David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, recently spoke with The Chronicle about his advocacy on behalf of undocumented immigrant students and what advice he has for new college presidents.
IAN WILHELM: I'm here today with David Oxtoby of Pomona College. President Oxtoby, thanks for coming by The Chronicle.
DAVID OXTOBY: Good to be here, thank you.
IAN WILHELM: You've been speaking out about concerns you have about how the Trump administration may change policy regarding undocumented students. What have you done so far, and why is this something you want to speak out about?
DAVID OXTOBY: Well, first of all, right after the election we reached out to our students in general, but our undocumented students specifically, to say: We hear your concerns. We will support you. But then we took an immediate step in the following week, which was to prepare a letter to support the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program, which has been very successful.
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Nearly three-quarters of a million students have taken advantage of this program, including quite a few at Pomona College. And so we've prepared a letter and circulated it among college and university presidents in support of extending and continuing the DACA program for undocumented students.
IAN WILHELM: And how many have signed on so far?
DAVID OXTOBY: Four hundred and thirty-five, and those numbers keep growing. So we're really pleased at the very positive response. We started with a small number, and the word spread. And virtually every president we spoke to has been supportive. And many of them have signed this letter.
IAN WILHELM: You have not, however, made the campus — named it — a sanctuary campus that some of the faculty have requested. What are your concerns there, and why haven't you done that so far?
DAVID OXTOBY: Well, we've responded to many of the specific issues. And our undocumented students have asked us, Can we support them in various ways? Providing some legal advice, making sure if they lose their jobs and are not able to work that they will be able to continue at Pomona College, and we will give them financial aid. So we've responded to specific issues. But we've been hesitant to use the term "sanctuary college" because it's not clear exactly what that means, and we don't want to overpromise in terms of protection — what we were able to do.
IAN WILHELM: There obviously have been other concerns that some have raised about the president-elect and his policies. One thing you've mentioned in terms of looking at the electorate, and the changing sort of make-up of the country in terms of its thinking, is the idea of doing a bit more outreach in terms of admissions, possibly, to rural parts of the country.
DAVID OXTOBY: Our admissions has actually changed over the 14 years I've been at Pomona College. We've become much more diverse geographically, as well as in other dimensions. And so we're actually finding students in small towns, rural America, who in the past might not have found us because we were not able to send admissions staff everywhere around the country. So we've been doing that, and we want to expand that. We really want to be a college that welcomes students from everywhere in terms of geography and background.
IAN WILHELM: So on a different topic. After 14 years, you'll be retiring come June. I wonder if you have a piece of advice for your successor or a new president elsewhere — what would it be?
DAVID OXTOBY: Well, a couple of things. First of all, enjoy the job. It's been a wonderful, wonderful job. And to me, when people ask me what I enjoy most about the job, it's the students.
And so take advantage of those opportunities to meet students, to talk to them, whether it's one on one or in groups. Because sometimes your schedule can get so filled up with committees and fund raising and other activities that you don't have time for the students. And that's why you're in the job — is because of that. So that's one piece of advice I would give.
I'd say the second piece of advice I would give is, think about your institution. Think about its strategic goals, its distinctiveness, and focus on that mission. Because not every college is the same, and that's OK. There's no reason you should be looking at every other college, and saying I want to be like them. Think about what's distinctive about your own institution.
IAN WILHELM: How has higher education changed in those years? What keeps you up at night today that didn't keep you up at night 14 years ago?
DAVID OXTOBY: Well, I'd say the biggest change has been the quickness that you need to respond to changes and messages that come in. Social media certainly has changed the world. If one student says something, it can get into social media. It can go around the country and around the world. And so you need to respond more quickly.
It used to be, you would be able to take an issue, think about it, send out a thoughtful comment about it. Now you need to be able to respond much more quickly. But you still need to be thoughtful in your response.
IAN WILHELM: President Oxtoby, thanks for your time today.
DAVID OXTOBY: Thank you, it's good to be here.