Summer 2024 /Global Pomona/

Outgoing Board of Trustees Chair Sam Glick ’04: ‘The proverbial Pomona bubble has been popped.’

Sam Glick ’04, chair of the Pomona College Board of Trustees since 2015, reflects on his time leading the board as he passes the torch to Janet Inskeep Benton ’79 on July 1. Glick spoke with Chief Communications Officer Mark Kendall, who started at Pomona the year Glick graduated.
Sam Glick ’04

Sam Glick ’04

PCM: You’ve served 16 years on the board, with four more years ahead. What’s the most significant change you’ve seen for the College during that time? And why is it important?

Glick: For many years, and many generations, we talked about a liberal arts education as being this almost kind of monastic pursuit. It was a way to study, and a way to examine the world, where you went away for four years and you learned how to adopt a new lens, learned how to look at the world in a different way. Pomona taught you skills, and you would then be launched out into the world, ready to make a difference. The shift I’ve seen in my time on the board is that Pomona is now very much part of the world. The proverbial Pomona bubble has been popped. I think it’s been popped from the inside and from the outside. I don’t know which one came first, but we’ve long known that the liberal arts are contemporary and relevant to all of the issues that the world is facing; now engaging directly with those issues is fully part of a Pomona education, not something that comes afterwards.

Look at our faculty, from their diverse backgrounds before coming to Pomona to the kinds of research they do now—much of which deals directly with real-world challenges related to the environment, social policy, healthcare, global politics, artificial intelligence and more. Look at the Draper Center, which is an extraordinary resource that allows us to bring the talents of Pomona people to the communities around us. Look at the kinds of speakers we bring to campus. We are taking the power of the liberal arts and using it to influence the world while we make the issues of the world front and center on our campus. That’s truly compelling.

PCM: How has the bubble popped, as you put it, from the inside?

Glick: I think the greatest internal change is a far greater appreciation for the shadow that Pomona casts. When I was a student, it was almost a joke: We had the “Harvard: The Pomona College of the East” T-shirts in the Coop Store. All your friends thought you went to Cal Poly Pomona. We were proud of Pomona being this sort of secret that it was. But first under David Oxtoby and, now under President [G. Gabrielle] Starr, we have become far more confident in our role in the world. We have said to ourselves that we may only educate 1,700 or so students at a given time, but we can have an influence on the course of higher education in ways far greater than that. Whether through the kind of thought leadership that President Starr has been doing, or the STEM cohort programs that have served as models for other colleges, or the amazing Benton Museum [of Art] that really is a regional resource, Pomona is not a secret anymore. We’re still appropriately modest, and I don’t ever want us to lose that. But we really do have a big impact on the world, well beyond the amazing students we launch. And to me that’s incredibly exciting.

PCM: Reflecting on your own time at Pomona, how did our version of the liberal arts shape your life?

Glick: Oh, in so many ways. I grew up in Southern California. We lived in the low desert; my family was in the citrus nursery business in Thermal, about halfway between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea. I went to a big public high school and the whole junior class took the ASVAB [the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery]. We had four counselors for the whole 2,000 or so of us. If you were a good student, you got handed a UC [University of California] application, and off you went.

I had an English teacher whose husband had gone to one of The Claremont Colleges and she said to my best friend and me, “You know, you should take a look at those schools in Claremont.” We were 17 and you got a free day off school if you were on a college tour, which was all the incentive we needed. And so we drove to Claremont.

When I toured Pomona, it was fundamentally different than any place I had ever seen before. The campus was gorgeous; it looked like the nicest golf courses in the desert where I grew up. I sat in on a class, and I met students who were talking about all sorts of ideas I hadn’t even imagined. And so I applied Early Decision, as did my best friend. We both got in and never looked back.

Until I arrived at Pomona, I thought the liberal arts were invented in Claremont, California; I didn’t even know this was a category of school, honest to goodness. I would have gone to UC Riverside otherwise. I had toured the Citrus Experiment Station there, since citrus was the family business. And I would have done perfectly well, but I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Pomona College taught me to write and communicate and analyze and think and be creative in ways that I just hadn’t considered before.

I came to Pomona, as many high school students do, thinking there was a right and a wrong way to do things and as long as you were right, that was all that mattered. Pomona taught me the art of taking multiple perspectives, of persuasion, of immersing yourself in a different way of thinking. You still need to know what the facts are; that’s critical. But so much of what I do is taking others’ perspectives, bouncing them up against my own and communicating in ways that hopefully allow both of those perspectives to evolve. And frankly, that’s how I’ve led the board for nine years. It’s come full circle in that way.

PCM: You have a compelling Pomona story. At the same time, there’s deep and growing skepticism about higher education. Why do you think that is? And how can Pomona play a role in addressing that?

Glick: Frankly, some of that skepticism is warranted. You know, we have—and by “we” I mean not just Pomona College but higher education broadly, or at least elite higher education—for the vast majority of our history been more exclusive than inclusive. Elite colleges and universities are probably the only charitable organizations in the country that brag about how few people we serve. If you went to a hospital or a soup kitchen and they said, “Isn’t it amazing, we turned away more than 90% of the people who could benefit from us,” you’d think that was absurd. But when we have elite higher ed publishing admissions rates that are in the single digits, that’s fundamentally what we’re saying, right?

I think higher education needs to tackle how we become more inclusive. How do we become more accessible? How do we become more affordable? How do we make it so more people can benefit from the wonderful things that we do? Those are real challenges that we should take seriously.

Some of the skepticism, however, is more about the nature of higher education as an enterprise—a nature that shouldn’t change. The students we attract are not fully formed; we are part of that formation as students try on different ideas and test the boundaries on all sorts of issues. Similarly, the best faculty are bold and provocative, engaging in the major issues of the day. And they should be. We stand for excellence and for progress and for academic freedom. Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. That’s the nature of it. What’s changed in recent years is that, due to the internet and social media, the broader public has hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute exposure to the messiness that makes college campuses what they are. The boundaries between our community and broader society are blurring. That’s one of the downsides to the bubble popping.

At Pomona, we are doing many things that are amazing. Our commitment to financial aid is second to none. We have made great strides in terms of not just attracting a diverse student body, but creating an environment where every student can thrive. Our faculty are extraordinary, and our students learn from them and work on research with them shoulder-to-shoulder. I have, in my role as board chair, probably talked to hundreds if not thousands of alumni. And the most common reason people feel connected to Pomona is because some faculty member changed their lives. Very few schools can say all of this. We must continue to lead in these areas.

I also believe liberal arts colleges, and Pomona specifically, are more important than ever. When we talk about the skills of the liberal arts, we often refer to analyzing and writing; perhaps presenting or speaking as well. In today’s society, I’d add listening to that. Listening may be the most important skill of the liberal arts. Taking someone else’s perspective requires training and practice. At our best, we are a place designed for dialogue, designed for people to understand each other as humans, not in positional kinds of ways. We must lead on that.

PCM: President Starr has often alluded to the underrepresentation of students from the middle-income spectrum in the U.S., and we’ve launched an initiative to attract and enroll more middle-income students. Why is this important?

Glick: I’m a huge supporter of where President Starr is going in terms of increasing the number of middle-income students who have access to the life-changing education we offer. We have made great strides in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, gender diversity, bringing in international students, you name it. But like most institutions like us, we skew towards those students with high incomes at least by national standards, with a meaningful but smaller number of students of very modest means. Someone described it to me as a “whale” distribution. If you imagine what the silhouette of a whale looks like, that’s about right.

When you have that kind of “whale” distribution, it changes the environment on campus, in that it creates a polarized environment of haves and have-nots. And I think that’s important to address. It also means that the people who grow up as the children of teachers and nurses and accountants are largely being served by a different class of school, which is mostly state institutions. They’re not even considering Pomona College, and we see that. Those state institutions are perfectly good. But they’re not providing the kind of liberal arts experience that you and I were just talking about, and I think everybody deserves access to it. So it’s an issue we have to take on in the years ahead.

PCM: The past academic year brought significant protest movements to campus, with many students and faculty pushing for steps such as divestment from—and/or an academic boycott of—Israel. Other people were opposed and concerned about the climate on campus for different viewpoints. How do you respond to this?

Glick: I try to start from a human place, before I remind myself of my responsibilities as board chair. The current war continues to take an immense human toll, and as we speak today people are starving and dying and living in fear in ways most of us who are privileged enough to live in the U.S. can’t even imagine. We need to acknowledge that Pomona is not isolated from that world; we are part of that world, and many of our students, our staff, our faculty and our alumni are sad and angry and frustrated. We need to make Pomona an environment in which people can express those feelings and can channel their anger and their hurt and their disappointment into productive, ethical activism to make the world a better place. We have a long tradition of activism at Pomona College. It is not lost on me that the epicenter of the activities of the past year has been Marston Quad, which is mere steps from where some of the archives of Myrlie Evers-Williams [Class of 1968], the great civil rights icon, are kept.

At the same time, we also need to make Pomona a place where everybody feels welcome, safe and free to express themselves, regardless of their identity or worldview. And this particular conflict, perhaps more so than almost any conflict, has political, religious and racial dimensions we can’t ignore. Even if there happen to be views that a majority of people on campus hold, those aren’t institutional views. And I think that’s one of the really important things I have learned as board chair: The role of the board is to provide resources and ensure the conditions exist for meaningful, productive, inclusive analysis and debate, but not to take sides in those debates. Sometimes that role can be frustrating for trustees, all of whom hold their own personal views, too. But it’s a critical one as we lead Pomona for the long term.

PCM: As we close, what do you see as the most urgent issue on the horizon for Pomona College?

Glick: Pomona College is in a very good place. One of the things I’ve gotten to do in this role as board chair is to learn about the higher education landscape more generally. And it’s clear that there are institutions that are struggling with attracting enough students. They are struggling to attract faculty, and to pay those faculty. They have facilities that are in bad shape. We don’t have those issues at Pomona, and I’m very grateful to the generations of trustees and donors before me who have made that the case.

There are two big challenges for Pomona. The first is that we not get too comfortable. It would be easy for Pomona just to keep being what we are today while the world changes around us. And it’s part of why I’m so proud that we recruited President Starr to come here. She challenges us every day. We can’t be complacent. We can’t say that we’ve just always done things a particular way and be satisfied.

The other challenge for Pomona is countering the polarization of society. We have seen the effects of polarization on campus in this past year with the war in the Middle East. What we do as a liberal arts institution does not work if we can’t listen and talk to each other, if we can’t take each other’s perspectives and genuinely get inside each other’s minds. We must continue to produce students who are both broad-minded and open-minded. To me, that’s critical.