By Ali Valdrighi
To be perfectly honest, I was initially nervous when I set out to interview Pomona College President David Oxtoby (ΦBK, Harvard University, 1974). Oxtoby graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University, obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, authored over 100 scientific papers on the chemical aspects of climate change, and even has a Wikipedia page. This seemed slightly intimidating, to say the least.
When I first arrived at his office, I was asked to wait in the lobby. Every Friday from 9-10 a.m. Oxtoby holds office hours to meet with students and to address their concerns. An eager student had jumped ahead of me, sliding in promptly at 9:01 a.m., to discuss (if my shameless eavesdropping was accurate) his concerns over class scheduling and to chat about his summer experience. I was surprised and impressed that Oxtoby, with all the demands of his position, had set aside this much time to simply speak with students.
Oxtoby, however, said that interacting with students is his favorite part of the job. “I really love the chance to talk to students in a different setting,” Oxtoby said. “That is what is nice about a smaller college; at a bigger university you are off campus a lot and do not really get the chance to know the students.” Not only does Oxtoby hold student office hours, but he also hosts social events. The most memorable of these is the “First Year Picnic” in which all the Pomona freshmen are invited to his house. “It’s just fun to talk to students and get a sense of what they are interested in,” Oxtoby said.
When asked about his favorite part of being a Phi Beta Kappa member, Oxtoby remained focused on students. “I have really appreciated getting to know Phi Beta Kappa students at Pomona. The spring reception is one of my favorite events, including the opportunity to meet family members,” Oxtoby said. He said that having a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Pomona has been valuable in fostering faculty/student connections outside of the classroom.
Oxtoby’s support of students is reflected in the policies he has introduced to Pomona which attempt to cultivate a more diverse student body. In a 2014 New York Times article, David Leonhardt listed Pomona as one of the top schools with a commitment to economic diversity. Despite excelling academically, many economically disadvantaged students are unable to attend “top colleges” and may never graduate from any college due to lack of opportunities. Ironically, economically disadvantaged students graduating from top schools show greater increases in their earnings after college than their upper-middle class counterparts who do not show significant salary differences based on the school they attend.
Oxtoby said financial aid and the diversity of the student body is an important goal. “There has been a big focus on trying to get the word out more broadly,” Oxtoby said. “We have doubled the number of students who are currently Pell eligible.” Oxtoby has also focused on increasing the international presence at Pomona which has grown from 2% to 10% during his presidency. Previously, Pomona had not recruited outside the country and offered little financial aid to international students. “We have made financial aid more available and since many places do not have much financial aid for international students, we have gotten some amazing students,” Oxtoby said.
Despite his overwhelming schedule as president, Oxtoby still finds the time to co-teach an environmental chemistry course offered at Pomona College. In his free time, he also enjoys music and art. “I really enjoy classical music whether on campus, which is amazing quality, or the downtown Philharmonic opera,” Oxtoby said. He is also fond of bicycling though has yet to tackle the challenging bike ride up Mount Baldy, which looms over Pomona’s campus.
Overall, Oxtoby thinks Pomona is a special place and is working to improve it further. “Pomona has the best of both worlds: we have a small liberal arts college, but opportunities from the other Claremont colleges,” Oxtoby said. “The California location is not only beautiful, but there is also a greater willingness to take chances and to be daring.”
Ali Valdrighi is a senior at Pomona College majoring in neuroscience. Pomona College is home to the Gamma of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.