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President’s humble roots shaped man, educator

Melvin Oliver, the new president of Pitzer College and first African-American president of a Claremont College, initially did not want to get into college academia.

When he started going to William Penn University in rural Iowa, he initially wanted to be a high school history teacher. But Mr. Oliver took a sociology class during his second semester and was hooked.

“I went to [the professor] and I said, I’ve never heard of sociology, what can you do with sociology,” Mr. Oliver said. “And he said you can do one of two things—you can either be a social worker or you can be a professor.”

Now, after decades of academic service, including over 30 years in a university setting, a position at the Ford Foundation, a book and over 50 scholarly articles under his belt, Mr. Oliver is ready to lead Pitzer into a new era. He was first hired in January and started on July 1.

Mr. Oliver came from humble beginnings. Growing up in inner city Cleveland, he was the first in his family to go to college, as both of his parents did not achieve higher than a ninth grade education.

“I always knew I was going to college, it was never any question,” he said. “But my parents had no idea what college was.”

Mr. Oliver discovered and fell in love with William Penn University, a small, liberal arts college in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Mr. Oliver was given a choice—get a free ride to a large state university, or take a chance, incur debt and go to WPU.

In the end, he chose WPU, and that small college mentality has stayed with him throughout his academic career.

“I always say it was the transformative experience of my life, because I was a rather average student,” Mr. Oliver said. “And I went to a place where I grew academically, I grew socially, I discovered leadership and had leadership development there that I would not have had in a large anonymous state university. And I became a lifelong supporter of the liberal arts experience.”

Not surprisingly, he sees much of WPU within Pitzer's walls. He notes the Claremont college's propensity to foster true intellectual curiosity from an interdisciplinary lens—meaning, getting a larger picture of an idea or concept from many different academic perspectives.

“Here, students can follow their passions,” he noted.

After getting his master's degree and PhD from Washington University of St. Louis, Mr. Oliver ended up in California, where he began teaching sociology at UCLA.

The massive and world-renowned state university was a far cry from the intimacy of WPU, but Mr. Oliver found a way to bring a small liberal arts experience to the massive lecture halls of Westwood.

In 1989, Mr. Oliver and a colleague created the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, a three-quarter long undergraduate research-training program in poverty and public policy. Twelve students—many of them people of color—were picked out of class of 50 and given a paid two-quarter instruction. He brought the essence of a small college to a large university.

“They were obligated for one year of work with us and very small intimate setting, just like a Pitzer,” Mr. Oliver said. “So that was what I really enjoyed.”

Many of the students in the program went on for multiple graduate degrees and are now employed at colleges, universities and think tanks across the country, Mr. Oliver said.

“I've got over 100 students who have gone on to either PhDs or master's in public policy or master's I social work that are doing that kind of work still,” he said.

For his work, he was awarded the California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Endowment Fund, the first UC professor to get the award.

During his tenure at UCLA, he also co-authored a book, “Black Wealth/White Wealth,” a quantitative study that delves into an often-underreported criterion of racial inequality in this country—wealth. Mr. Oliver, along with co-author Thomas Shapiro, delves into the wealth divide in America and why so many African-American communities are locked in the lower echelons of society.

After leaving UCLA in 1996, Mr. Oliver spent a few years at the Ford Foundation, where it led to a better understanding of a globalist society.

“At the Ford Foundation, I was vice president of their work on poverty reduction throughout the world,” Mr. Oliver said. “So I always say I got a second PhD, because I worked all over the world. There were at the time I think 11 or 12 field offices all over the world that I essentially worked with.”

Mr. Oliver took that perspective to UC Santa Barbara in 2004, where he accepted a job as the executive dean of the College of Arts and Letters. While at UCSB, Mr. Oliver founded a number of different PhD programs, including Globalist Studies, Chicano Studies and Feminist Studies.

Initially, when Pitzer came calling for a possible job, Mr. Oliver resisted. It took the advice from a good friend to convince him to pursue the college presidency.

“So I looked at it, I talked it over with my wife and we got excited about the prospectus,” Mr. Oliver said.

Pitzer’s focus on social justice, diversity and dialogue and Mr. Oliver’s focus on interdisciplinarity and racial inequality looks like a perfect fit for both parties. The PItzer College board of trustees voted Mr. Oliver in unanimously earlier this year.

“Melvin is a first-generation college student, an award-winning teacher and author, an accomplished scholar and a distinguished foundation and academic leader,” Board of Trustees chair Shahan Soghikian said in a press release. “In sum, he is a living example of the transformative power of a liberal arts education.”

“I always say that interdisciplinarity recognizes that no one discipline has a monopoly on knowledge,” Mr. Oliver said. “And in order to understand social situation and the political choices we have to make, we need a knowledge that comes from multiple disciplines, integrated in such a fashion that we capture the complexity of reality.

“And so that was one of the things where I’m saying, ‘oh, [Pitzer] is my kind of place,” he added.

Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com