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.
Oliver taught sociology at UCLA from 1978 to 1996 and was named California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, among other awards. In 1989, he co-founded the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty to train more poverty researchers of color — an initiative he said he was inspired to create after attending an academic conference on the mostly Latino and African American urban underclass and finding that nearly all presenters were white.
His 1995 book, "Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality," co-written with Thomas M. Shapiro, won numerous awards, including the Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from the American Sociological Assn.
In addition, Oliver served as a vice president at the Ford Foundation, leading a program that offered $50 million for home mortgages to 35,000 low-income households, among other efforts. At Ford, he also created a grant program to support communities of color that are often disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.
Oliver said that when he arrives at Pitzer, he'd like to develop more environmental justice initiatives with the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability. The campus was the first in Southern California to divest nearly all fossil fuel stocks in 2014.
A Pittsburgh native raised in Cleveland, Oliver said he developed an early love of books in elementary school during after-school visits to the library, where he waited for his mother to pick him up after work. He said he earned mostly Cs in high school — in part because he worked 20 hours a week for $1 an hour at a supermarket — but was always intellectually curious, reading Shakespeare on his own.
He earned his undergraduate degree at William Penn College in Iowa and his master's and doctoral degrees from Washington University in St. Louis.
He will succeed Laura Skandera Trombley as president of the 1,000-student liberal arts campus.