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Stray Thoughts: The End of an Era

01-stray-thoughtsNearly 14 years ago I wrote a column about the imminent departure of Pomona’s eighth president. It began with these words: “A college president is remembered for a word, a deed, a gesture—something personal to each one of us. A presidency, however, is remembered for more enduring things.”

Forgive me for falling back on old words, but I can’t think of better ones as we now prepare to say goodbye to Pomona’s ninth president.

Personally, I’m sure the first thing I will remember about David Oxtoby is his phenomenal energy—the kind of energy required to take a red-eye to the East Coast, rush from meeting to meeting at a breakneck pace till long after dark, then fly home just in time to hurl himself into another trying 12-hour day—and do it day after day, month after month. Of course, I’ll also remember a particularly humanizing moment when that brutal schedule finally caught up with him, causing his eyelids to droop during a long, boring meeting.

And there are other indelible memories—like the carefully articulated Spanish in which he always addressed the gathering at the annual holiday luncheon for college staff in order to ensure that everyone was included in his message. Or the refreshing honesty and quiet civility with which he faced the inevitable storms that struck his presidency.

But that’s just my list. Others will have lists of their own—good memories and bad, but rarely indifferent. That’s a fact of life for college presidents—especially those who remain on the job for a decade or more. They tend to arouse strong feelings, one way or the other.

Which brings us to the question of how history will remember the Oxtoby presidency—and the corollary question of how much of the credit should go to the person at the top.

David Oxtoby would be the first to point out that college presidents accomplish very little by themselves. In looking back at these 13-plus years, he prefers to talk about the College family as a whole and what we have accomplished together. However, the truth is that institutional progress is a messy business, full of fits and starts that can easily devolve into a morass of conflict and well-intentioned ineffectiveness. It takes a rare combination of temperament and skills in order to manage it successfully.

Indeed, very little of consequence happens at a place like Pomona without bearing the president’s fingerprints in some way or other—through an overall vision, a specific goal, a set of priorities, a mediation between warring parties, or simply a well-timed word of encouragement. In this particular case, I think some of the biggest accomplishments of the Oxtoby years—like the dramatic upturn in the diversity of the student body or the highly successful Daring Minds Campaign—have his fingerprints all over them.

There are still eight busy months to go in the Oxtoby era, but even as the work goes on, the institution is beginning to look forward—with sadness, nostalgia, excitement and trepidation—to the dawn of a new era. But before we turn that page, we invite you to join us for a look back at the Oxtoby years, with a focus on both a transformational presidency and the remarkable person behind it.