Dr. Melvin L. Oliver becomes New Pitzer College President, First Black to Lead a Claremont Undergrad Campus

Melvin L. Oliver was named president of Pitzer College. He will take office July 1.
Melvin L. Oliver was named president of Pitzer College. He will take office July 1.

He grew up in a hardscrabble home with only one book — the Bible — and parents who worked blue-collar jobs and never advanced beyond ninth grade. 

But Melvin L. Oliver rose to become an award-winning University of California professor, researcher, author and administrator noted for championing campus racial diversity. Now he will become the sixth president of Pitzer College — and the first African American to lead one of the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges, officials announced Wednesday.

Oliver, 65, will assume office July 1 at a time of national campus unrest over racial, ethnic and gender equity, including protests that forced out the dean of students at nearby Claremont McKenna College last year. Pitzer student activists have also asked for steps to increase campus diversity.

Oliver, who has tackled racial and economic inequality with both research and practical initiatives during three decades at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, along with a stint at the Ford Foundation, said he would seek to address those concerns as one of his top priorities.

“I want to deepen the commitment of Pitzer to recruiting, supporting and graduating those students [of color] because I think it’s an exceptional education and I want it to be available to as many of them as possible,” he said in an interview.

He added that he was mindful of the historic nature of his appointment as the first black president at the elite group of liberal arts colleges.

“It’s very important for students to be able to see someone like them become the president of one of the five Cs,” he said, referring to the Claremont campuses.

Donald Gould, a Pitzer trustee who headed the presidential search committee, said Oliver was selected from a field of more than 300 candidates during the 13-month search. His expertise in teaching, research, fundraising and administration, along with his deep commitment to social justice, made him a particularly attractive choice.

“He’s excelled in every one of those areas,” Gould said. “The board felt very strongly that Melvin Oliver is an excellent fit.”

Oliver is currently executive dean of the UC Santa Barbara College of Letters and Science, as well as dean of social sciences and a sociology professor. At UCSB he has helped boost minority graduate student enrollment in the social sciences division by 40% since 2004. He also helped launch a program to recruit and prepare minority and low-income students for doctoral programs in all fields.

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Source: The Los Angeles Times | Teresa Watanabe