Biography

Extended Biography

Introduction

A transformational administrator, leading scholar, and public intellectual whose work in higher education and the intersectionality of the humanities has sparked impactful and meaningful dialogues in the academic and nonprofit communities. Dr. Laura Skandera Trombley is a four-time president and mother who has redefined the roles of women in academic leadership and literary scholarship.

Since July 2020 she has served as president of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, the first woman to hold that title. She is also president emerita of three institutions where she served with distinction: Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges, where she held the longest presidential term in the history of the institution, 13 years; The Huntington Library, where she was the first woman president; and the University of Bridgeport, where she addressed severe budgetary deficits and created a pathway for a balanced budget. She was also the first woman to hold the title of Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty at Coe College.

Throughout her career as an administrator Dr. Trombley has been a leader in a new era of administrative transparency, information technology implementation, sustainability awareness, 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 during Fulbright’s 70th anniversary year in 2016 she was elected chair and 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.

Mark Twain Scholarship

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 and scrupulous analyses of Mark Twain’s literature and personal life. With her most recent book, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Mark Twain’s Other Woman (Knopf), she positively destabilized the field with her research into the relationships, both personal and professional, that Twain enjoyed with women. Regarded by her peers as a scholar of the first order, Dr. Trombley has received a plethora of awards for her work about Twain and American literature studies. In spring 2019 the Mark Twain Journal named her as its Legacy Scholar; in May 2018 The Huntington Library honored her with The Dixon Wecter Distinguished Professor of American Literature Award; in August 2017 the Mark Twain Circle of America awarded her their highest honor 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 Twain throughout the United States and Internationally including universities in Canada, Bhutan, China, England, Japan, and Germany. 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, Inside Higher Education, and Matrix Magazine.

Dr. Trombley’s 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 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 she appeared in the 2002 Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain and the 2017 documentary Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland.

Dr. Trombley’s focus in Mark Twain Studies examines 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. Her decision to research the history behind Mark Twain’s mysterious female assistant, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, created a firestorm of interest in Dr. Trombley’s work, and she 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. Remaining active as a scholar, Dr. Trombley’s 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, one of the most prominent sculptors 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). Charles Ray credited her with inspiring him to create his latest sculpture in 2021 “Sarah Williams,” displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s 2022 exhibition, “Charles Ray: Figure Ground.” Also, in 2022 and 2023 Dr. Trombley hosted evening events in Houston and Austin that explored the connection between Jerry Thomas, considered the father of American mixology, and Mark Twain, avid imbiber of Thomas’ concoctions.

In addition to her exploration of Twain’s literature and history with women, Dr. Trombley has throughout her career been proactive in promoting and supporting women and people of color in academia and has written extensively about the issue of underrepresentation. She has published about institutional dashboards, the importance of metrics, and board of trustee governance in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Trusteeship. She has served as keynote speaker, session chair, and participant in dozens of academic and professional gatherings that spotlight governance and leadership, and she is a member of numerous organizations that advocate for service, higher education, scholarship, gender equality, and improved female representation in business networks including 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. In 2008, CASE recognized her work with a Chief Executive Officer Leadership Award.

Southwestern University

On July 1, 2020, Dr. Trombley became the 16th president of Southwestern University, which is located in Georgetown, Texas, and is part of the metroplex of Austin, the state capital. Founded in 1840, Southwestern was the first institution of higher education in Texas. As president, Dr. Trombley has championed a strengthened commitment to diversity and inclusion. In the fall of 2021, 26 percent of students identified as Hispanic/Latinx for the second year in a row, and the Black student population reached a record 9.9 percent. That year Dr. Trombley was invited to join Excelencia in Education’s Presidents for Latino Student Success network, the nation’s premier authority in efforts accelerating Latino student success in higher education. Under her leadership SU also 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. With Hispanic/Latinx enrollment exceeding 29 percent in 2022-23, the University has been designated by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI); Southwestern  University is the only liberal arts university to be named as such in the top 100 nationwide. In the fall of 2022 Dr. Trombley signed a strategic partnership with Ricardo Salinas and his foundation, Fundacion Azteca that includes two high schools Salinas supports, Plantel Azteca and Humanitree, as well as the Universidad de Libertad, a liberal arts college Mr. Salinas has founded.

Southwestern University’s ascent among national liberal arts institutions continues under Dr. Trombley’s leadership. In 2022 SU rose 13 spots in the US News rankings, and was also recognized by U.S. News as a top school in the Social Mobility category, which measures how well schools graduate students who have received federal Pell Grants. In the fall 2022 the University went through its 10-year accreditation process with an A+ perfect rating and high praise from the visiting review committee. Dr. Trombley promotes SU’s many accomplishments to alumni, the university community, and national audiences through a variety of marketing publications including a University Excellence Brochure, a Faculty Excellence Brochure, a biannual university magazine, and through improved and expanded digital and social media markets.

A tenured professor of English, who regularly teaches, Dr. Trombley was named president in July 2020 when the world was shutting down due to the COVID pandemic in July 2020. Dr. Trombley led an effort to keep students engaged in campus life, and while many institutions reverted to online instruction, more than 70 percent of classes at SU took place in person, with students living on campus. Moreover, 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 sizable surplus, even with the discount rate lowered a full percentage point. 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.      

In the fall of 2020, a large and diverse planning group consisting of faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumni was constituted to create a 5-Year Tactical Plan. The group met via Zoom every week, held two 4-hour retreats and reviewed 267 suggestions made by community members. In the spring, a 5-Year Tactical Plan was drafted and unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees. To support the plan, $3.5 million was immediately raised. Imbedded in the Tactical Plan is a commitment to  diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity, 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. The Tactical Plan led to the creation and implementation of salary studies for faculty and staff that are leading to more competitive and equitable salaries. The Tactical Plan was a major cultural change in collaborative governance and provides greater transparency to the University community. Most recently, in working with a consultant, new policies have been created for hybrid work that are being put into effect in the fall of 2023.

During her second year at Southwestern Dr. Trombley continued her scholarly writing along with her busy teaching and administrative duties. This included an article published in Inside Higher Education, “Mark Twain & Critical Race Theory,” co-written with Dr. Ann Ryan; she published an editorial in the Williamson County Sun titled “Williamson County’s Confederate Statue,” that she authored in cooperation from faculty members and with the Rev. Dr. Ron Swain; and spoke at SXSW EDU 2022, presenting “Leading with Sugar & Empathy for Institutional Change.”; and was invited by the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) to serve on a panel regarding board governance at Chapman University in California. She was also a featured speaker with Dr. Ann Ryan at the Mark Twain House and museum in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of their spring series, The Trouble Begins, in which they delivered a presentation on Twain and critical race theory.

The 2022 academic year saw Dr. Trombley make valuable connections with organizations in the Austin area and around the country. In addition to joining the Austin Area Research Organization, she also joined the Division III Presidents Council (the highest governing body in DIII athletics), and serves on the Southern Athletic Association committee. Dr. Trombley was also elected to join the board of the Annapolis Group for a three-year term, and led an Annapolis Group President’s Roundtable, “Behind the Curtain: Mutual Trust & Board Relations.”

In her local community, Dr. Trombley is a member of Preservation Georgetown, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and the Williamson County Museum Board. Major campus initiatives began early in Dr. Trombley’s tenure included the development of a financial plan featuring a large 30-year fixed bond issuance that took advantage of low interest rates. With the bond and generous philanthropy, the University will be making a 120 million investment in campus infrastructure over the next five years and will build two new mixed-use residence halls, a new Welcome Center and new campus entrance. Underway is a complete renovation of SU’s oldest academic building, Mood-Bridwell Hall constructed in 1908 and strong progress continues to be made on a backlog of deferred maintenance, including a re-leveling of the library, installation of a new chilled water loop, renovation of the physical plant, and planning for the construction of a second physical plant.

Under Dr. Trombley’s leadership SU is also making major improvements to its athletics programs. A new athletic director was hired to help guide a number of major initiatives including a planned mixed-use athletics facility and stadium that will bring football games back to campus for the first time in 75 years. Over the next two years, Southwestern will move to the Southern Athletic Association, with the football team joining in the fall of 2023 and the remaining 19 sports joining in the fall of 2025. 

In the summer of 2022 Aramark became SU’s new food provider, resulting in approximately $200,000 of additional earnings on an annual basis and more than $3 million in capital improvements. Defying national trends, SU has seen record-breaking numbers of applications in the past two cycles. The 2022-23 school year also saw the acceptance rate move to the 30th percentile (vs. the 50th in 2021). The University continues to set records in philanthropy. In her third year, Southwestern enjoyed its second highest year for fundraising with over 18 million in gifts. The launch of the 5-Year Tactical Plan inspired donations exceeding $100 million toward our tactical initiatives. The Thrive comprehensive campaign, publicly launched in April 2023, is on track to surpass its $150 million goal by the end of 2025.

A driver of change and growth in the coming years is the University’s ownership of more than 1,200 acres of land, some gifted more than a century ago. Thanks to the extraordinary increase in real estate values and businesses moving to Central Texas, two noncontiguous parcels were sold in 2022, netting the University $28 million. For the 500 acres that are contiguous to campus, Dr. Trombley charged a Real Estate Development Committee to select a development partner to build a $2 billion liberal arts-infused community that will include a business park, housing with mixed-use retail, restaurants and hotels, arts and cultural venues, and recreational areas. Another project underway is a farm-to-table concept restaurant that will be developed on SU-owned property that is adjacent to the University expected to open in the first quarter of 2025.

Pitzer College

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: 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 tenured track faculty increased to 51% female and 31% ethnic minorities. The faculty student ratio improved 29% (from 1:14 to 1:10). First-year 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. 

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.

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 and 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.”

Huntington Library

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 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.

University of Bridgeport

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. 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 intramural 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 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 was 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 them 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. The University also ranked among the top undergraduate engineering programs in the country. Also 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.”