Dr. G. Gabrielle Starr will become Pomona College’s 10th president on July 1st, 2017 after current president David Oxtoby steps down. She is a scholar of English and cognitive neuroscience and is currently serving as the Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science at New York University. Dr. Starr was kind enough answer some questions that I sent to her on behalf of the Independent regarding her thoughts on issues such as a need-blind admissions process for international students, the role of safe spaces on campus, and how to improve upon the services that Pomona provides. What follows are the questions posed to Dr. Starr and her answers, edited for concision and clarity.
CI: Under the current administration, Pomona College has undergone a lot of growth: Pomona achieved the top slot in Forbes’ 2015 college ranking and the class of 2018, consisting of roughly 450 students, is the largest in our school’s history. Yet, Pomona also prides itself on its position as a small liberal arts college with a focus on academics. How do you plan on reconciling the need for Pomona to continue to grow and adapt while also maintaining its unique place in academia?
GS: Pomona is built on the idea that rigorous thinking, exploration, and discovery ought to occur in intimate communities of scholars, and I fully agree. The unique strength of Pomona, however, is that close links with The Claremont Colleges enrich the possibilities for intellectual growth for everyone. I don’t think that “growth” always means increasing the number of students in such a context. Growth for a liberal arts college means continually expanding knowledge and opportunity for faculty, students, and staff. That, at this moment, is what I am interested in exploring with the Pomona community.
CI: Pomona College’s student code lacks mens rea standards for most of its statutes. This means that students can be held accountable for violating a complex array of rules and regulations even when they’ve done so by accident. What are your initial thoughts on this and on the possibility of amending the student code?
GS: The focus of student conduct codes must be on maintaining the highest standards of ethical behavior and on making the community whole after a breach, and this means we have to take intent into account at various stages in the process. However, I have long seen, through my time as a teacher and dean, that many violations of community or of conduct standards are matters of fact, not intention, so there is a balance here. Overall, I care about fairness and equity, and a conduct process that enables people to learn from mistakes.
CI: As a school that prides itself on its academics, Pomona College often leans on the more pre-professional Claremont McKenna College when it comes to career services; however, many of these services, such as mock case interviews, are only offered to Claremont McKenna students. While it may be early for you to be thinking about this problem, it is a time-sensitive one that continues to affect students during each new interview cycle. With that in mind, what are your initial thoughts on this issue and on improvements that could be made to our career services office?
GS: The primary mission of Pomona is to provide a superior liberal arts education and to endow in its graduates the lifetime skills of critical and analytical reasoning that make for a transformative life. That means we are always keenly aware of the way that students enter the world beyond our gates. We share resources with the other Claremont Colleges, and that makes us stronger. I see my role as fostering the life of the mind and the life of the whole student, while also fostering active engagement in the larger world through the life, work, and career concerns of our students. As I move into the office, I will certainly pay close attention to how well Pomona’s students are served in this area, and also across the board. Pomona has expanded its Career Development Office significantly over the past few years and this may be another area that can be addressed more specifically.
CI: Pomona College touts its on-campus diversity and inclusion, but only provides a need-blind admission process to U.S. citizens and those who have graduated from a U.S. high school. Other colleges, including those with smaller per-student endowments such as Amherst College and MIT, provide a need-blind admissions process to all students. What are your thoughts on changing our admissions process so that all students are considered equally, regardless of their financial situation or citizenship status?
GS: Offering financial aid to the many extraordinary students of Pomona is a pillar of the College. We live in an increasingly global world, and Pomona has done a good job expanding the number of international students, the areas of the world they come from, and the number who receive aid. Any changes to the admissions policy would have to be approved by the trustees, and changes in financial aid would have to be fiscally responsible for the College. I look forward to being on campus and learning more about how we can advance our work in this area.
CI: Pomona is not only demographically diverse; these diverse demographics actually translate into a student body where students belonging to different groups are willing to interact with each other and exchange ideas. Safe spaces are a thorny issue. While they do provide a healing space for many on campus, there are also real concerns that these spaces amount to school-funded echo chambers that give institutional credence to the idea that students don’t need to engage with those who think differently than they do. As president of Pomona College, how do you plan on reconciling these opposing concerns regarding safe spaces?
GS: Freedom of speech is a right that emerges in the context of contest, of dispute. Non-controversial statements never end up evoking questions of free speech. It is when we disagree that free speech matters most. Disagreement and dispute, however, are fundamental to education and to the life of the mind. I expect students to stand up for what they believe in and to listen to and engage with others. Colleges have a special responsibility to model that open engagement. We provide the arena for the rigorous exchange of ideas, and regardless of one’s partisan affiliations or ideological views, we are all part of one community. I expect Pomona to be a place where every individual speaks out and is heard.
Some people hear the word “safe space” and immediately shut down. My goal for Pomona is constant renewal of a community of trust. Trust in speech and action is not the sole responsibility of the speaker or the spoken to. It is established through a mutual understanding that words have meaning. We will not always agree; however, through strength of community, we can establish an environment where ideas and experiences can be shared and examined in the spirit of mutual respect.
CI: On the subject of diversity, Pomona puts in a commendable amount of effort into making many groups feel comfortable on campus. Yet there are still groups on campus that feel marginalized; recently, for example, a pro-Palestinian group painted a mural on Walker Wall with clear anti-Israel overtones. How does your administration plan on reaching out to these people—such as Jews, conservatives, and others who often face unwarranted hostility on campus—and fostering a dialogue with them?
GS: Pomona is engaged and inquisitive and it is a true community. The world is rife with fractious issues: BDS, Standing Rock, “build that wall”, DACA, climate change, and beyond. The loudest or the most ready and commercial voices can often define perceptions and inflame passions. And indeed, passions move faster than truth and real information in the modern world. We must understand, however, that reasoned, principled people can view an information set and come to opposite points of view. Our job is to develop tools and arenas so that the essential points are uncovered, and reasoned debate can occur if–and that “if” is rhetorical–we want to arrive at better conclusions and wider civic engagement.
Pomona belongs to every member of our community. That sense of real inclusion is what I truly love about my life as a teacher and a scholar and, soon, what I will stand for as president of Pomona.
CI: Finally, in your interview with The Student Life, you mentioned some of your short-term goals, including working with faculty to help them get more resources. What specific policies do you hope to implement or continue with in order to achieve these goals, and what are other specific policies you hope to achieve during your tenure as president of Pomona College?
GS: Pomona is fortunate by just about every standard in the resources we have available. Yet fundraising for faculty research and curricular development will be an important part of building on the level of distinction Pomona enjoys. One focus of my presidency will be to work with faculty, foundations, and private donors to ensure we don’t ever lose track of what faculty need to help their scholarship have an even greater impact on changing students’ lives and the world.
If I might say one last thing, I am eager to be a part of one of the strongest intellectual communities in this country, and I am grateful to the students, faculty, and staff for their engagement in the search, to the search committee, and to the trustees.