dealer for $50, hoping the stamps would be of value.

"The stamps were worthless and he was going to throw the letters away," Skandera Trombley says. "But his wife started to read them and said, 'I don't know who this guy is but he's funny. He tells a good story.'"

It wasn't long before they connected "S.L. Clemens" the letter writer to Mark Twain. What Skandera Trombley saw was a perspective on Clemens's life largely ignored by other biographers.

"These letters were written primarily to his daughters," she says. "I didn't even know he had daughters. I had this kind of classic American, solitary man image-for no particular reason other than that is what popular culture had given me. And here is Twain writing to his daughters saying, 'This is my best anecdote and I'm sending it to you because I know you won't lose it.' He was really treating them as intellectual equals." To date, Skandera Trombley is the only person to have read the entire collection of letters.

Intrigued by the find, she read through existing Twain biographies, and found them lacking in what she believes was a key ingredient in what shaped him as a writer and person.

"The daughters weren't really mentioned, they were just seen as totally extraneous. And when his wife was mentioned, it was either as a nullity or as someone who actually had a detrimental effect on his career," she says. "That seemed kind of odd considering that at the time Twain was the most famous man in the world. I thought this popular view doesn't really reconcile with the primary documents."

Her research showed that his wife, Olivia, who came from a well-educated, independent, and iconoclastic family, shaped many of Twain's political beliefs. "My argument is you wouldn't have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without his association with this very social reform-minded family."

Dropping Wordsworth, Skandera Trombley wrote her dissertation instead on Twain and the women in his life, culminating in the 1994 book Mark Twain in the Company of Women.

Her latest book focuses on Isabel Lyon, the controversial secretary that worked for Clemens in the last years of his life, and kept copious notes on everything he did. "A lot of questions about Twain's supposed melancholy and bitterness near the end of his life can be answered as a result of what this woman reveals."

That Skandera Trombley had recognized the influence of women in Twain's life isn't surprising, considering her own upbringing.

"In many ways, my principle guide was the example set by my parents," she says. "My mother was an elementary school principal in Los Angeles at a time when there was just one other woman in her district. My father elected to stay in the classroom; he spent 30 years as a second-grade teacher. So seeing a woman in a position of leadership was normal, and I thought the rest of the world worked that way. It wasn't until I grew up that I learned differently."

Today, she seeks counsel and guidance from fellow presidents and administrators she has known for many years. "I'm very fortunate to have people that I can trust to be honest with me and tell me when I'm doing something wrong," she says. "I also work with a top group of administrators here at Pitzer who have been in place since I arrived. We work together in a very cooperative fashion and we trust each other and seek each other's advice."

One piece of advice they shared with her was about handling the stresses of the job.

"The one thing you learn when you become a college president is how much you worry about everything: What's the stock market going to do? What are my students going to do Friday night?" she says. "You have to learn how to manage that stress and be more comfortable with it; otherwise you can have real difficulties working in this environment. My worries are not atypical, but when I walk in the door at the end of the day, I'm home and I try to leave work where it needs to be."

Skandera Trombley initiated Pitzer's first strategic planning process when she took office in 2002, and is pleased with the progress that has been made. Applications to the school have increased by 50 percent and annual giving has increased by 20 percent. The school also achieved a record 18 Fulbright Fellowships for the 2006-07 academic year.

Several building projects are under way, designed to enhance the community and reinforce Pitzer culture and identity. One of those projects, to be completed by the spring, is the Residential Life Project being constructed in the northeast part of the campus. The RLP will include student living space, visiting faculty apartments, art and music galleries, a writing center, and the school's admissions office. It will also be the first building of its kind to achieve Gold LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

"We are going to demonstrate to the world of higher education that you can build socially responsible, LEED-certified residence halls for students, and they will be beautiful, they will be affordable, and they will be educational," Skandera Trombley says. "For our institution, which really tries to practice sustainability, it is a huge deal. And it has not proven to be of huge additional cost. There are ways that you can build green that are quite affordable."

She notes with pride that effecting positive change is not easy, and often takes much longer. "Are we there yet? No, there are always things that you want to strive for that will make the institution stronger and allow us to afford an even better educational environment institution for our students," Skandera Trombley says. "I think we've done a great amount of work in a very short period of time. But that success only comes when everyone is working together and wants to move ahead."


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