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Coffee with Pomona President Oxtoby

I had coffee this morning -- tea, actually -- with David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College.

Pomona, founded in 1887, is the top liberal arts school in California and one of the best in the nation, with a record 6,700 applications this year for 380 seats in the freshman class. It's the founding member of the Claremont Colleges consortium. Students can swim in the Pacific Ocean in the morning, then drive to the mountains and ski.

("Must be rather tiring," as television's Basil Fawlty once observed.)

He was on his way out of town ahead of the "high-impact storm" bearing down on us.

Oxtoby has been president of Pomona since 2003. He is a well-known physical chemist, trained at Harvard and Berkeley, previously Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago. He still teaches a course in environmental chemistry.

Oxtoby05SeaverBio.jpg

Here is a brief Q and A, lightly edited for space.

Q: What do you think of the U.S. News rankings? (Pomona currently ranks sixth among liberal arts schools.)

A: That has helped our whole sector. In the 1980s, when U.S. News started, Pomona wasn't so well known nationally. Once it started showing up on lists, people started to take another look. The big flaw is that it is a linear ranking; it doesn't have dimensions. Frankly, that's all the public seems to want. [But] the fact that we appear so prominently, that has helped the whole sector.

Q: How will California's public colleges emerge from the downturn?

A: I think in the end, the top schools will come out a little diminished but not [suffering] a major loss. They will lose a few of their stars, through cherry picking. I think the state's going to turn around, I'm confident, in the end. It's fundamentally a very solid system with great faculty and great students.

Q: What about community colleges and the Cal State system?

A: Their budget gets cut, and they don't have any way to shield it. So those are the institutions I worry about more. You don't see the stars who leave, you don't notice it as much. And you can't do education on the cheap.

Q: A few years ago, Pomona became one of a few schools that meet full student need through grant aid. Can that continue?

A: It cost us several million dollars and continues to, every year. In our case, less than half of our financial aid is covered by our endowment. We do not have any plans to pull back. I won't ever say never. But I think this is a very important commitment to make to Pomona College students, even though our endowment has suffered.

Q: How are liberal arts schools weathering the downturn?

A: Everyone has challenges. Our challenge was the downturn in endowment. We draw 40 percent of our revenue from endowment. When the endowment goes down 25 percent. . . Do the math.

Q: And what about less well-endowed, tuition-dependent schools?

A: The challenge for them is, Can they maintain enrollment? Can they maintain a sufficient number of full-pay students? I think that some of the weakest schools will be struggling, and some of them may close. But I think as a sector, the value of a liberal education and the specific value of a liberal arts college has never been greater. We're teaching our students to think creatively, to work together in teams. These are the skills that are 21st Century skills. Some of the big universities, I worry more about their business model. Some of the things that we're doing at a liberal arts college can't be replaced by an online, for profit college.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  February 5, 2010; 11:13 AM ET
Categories:  Administration , Finance , Liberal Arts , Rankings  | Tags: California higher education, Pomona College, liberal arts, rankings  
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Comments

Interesting interview. Drop in endowment value another casualty of stock market disaster, etc.

Posted by: profstudent | February 5, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Despite the fact that Oxtoby sits atop a lofty perch in academe, he has made quite a number of great insights into the system as a whole. I have often thought of Oxtoby as one of our the intellectual of our nation's college presidents and in this piece he once again confirms this is still the case. Having said that, I might challenge his assumptions about 21st century skills. Pomona, Williams, Vassar, Carleton, Grinnell, Davidson and the like, have been teaching skills like creativity, teamwork, and thinking broadly about problems, for way too long to be accurately now called 21st century. If we want to rebrand this kind of education to give it the salience required for increasing public sentiment and support, then so be it, but let us call a spade a spade and remind everyone that it's places like Pomona that have been getting education 'right' for a very long time, and that we could learn a thing or two from their unapologetic embrace of the liberal arts, and in what it means to be "educated" rather than "skilled."

Posted by: EdObserver1 | February 6, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse


Despite the fact that Oxtoby sits atop a lofty perch in academe, he has made quite a number of great insights into the system as a whole. I have often thought of Oxtoby as one of the more intellectual of our nation's college presidents and in this piece he once again confirms this is still the case. Having said that, I might challenge his assumptions about 21st century skills. Pomona, Williams, Vassar, Carleton, Grinnell, Davidson and the like, have been teaching skills like creativity, teamwork, and thinking broadly about problems, for way too long to be accurately now called 21st century. If we want to rebrand this kind of education to give it the salience required for increasing public sentiment and support, then so be it, but let us call a spade a spade and remind everyone that it's places like Pomona that have been getting education 'right' for a very long time, and that we could learn a thing or two from their unapologetic embrace of the liberal arts, and in what it means to be "educated" rather than "skilled.

Posted by: EdObserver1 | February 6, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I would take issue with the characterization that Pomona is the "top liberal arts school in California". With two recent presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Jack Kemp, one Democratic and one Republican, one successful and one not, I'd suggest that Occidental College is California's top liberal arts college. National leaders from Pomona? Not so much.

And Oxy is much closer to the beaches than Pomona, as well as closer to everything that's happening in downtown LA. Pomona does have far more smog, however. I'll give it that!

Posted by: sbgoldrick | February 9, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

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