When our Presidential Search Advisory Committee in September 2019 undertook the challenging task of replacing Ed Burger as Southwestern’s president, we identified the attributes that we desired in his successor. Six months later, we had found our ideal candidate.
One attribute we sought was “[e]xperience as … an administrator … at a national liberal arts college.” The president of Pitzer College from 2002 to 2015, and a passionate advocate for the liberal arts, Laura Skandera Trombley had precisely the type of experience we sought. Her success at Pitzer, which included the unprecedented accomplishment of improving Pitzer’s national rankings by U.S News and World Report from 70th to 32nd and establishing Pitzer as the top producer of Fulbright award recipients in the country from 2010 to 2015, was stunning. Her subsequent presidencies at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens and at the University of Bridgeport saw similar accomplishments. During her short 16-month tenure at Southwestern, she has demonstrated repeatedly her administrative skills, and our U.S. News ranking has risen from 102nd to 98th; I am confident that we will see continued progress on that front.
Another desirable attribute we identified was accomplished scholarship. President Trombley is a Mark Twain scholar of the first order. Her Twain scholarship has earned her prestigious awards from The Huntington
Library and from the Mark Twain Circle of America. In 2019 the Mark Twain Journal named her a Legacy Scholar for her efforts in rehabilitating the intellectual reputations of the women in Twain’s life. She jokes that she knows more about the women who surrounded Mark Twain than anyone else in the world. She has continued to pursue her Twain scholarship since arriving at Southwestern with an article expected to be published in a high profile academic journal in coming months.
We also wanted a president with “a demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity, inclusive excellence, and belonging with an emphasis on [further] diversifying [our faculty, staff, and board to make those constituencies look more like our student body.]” President Trombley has written extensively about the underrepresentation of women and of people of color in academia, and she also has taken action to address those shortcomings: when she left Pitzer more than 50% of tenure-track faculty were female and more than 30% people of color. Shortly after arriving at Southwestern, she assembled a 19-person task force that has now produced a five-year tactical plan, which the board has unanimously approved; a key tenet of that plan is “[b]uilding and sustaining a culture of Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity … for students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni, and trustees to emphasize our commitment and identity as an institution.”
Another desired attribute was financial acumen. In all three of her prior presidencies, President Trombley has demonstrated strong financial skills. In her first year at The Huntington, she helped raise over $39 million—a $10 million increase over the previous year—and achieved record earned
revenue from admissions. At the University of Bridgeport she identified $10 million in budgetary savings, saved millions more by renegotiating contracts with all major vendors, and entered into two memoranda of understanding for major real-estate development projects. Her financial success has continued at Southwestern. During her first full year at Southwestern, gifts to the University increased from $8.5 million to $12.1 million, alumni participation in giving increased from 20% to nearly 26%, and, remarkably, the University ended that most challenging year with a surplus.
Finally, we wanted a president who would be “able to make informed and timely decisions about matters of institutional significance.” In setting that goal, none of us on the committee had anything as significant as a global pandemic in mind, but we ended up with a president who now has “been there and done that.” And with the help and support of the entire Southwestern community, President Trombley has done it in spectacular fashion. During the 2020–21 academic year, approximately 70% of all classes were conducted in person, we had the second-largest student body in our history, and our low COVID-19 positivity rate was the envy of most of our peer institutions. And the current academic year so far has been even better. As some you may have seen on our website, the number of students isolating or quarantining on campus as of today is zero.
Consistent with the desires of our board, the search advisory committee sought a president who could and would make Southwestern all it can be.
I am confident that we have found that person in Laura Skandera Trombley.
Now, let the investiture of Southwestern’s 16th president begin.