Laura Skandera Trombley is the incoming sixteenth President of Southwestern University, a bachelor degree-granting institution, located in Georgetown, Texas. Dr. Trombley is also President Emerita of three distinguished institutions: Pitzer College, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, and the University of Bridgeport.
Dr. Trombley is regarded by her peers as a scholar of the first order with a plethora of awards for her work about Mark Twain and American Literature studies: In Spring 2019 the Mark Twain Journal named her as its Legacy Scholar; in May 2018 The Huntington Library presented her with The Dixon Wecter Distinguished Professor of American Literature Award; in August 2017, the Mark Twain Circle of America awarded her the Louis J. Budd Award for excellence in scholarly achievement; and in July 2013, she was recognized as the inaugural Thomas Nast Gastprofessorin by the University of Koblenz-Landau.
A boundary-breaking scholar and public intellectual whose work in the humanities and higher education has sparked lively debates in the academic and non-profit communities, she has redefined the role(s) of women in academic leadership. Dr. Trombley was the first woman to hold the title of Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty at Coe College as well as the first woman president of the Huntington Library and the first woman president of Southwestern University.
In the institutions where she has served as an administrator she ushered in a new era of information technology, sustainability awareness, STEAM programs, best practice operations, and exponential growth in fundraising.
Her talent for leadership came when she was still in her teens; she was the youngest first-year student at Pepperdine University, just age 16, and six years later graduated Summa Cum Laude with her Master’s degree. Her teaching career began at the University of Southern California when she was 22. She was granted early tenure by SUNY and was named to her first presidency at age 40. Dr. Trombley is the first woman west of the Mississippi to Chair the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, and was appointed by President Obama in 2015.
A staunch advocate for the liberal arts and humanities since her undergraduate days, Dr. Trombley has authored five books, ranging from sweeping explorations of poetry and meaning, to critical essays about Maxine Hong Kingston, to scrupulous analyses of Mark Twain’s literature and personal life. Her scholarly articles have been published in publications such as The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Women in Higher Education, The Daily Beast, University Business, Educational Technology, and Matrix Magazine. Her last book, Mark Twain’s Other Woman, published by Knopf, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
As a graduate student Dr. Trombley discovered the largest cache of Mark Twain letters to date (the discovery was highlighted in a featured essay in Los Angeles Times Magazine). The unprecedented treasure trove of one hundred letters became her primary resource for her doctoral thesis and ultimately her first book, Mark Twain in the Company of Women, which Choice selected as one of the outstanding academic books of 1995. The discovery also solidified her reputation as a premier Twain scholar and encouraged her to continue her studies of the author. She would go on to co-write and edit Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship and appear in the 2002 Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain and the 2017 documentary Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland.
Dr. Trombley remains active as a scholar and has a chapter, “Gender Issues,” included in an upcoming University of Cambridge Press edition, Mark Twain in Context (2020) as well as being invited by sculptor Charles Ray to contribute an essay about Mark Twain in his catalog for two upcoming major solo exhibitions presented in Paris: the Centre Pompidou and the Bourse de Commerce, Pinault Collection (2020).
Over the years, Dr. Trombley has written extensively about the under-representation of women and people of color in academia. In a piece published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015, she reflected on her early Assistant Professor days at SUNY Potsdam: “I was the literature professor who . . . co-organized a town-hall meeting to protest the silencing of the female faculty and the lack of a Women’s Studies major.”
While President of Pitzer College, she created a Special Assistant to the President position to encourage women and people of color to consider administration as a career pathway. She has been a Keynote Speaker, Session Chair or participant in dozens of academic and professional gatherings. She has been a speaker at TEDxFulbright twice and regularly shares her insights into higher education, leadership, and the humanities for a variety of organizations, including the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
From 2002 to 2015, Laura Trombley led some of the most transformative programs ever undertaken at Pitzer College, resulting in a drastic upturn in selectivity and dramatically improving the school’s rankings in the U.S. News and World Report from its70th ranking to 32nd—an accomplishment no other college has equaled. Dr. Trombley, who joined the Fulbright Senior Specialists roster in 2004, established Pitzer College as the national leader in Fulbright Fellowships per 1,000 students for ten years.
From 2010-2015 Pitzer College was also the top producer of Fulbright award recipients among all liberal arts colleges in the United States. President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Trombley to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board in 2012. Two years later she was elected vice-chair of the Board and for 2016 she was elected chair during the Fulbright’s 70th Anniversary year and was invited to give keynote addresses in Finland, Israel, Germany, Nepal, and Washington D.C.
Another defining aspect of Dr. Trombley’s presidency at Pitzer was her dedication to sustainability and environmental studies. She directed the construction of eight LEED-certified mixed-use residential buildings; now 48 percent of all Pitzer buildings are LEED-certified. Dr. Trombley also collaborated with environmentalist Robert Redford, who became a Pitzer trustee and Dr. Trombley’s special assistant for sustainability, on two groundbreaking campus initiatives: the divestment of Pitzer’s endowment of fossil fuel stocks, and the creation of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability. Pitzer was the first higher education institution in Southern California to commit to such a divestment.
Dedicated to increasing access for all students, under her leadership Pitzer was the first higher education institution in California to make the SAT optional, and she also set a new standard for representation with Pitzer tenure track female faculty over 50% and faculty of color over 30%. Dr. Trombley founded three scholarships at Pitzer College: John Skandera Memorial Scholarship, Laura Skandera Trombley Endowed Scholarship, and Laura Skandera Trombley Humanities and Arts Endowed Research and Internship Fund.
At The Huntington, Dr. Trombley ushered in a new era of transparency, accountability, and increased revenues. In her first year, she raised 39.4 million dollars, a 10 million increase over the previous year and achieved record earned revenue amounts for admissions, The Huntington Store and dining. All combined earned revenue reached a total of $11.3 million, a 1.4 million increase over the previous year. She expanded open hours by 130%, creating greater access for Los Angeles families to come and visit, thus establishing a new record for attendance at The Huntington with 40,000 member families and 725,759 visitors.
Also at The Huntington, she negotiated a new food vendor contract worth baseline $25 million over 10 years, and with her operational and construction experience aiding her, she modified the existing plan for the final phase of the Chinese Garden, adding a restaurant, an outdoor entertainment space, and an art gallery, and completed fundraising for the 20-year project with gifts totaling 12 million dollars. She also planned and received a 2.5 million gift for a Director of Research home to be built on the grounds of The Huntington, their first LEED-certified building.
She worked to establish internal sustainability and water conservation efforts; organized the first institutional sustainability summit; and signed an agreement with the University of California, Riverside to subsidize the hiring of two assistant professors to perform research full-time in The Huntington’s collections. She also hired the institution’s first Vice President of Information Technology and its first Vice President of Facilities. Dr. Trombley created the first institutional dashboard; instituted The Huntington Channel to archive videos and webcasts for the public; and created the Out of the Vault Series, to heighten the Huntington’s profile in the southern California region. She made San Marino Day an annual event, extending an open invitation to all community residents, and made a $5,000 gift in her father’s name to honor San Marino educators.
To honor Huntington staff, she created annual recognition awards. She negotiated a new agreement between The Huntington and USC for The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW) and USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute (EMSI); exhibited NASA’s JPL Orbit Pavilion to outstanding attendance and reviews, and secured a future exhibition of the Hamilton/Burr pistols. In fall 2016, the Jonathan and Karin Fielding Wing opened, a $10.3 million expansion to the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art designed by Frederick Fisher, along with a major contribution of the Fieldings’ collection.
After a year’s sabbatical spent as a consultant for two foundations, writing her sixth book, Riding with Mark Twain (in progress), and teaching at the University of Southern California, Dr. Trombley accepted the presidency of the University of Bridgeport located at the south end of the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose mission is “education leading to career.” She was hired to reverse the four previous years of deep budget deficits and for her dedication to underrepresented students, governance and structural expertise, ability to manage operational budgets, and extensive successful expertise in fundraising.
The University of Bridgeport is the most diverse private university in New England with a 66% student of color undergraduate population, 9% undergraduate international, and 55% of its undergraduates Pell Grant eligible. 37% of the University’s students are first-generation. In the fall of 2019, the University had, for the first time, a 26% Hispanic undergraduate population enabling the institution to apply to become a HACU member. During her nearly two-year tenure, she has created a new institutional structure by establishing three colleges of distinction: the College of Arts and Sciences including the University’s School of Design, the College of Graduate Programs featuring Engineering, Business and Education, and the College of Health Sciences.
The University was rebranded “Bridgeport Bold!” along with a new University website and the institution’s social media presence has greatly increased. Dr. Trombley identified savings of over $12 million dollars from the operational budget, negotiated new contracts with all of the University’s major vendors resulting in millions of additional savings, and has entered into two MOUs for real estate development projects that will feature housing and amenities such as a recreational facility, a market, a pharmacy and food service with new employment opportunities for students and area residents. Prior to the global pandemic, the University was tracking to have a slight surplus budget by the end of the academic year 2021.
The Board of Trustees was expanded with the addition of eight new trustees with increased expectations for giving and participation. At the end of her first year, new institutional records for giving were set with a 20% increase in alumni participation in the annual fund and a 79% increase in funds raised for the annual fund, as well as a 273% increase over budget for major gifts. By the end of her second year, new records were set again in all three areas despite the downturn in the global economy.
In the fall of 2019, the University rose in U.S. News and World Report rankings leaving its regional distinction behind and moving into the national university category. The University was also ranked as the 39th most ethnically diverse national university and 119th in the top performers for social mobility. Money Magazine also included the University for the first time on their “Money’s Best Colleges” list. Over the course of a year, the institutional tuition discount was lowered 4% and undergraduate retention first to second year increased by a record-setting 6%. Starting in fall 2019, students no longer paid a separate cost for textbooks, e-books, or codes, as they were included in tuition and fees. To provide a greater sense of community and interaction among undergraduate and graduate students, a new travel fund established by the trustees to support faculty-led excursions with students and a new intermural athletics program was instituted.
The University hosted its first three-day art festival, and an 8-lane bowling alley, closed for 25 years, was reopened thanks to generous donors. Spring of 2020 saw the inauguration of a new program and physical space: “The Bridgeport Plan: Connecting Education to Career” housed in the Heckman Center. The Bridgeport Plan provides students with a one-stop service for advising, tutoring, career development, study abroad, and civic engagement. Also inaugurated was Connecticut’s first “Female Equity Lounge,” a women’s center that is a member of The Female Quotient national network, that works with students to create a pipeline of talented women through sponsored leadership programming and paid internships.
A new knowledge park, The Bauer Center, designed to foster entrepreneurship and innovation and to mentor students in business start-ups, ownership and development was also completed and is housed within a beautifully renovated Gilded Age mansion on campus. The Center is also an incubator for STEM and eco-system focused innovation and plans to serve the business community with student-run design services, technology transfer, and commercialization, and functions as an economic development driver.
On July 1, 2020, Dr. Laura Skandera Trombley will assume her fourth presidency at Southwestern University, located in Georgetown Texas. Dr. Trombley is the first woman president of the University and a tenured professor in the Department of English. Southwestern University is the oldest liberal arts institution in Texas, founded in 1840. The state’s first Rhodes scholar was a Southwestern student and 25% of their graduating class is accepted into medical school. Degrees offered include Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Science in Education, Bachelor of Music, and Bachelor of Fine Arts. Southwestern meets all its electrical needs from renewable energy through wind generation and is committed to LEED construction principals. The University is a member of NCAA Division III.
Dr. Trombley’s expertise in her scholarly area of Mark Twain Studies is widely recognized and she positively destabilized the field, with her decision to tackle the influence the women in Twain’s personal life had upon his evolving social and political views as well as his writing; indeed, she convincingly argues that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would never have been written without his personal knowledge of women’s movements and his conversations with women professionals as well as his spouse Olivia Langdon. Dr. Trombley’s decision to research the history behind Mark Twain’s mysterious female assistant, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, created a firestorm of interest in her work. Dr. Trombley spent sixteen years meticulously researching the complicated relationship between Isabel and Twain, uncovering the deliberately omitted facts and deconstructing Twain’s elaborate cover story about their relationship. She ultimately brought Isabel’s influence upon America’s favorite author to the forefront in Mark Twain’s Other Woman (Knopf 2010).
Beyond her exploration of Twain’s history with women, Laura Trombley has been, throughout her career, proactive in promoting and supporting women and people of color in academia. First at Pitzer and then Bridgeport her administrative cabinet is representative of the diversity found in the surrounding community and student body. In one of her earliest positions as assistant provost at SUNY Potsdam, she founded the Teaching, Continuing Appointment, and Tenure Program (T-CAP). Since then she has taught numerous classes about female writers at the University of Southern California, Pitzer College, Coe College, Universitaet Eichstaett, Pepperdine University, and SUNY Potsdam. Dr. Trombley has also published pieces about institutional dashboards, the importance of metrics, and board of trustee governance in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Trusteeship, Women in Higher Education, and Educational Technology. Dr. Trombley has participated in conferences, international panel presentations, and other events that spotlight governance and leadership.
Laura Trombley has been a member of numerous organizations which advocate for service, higher education, scholarship, gender equality, and improved female representation in business networks: Rotary International, the National Council for Research on Women, the Council of Presidents of the Association of Governing Boards, the Council on Foreign Relations Higher Education Working Group on Global Issues, the Young Presidents Organization, the Chief Executive Organization, The Zamarano Club, The Mark Twain Circle of America, and The Southern California Forum of The Trusteeship of the International Women’s Forum.