Laura Skandera Trombley, a gifted scholar, proven leader, and passionate advocate for liberal-arts education, is Southwestern University’s 16th President. She is the first woman chosen to lead Texas’s first university.
Trombley is the former president of the University of Bridgeport, as well as president emerita of Pitzer College and The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Trombley is also emerita chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, appointed to the position by President Barack Obama in 2015. Previously, she served as vice president for academic affairs at Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Recognized by her peers as a champion of liberal-arts institutions, Trombley’s leadership has earned praise for her ability to raise sustainability awareness, establish best-in-class university operations, and drive exponential growth in fundraising. Under her leadership, both Pitzer College and University of Bridgeport experienced transformational change, realizing a dramatic improvement in the schools’ national rankings and fundraising capabilities.
Trombley is a preeminent Mark Twain scholar. Her most recent book is Mark Twain’s Other Woman (Knopf, 2011). Her first book, Mark Twain in the Company of Women (University of Pennsylvania Press), was published in 1994. In May 2018, The Huntington Library presented her with the Dixon Wecter Distinguished Professor of American Literature Award; in August 2017, the Mark Twain Circle of America awarded her the Louis J. Budd Award for excellence in scholarly achievement; and in July 2013, she was recognized as the inaugural Thomas Nast Gastprofessur by the University of Koblenz–Landau.
As a graduate student, Trombley was the first scholar to examine and catalog the largest cache of Mark Twain letters to date (the discovery was highlighted in a featured essay in Los Angeles Times Magazine). The unprecedented trove of 100 letters became the primary resource for her doctoral thesis and ultimately her first book, Mark Twain in the Company of Women, which Choice selected as one of the outstanding academic books of 1995. The discovery also solidified her reputation as a preeminent Twain scholar and encouraged her to continue her studies of the author. She cowrote and coedited Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship (coedited with Michael Kiskis; University of Missouri Press, 2001) and appeared in the 2002 Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain, as well as in the 2017 documentary Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland.
Trombley’s scholarly articles have appeared in the Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. She has edited two other books as well: Critical Essays on Maxine Hong Kingston (G. K. Hall, 1998) and Epistemology: Turning Points in the History of Poetic Knowledge (coedited with Roland Hagenbuechle; Fredrich Pustat, 1986). She remains an active scholar, with her chapter, “Gender Issues,” appearing in the essay collection Mark Twain in Context (edited by John Bird; University of Cambridge, 2020). She has also been invited by sculptor Charles Ray to contribute an essay about Mark Twain in his catalog for two upcoming major solo exhibitions presented at the Centre Pompidou and at the Pinault Collection, housed in the Bourse de Commerce, both in Paris.
Trombley has redefined the role of women in academic leadership. In addition to breaking boundaries as Southwestern University’s first female president, Trombley was the first woman to hold the title of vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College and was the first woman president of the Huntington Library. Over the years, Trombley has also written extensively about the underrepresentation of women and people of color in academia, including in a piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015. While president of Pitzer College, she created a special assistant to the president position to encourage women and people of color to consider administration as a career pathway. She is a public intellectual whose work in the humanities and higher education has sparked lively debates in the academic and nonprofit communities.
A California native and the daughter of two educators, Trombley enrolled at the age of 16 as a first-year student at Pepperdine University and subsequently earned her bachelor of arts in English/humanities. She remained at Pepperdine to complete a master of arts in English, graduating summa cum laude. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California as a Virginia Barbara Middleton Scholar and a recipient of the Lester and Irene Finkelstein Fellowship for Outstanding Humanities Student. Her teaching career began at the University of Southern California when she was 22. She was granted early tenure by SUNY—The State University of New York and was named to her first presidency at age 40.
A keynote speaker, session chair, or participant in dozens of academic and professional gatherings, Trombley has been a speaker at TEDxFulbright twice and regularly shares her insights into higher education, leadership, and the humanities for a variety of organizations, including the Association of Governing Boards, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
From 2002 to 2015, Trombley led some of the most transformative programs ever undertaken at Pitzer College, resulting in a drastic upturn in selectivity and dramatically improving the school’s rankings in the U.S. News and World Report from 70th to 32nd—an accomplishment no other college has equaled. Trombley, who joined the Fulbright Senior Specialists roster in 2004, established Pitzer College as the national leader in Fulbright Fellowships per 1,000 students for 10 years. From 2010 to 2015, Pitzer College was also the top producer of Fulbright award recipients among all liberal-arts colleges in the U.S.
Another defining aspect of Trombley’s presidency at Pitzer was her dedication to sustainability and environmental studies. She directed the construction of eight LEED-certified, mixed-use residential buildings; now 48% of all Pitzer buildings are LEED certified.
Trombley is dedicated to increasing access for all students. Under her leadership, Pitzer was the first college or university in California to make the SAT optional, and she also set a new standard for representation, with Pitzer tenure-track female faculty more than 50% and faculty of color more than 30%. She founded three scholarships at Pitzer College: the John Skandera Memorial Scholarship, the Laura Skandera Trombley Endowed Scholarship, and the Laura Skandera Trombley Humanities and Arts Endowed Research and Internship Fund.
At The Huntington, Trombley ushered in a new era of transparency, accountability, and increased revenues. In her first year, she raised $39.4 million—a $10 million increase over the previous year—and achieved record earned revenue amounts for admissions, The Huntington Store, and dining. The institution’s combined earned revenue reached a total of $11.3 million, a $1.4 million increase over the previous year. She expanded open hours by 130%, creating greater access for Los Angeles families to come and visit, thereby establishing a new record for attendance at The Huntington, with 40,000 member families and 725,759 visitors.
To honor Huntington staff, Trombley created annual recognition awards. She negotiated a new agreement between The Huntington and the University of Southern California (USC) for The Huntington–USC Institute on California and the West and the USC–Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute; exhibited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Orbit Pavilion to outstanding attendance and reviews; and secured a future exhibition of the pistols used by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr during their historic duel. In fall 2016, the Huntington celebrated the opening of the Jonathan and Karin Fielding Wing, a $10.3 million expansion of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art that was designed by Frederick Fisher. Trombley stepped down from her presidency at the museum in 2017.
After a year’s sabbatical spent consulting for two foundations, writing her sixth book, Riding with Mark Twain (in progress), and teaching at the University of Southern California, Trombley accepted the presidency of the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut. She was hired to reverse three consecutive years of budget deficits and to lend her expertise to finding new solutions for underrepresented students and university governance and structure.
The University of Bridgeport benefited from Trombley’s ability to manage operational budgets, as well as her extensive experience in fundraising. Trombley identified savings of more than $10 million dollars from the operational budget; negotiated new contracts with all of the University’s major vendors, resulting in millions of additional savings; and entered into two memoranda of understanding for real-estate development projects that will feature housing and amenities such as a recreational facility, a market, a pharmacy, and food service, with new employment opportunities for students and area residents.
In the fall of 2019, the University of Bridgeport rose in U.S. News and World Report rankings, leaving its regional distinction behind and moving into the national university category. The University was also ranked as the 39th most ethnically diverse national university and 119th in the top performers for social mobility. Money Magazine also included the university for the first time on their “Money’s Best Colleges” list.
Trombley has been a member of numerous organizations that advocate for service, higher education, scholarship, gender equality, and improved female representation in business networks: Rotary International, the National Council for Research on Women, the Council of Presidents of the Association of Governing Boards, the Council on Foreign Relations Higher Education Working Group on Global Issues, the Young Presidents Organization, the Chief Executive Organization, The Zamarano Club, The Mark Twain Circle of America, and The Southern California Forum of The Trusteeship of the International Women’s Forum.
Trombley is the proud mother of a son, a recent college graduate. She took office as president of Southwestern University in July 2020.