A boundary-breaking scholar, public intellectual, and innovative administrator whose work in the humanities and higher education has sparked lively and meaningful dialogues in the academic and nonprofit communities, Dr. Laura Skandera Trombley is a four-time president who has redefined the role(s) of women in academic leadership. Dr. Trombley is president emerita of three institutions: Pitzer College, where she served for 13 years; The Huntington Library, where she was the first woman president; and the University of Bridgeport. She was the first woman to hold the title of Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty at Coe College.
In the institutions where she has served as an administrator, she ushered in a new era of administrative transparency, information technology, sustainability awareness and LEED construction, STEAM programs, best practice operations, and exponential growth in fundraising. Recognizing her success and commitment to “soft power” international relationships, in 2012 President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Trombley to the 12-member J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Two years later, she was elected vice chair of the board, and in 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. Dr. Trombley is the first woman west of the Mississippi to chair the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
Dr. Trombley’s expertise in her research area of Mark Twain studies has established her as one of the most prominent scholars in the world. She positively destabilized the field with her research about the relationships, both personal and professional, Twain enjoyed with women and her last book, Mark Twain’s Other Woman, published by Knopf, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is regarded by her peers as a scholar of the first order and has received 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. She has given invited lectures about Mark Twain at locations around the world, including universities in Canada, Bhutan, China, England, Japan, and Germany.
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 epistemology to critical essays about Maxine Hong Kingston to scrupulous analyses of Mark Twain’s literature and personal life. She has published dozens of scholarly articles and is a frequent commentator about higher education, leadership, and information technology. Her articles have been published in publications such as The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, University Business, Educational Technology, Women in Higher Education, The Huffington Post, and Matrix Magazine.
Her talent for leadership came when she was still in her teens; she was the youngest undergraduate student at Pepperdine University at just age 16 and graduated summa cum laude with her master’s degree six years later. 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. While 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. She would go on to co-write and edit Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship and appeared in the 2002 Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain and the 2017 documentary Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland.
Dr. Trombley’s expertise in her scholarly area of Mark Twain Studies has as its focus how Twain’s personal life affected 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 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.
Dr. Trombley remains active as a scholar, and her chapter “Gender Issues” was included in the recent University of Cambridge Press edition Mark Twain in Context (2020). Most recently, she was one of only three scholars to be invited by Charles Ray, currently the most important sculptor of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, to contribute an essay, “Un/Masking Mark Twain,” to his catalog for three international major solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou, and the Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection (2022).
In addition to her exploration of Twain’s history with women, Dr. Trombley has been, throughout her career, proactive in promoting and supporting women and people of color in academia and has written extensively about the issue of underrepresentation. Dr. Trombley has published about institutional dashboards, the importance of metrics, and board of trustee governance in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Trusteeship. She has been a Keynote Speaker, Session Chair, or participant in dozens of academic and professional gatherings that spotlight governance and leadership and is a member of numerous organizations which advocate for service, higher education, scholarship, gender equality, and improved female representation in business networks: the Annapolis Group of Liberal Arts Colleges Board of Directors, 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, and The Southern California Forum of The Trusteeship of the International Women’s Forum.
On July 1, 2020, Dr. Trombley became the 16th president of Southwestern University, located in Georgetown, Texas, on the outskirts of Austin, the state capital. Dr. Trombley is a tenured professor in the Department of English. Founded in 1840, Southwestern was the first institution of higher education in Texas. The state’s first Rhodes scholar was a Southwestern student, and 25% of the 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. As president, Dr. Trombley has championed a strengthened commitment to diversity and inclusion. In the fall of 2021, 26% of students identified as Hispanic/Latinx for the second year in a row, and the Black population reached a record 9.9%. The University is pursuing designation from the Department of Education as a Hispanic-Serving Institution and joined the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), Liberal Arts and Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance (LACRELA), a consortium of almost 70 institutions that aims to help its members develop and achieve equity goals, Universities Studying Slavery Consortium, and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.
Arriving during a worldwide pandemic, while many institutions had reverted to online instruction, over 70% of classes took place in person and students lived on campus. The University had one of the lowest positivity rates in Texas. There were no reductions or furloughs in staff or faculty, a small wage increase was provided to all faculty and staff, and the year ended with a sizeable surplus. Student retention increased for juniors and seniors, and, despite canceling the fall and winter athletic seasons, in the spring all 20 athletic teams saw competitive play. The discount rate was lowered a full percentage point.
In the fall of 2020, a large planning group of twenty people consisting of faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumni was constituted to create a 5-Year Tactical Plan. After meeting every week, including 2 four-hour retreats and reviewing 267 suggestions made by community members, a 5-Year Tactical Plan was drafted and unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees. $3.5 million was immediately raised in support of it. The plan has full Southwestern University community support. Imbedded in the Tactical Plan is a commitment to DIBE (diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity) on behalf of all members of our community, creating additional access for students via enhanced financial aid, increasing student retention and graduation rates, sustaining and creating new programs and adding to the total number of high impact experiences available for students, building and maintaining the University’s physical and technological infrastructure, and ensuring appropriate and competitive compensation for faculty, staff, and student employees.
Current initiatives include preparing a financial plan that will include a large 30-year fixed bond issuance to take advantage of low interest rates. With the bond and generous philanthropy, the University will build a new mixed-use residence hall as it increases its total student population from 1,500 to 1,800, complete a deep renovation of its oldest academic building (built in 1908), and eliminate a backlog of deferred maintenance. Most excitingly, the University owns over 1,200 acres of land, some gifted over 100 years ago, and with the extraordinary increase in real estate values and businesses moving to Central Texas, two noncontiguous parcels were recently sold, netting the University $28 million. Dr. Trombley is currently selecting a developer with whom the University will partner to build a liberal arts-infused city with a business park and workforce housing. The development will be constructed on 500 acres contiguous to campus, a roughly $2 billion project.
Due to her dedication to increasing access for all students, during Dr. Trombley’s first presidency at Pitzer College, it became the first institution of higher education on the West Coast to make the SAT optional. In 2004, Dr. Trombley joined the Fulbright Senior Specialists roster and went on to establish Pitzer College as the national leader in Fulbright Fellowships per 1,000 students for 10 years. From 2010 to 2015, Pitzer College was the top producer of Fulbright award recipients among all liberal arts colleges in the United States.
To increase the number of underrepresented women and people of color administrators, Dr. Trombley created a Special Assistant to the President position and hired the college’s first Black female Dean of the Faculty, first Asian American Chief Financial Officer, and first Black Vice President for Advancement. Dr. Trombley also set a national standard for representation, with Pitzer tenure-track female faculty at over 50% and faculty of color at over 30%. To create greater access for first-generation students, female students, and students of color, Dr. Trombley founded three scholarships at Pitzer College: the John Skandera Memorial Scholarship, the Laura Skandera Trombley Endowed Scholarship, and the Laura Skandera Trombley Humanities and Arts Endowed Research and Internship Fund.
From 2002 to 2015, Dr. Trombley led the most transformative programs ever undertaken at Pitzer College, resulting in a drastic upturn in selectivity and dramatically improving the school’s ranking in U.S. News and World Report from 70th to 32nd—an accomplishment no other college president has equaled. She held the overall responsibility for the 1,200-student college with an operating budget of more than $50 million. During the 2008 recession, all endowment spending ceased (Pitzer College was the only U.S. institution to do this), all faculty and staff positions were retained, and all employees received pay increases. Faculty compensation moved to the 90th percentile as reported in AAUP, and the lowest worker compensation increased to 10% above the living wage for Los Angeles County.
During her tenure, Dr. Trombley completed two five-year tactical plans, developed an academic strategic plan, and created a master plan for facilities and growth. She established the Office for Institutional Research and published an annual institutional dashboard. She also led a number of successful initiatives to increase diversity: the percentage of staff administrators identifying as an ethnic minority increased to 46% and the percentage identifying as female increased to 68%; the percentage of the student body identifying as nonwhite increased to 50%; and faculty increased to 51% female and 31% ethnic minorities. Total tenure-track faculty increased 39%, and the student-to-faculty ratio improved 29% (from 14:1 to 10:1). Freshman retention increased from 84% to 95%, senior retention increased from 71% to 81%, and the four-year graduation rate increased from 67% to 83%. Total debt for graduates decreased by 14% to $18,030 during a time when the national average saw a year-to-year average 9.5% increase.
Significant accomplishments include: (1) orchestrating financial stability (ensuring budget showed annual surpluses; completing three fundraising campaigns that surpassed goals ahead of schedule, raising over $123 million; increasing the endowment by over 211%; and increasing the annual fund by approximately 80%); (2) overseeing environmentally sustainable campus master planning (acquiring additional campus acreage, a more than 526% increase, with 90% dedicated to environmental programming; completing eight gold and platinum LEED-certified buildings with total budget $70 million on time and on budget; renovating two of the oldest buildings on campus, Scott Hall and Benson Auditorium; decreasing water usage by 50%; and re-landscaping the campus to create a native and drought-tolerant botanical garden; (3) building reputation and awareness (transforming Pitzer into one of the 20 most selective colleges in the country and lowering the admission rate to 12.9%, a 76% improvement); (4) expanding/enhancing the academic program (increasing the size of the faculty by 34%); (5) developing 58 new domestic and international exchange programs (increasing the percentage of students studying abroad from 40% to 80%); (6) initiating the Vaccine Development Institute in partnership with the University of Botswana; (7) establishing the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology in Costa Rica; and (8) creating the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College.
Demonstrative of her commitment to the arts, Dr. Trombley established the Lenzner Family Art Gallery and hired the college’s first director and curator. Equally important was creating opportunities for students to study abroad. To that end, Dr. Trombley worked with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation to establish the Institute for Global/Local Action & Study (IGLAS) in 2004. During her years as president, Pitzer College received generous foundation support from the Rose Foundation, Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, the Pitzer Family Foundation, the Libra Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Bernard Osher Foundation, and the Robert Day Foundation.
Another defining aspect of Dr. Trombley’s presidency at Pitzer College was her dedication to sustainability and environmental studies. She directed the construction of eight gold and platinum LEED-certified mixed-use residential buildings, for which the college received multiple awards; today, 48% 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.
Upon her departure, the Pitzer College Council, which is composed of faculty, staff, and students, endorsed a resolution by the Faculty Executive Committee expressing their deep appreciation for her years of service: “The Pitzer College Faculty commends and thanks President Laura Trombley for her outstanding contributions to the College and wishes her continuous success in future endeavors.”
At the Huntington Library, Dr. Trombley ushered in a new era of transparency, accountability, and increased revenue. In her first year, she raised $39.4 million, 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. She also negotiated a $2.5 million gift from Charles Munger for a Director of Research home to be built on the grounds of The Huntington, its first LEED-certified building.
Dr. Trombley 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 The Huntington Library staff, she created annual recognition awards.
Dr. Trombley 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. This $10.3 million expansion to the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art was designed by Frederick Fisher and included more than 200 works from the Fieldings’ esteemed 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 was named the University of Bridgeport’s 10th president and Trustee Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the College of Arts & Sciences. Because of her commitment to providing access for underserved first-generation students and students of color, Dr. Trombley accepted the position knowing that the university was suffering from enormous budget deficits due to years of mismanagement. In the fall of 2018, the academic year began with a deficit of more than $12 million, with debt more than $68 million, and a nearly exhausted endowment. The University of Bridgeport is the most diverse private university in New England with a 66% student of color undergraduate population and 9% international undergraduate population. In addition, 55% of its undergraduates are Pell Grant eligible, and 40% of the are first-generation students. In the fall of 2019, the University of Bridgeport had, for the first time, a 26% Hispanic undergraduate population, enabling the institution to apply for HACU membership.
Dr. Trombley identified savings of over $12 million from the operational budget in her first six months, negotiated new contracts with the university’s major vendors that resulted in millions of additional savings, and entered two MOUs for real estate development projects featuring housing and amenities such as a recreational facility, a market, a pharmacy, and food service along with new employment opportunities for students and area residents. 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 was established by the trustees to support faculty-led excursions with students, and a new intermural athletics program was instituted.
The University was rebranded “Bridgeport Bold!” along with a new University website and the institution’s social media presence greatly increased. Under her leadership, for the first time, U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) ranked the University of Bridgeport among the top 381 national universities, leaving behind its regional distinction; the 39th most ethnically diverse national university in the country; and among the top performers on social mobility among national universities. The University also ranked among the top undergraduate engineering programs in the country. During her tenure, the women’s soccer team won the NCAA Division II national championship.
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.
The University hosted its first three-day art festival, and an 8-lane bowling alley, closed for 25 years, was reopened after President Trombley secured a major gift. 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 completed and housed within a beautifully renovated Gilded Age mansion on campus. The Center serves as an incubator for STEM and eco-system-focused innovation to serve the business community with student-run design services, technology transfer, and commercialization, and functions as an economic development driver.
During her tenure, she 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. Prior to the global pandemic, the University was tracking to have a slight surplus budget by the end of the academic year 2021. Dr. Trombley led a transformational, student-centered change that led to its recognition by Money magazine as one of “Money’s Best Universities.”