Hoping to span eras at Oxy

Times Staff Writer

Robert Skotheim was at first amused when he was invited to become president of Occidental College, even for just 18 months. "I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of," he recalled.

After all, the former professor of American history had been in happy retirement for six years in the Seattle area after heading the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino and, before that, Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. And he was about to turn 75, with eight grandchildren about the age of Occidental students.

But then Skotheim began to think more deeply about Occidental, the well-regarded liberal arts college perched in Los Angeles' hilly Eagle Rock district, and the campus' recent traumatic history of executive revolving doors. He knew it needed a calming figure, someone "for cosmetic purposes, if nothing else, to suggest stability and continuity."

So he agreed to become president from last monthuntil June 2009, when a more permanent executive is to be installed. Skotheim said he hoped to get the campus past the publicly embarrassing resignation of previous president Susan Westerberg Prager after only 17 months on the job as a result of disagreements with trustees over her management style.

The campus, which has 1,877 students and 150 full-time faculty, seems relieved by Skotheim's arrival and the aura he projects of scholarly calm and -- yes, the term keeps coming up -- grandfatherly shrewdness. Students and faculty say the executive turmoil has not harmed basic education, research, social life and Occidental's impressive record in Division Three sports, but they worry that continuing troubles could start to badly affect the school.

"We are ready for stability," said Ali Raymond, a student activist from San Francisco with a double major in world affairs and Russian. Like all her fellow seniors, she has seen four presidents at Occidental in her four years:

Theodore R. Mitchell, who surprised the campus by leaving after six years to lead an education reform group; an interim president, Kenyon Chan, now chancellor of University of Washington, Bothell; Prager, a former dean of UCLA law school; and now Skotheim.

Through all that, Raymond remains a strong partisan of Occidental and its 120-acre campus of Mediterranean red-tile roofs and olive trees. She passed up admissions offers from, among other places, Columbia University and UC Berkeley, for Occidental's intimate scale and close faculty interaction. Also appealing was an unusually diverse student body, of which about 45% is not white.

Her unhappiness about the presidential turnover is overcome when "you realize the vast amount of opportunities and friendships and faculty relationships," said Raymond, who spent a semester studying in Russia and held an internship at the United Nations.

Economics professor A.H. (Woody) Studenmund stressed that the college was doing well in attracting strong students and faculty, unaffected by the leadership shuffles. He described the selection of Skotheim as "an excellent choice in a very difficult situation."

"If Bob Skotheim calms people down and helps us find us a new excellent president, that would be a phenomenal job," said Studenmund, a former administrator.

But he said he was concerned that the school could lose its momentum if it did not find a strong long-term leader soon.

Trustees on Occidental's governing board say that, more than anything else, bad timing and little advance notice about Mitchell's and Prager's departures contributed to the instability and the need for interim leaders. Some critics say that the trustees have not shown enough vision in selecting presidents, planning Occidental's future and garnering money.

Occidental emerged from a period of budget deficits in the late '90s and raised its profile beyond Southern California. A generation ago, it seemed shy about touting its location, but now uses nearby Hollywood's cultural and media buzz as a recruiting point.

The number of applications more than doubled in the past decade -- to about 5,750 -- and about 60% of current freshmen are from out of state. Last month, the school opened its first new residence hall in 25 years, a $38-million facility with 274 beds.

The campus received some extra national attention recently in news articles noting that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama attended Occidental for two years before he transferred to Columbia University in 1981, although Obama has disappointed the Los Angeles school by not visiting it during his current campaign.

(From the other party, former football star and Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp graduated from Occidental in 1957.)

Occidental last year also garnered some unwanted publicity. Conservative critics of academia in the Young America's Foundation placed the school on a national shortlist for teaching what they said was the "most bizarre and politically correct courses," including a class on the "Phallus" and the theories of Sigmund Freud.

Occidental faculty dismissed the criticism as an uninformed attack on a school that sends many alumni to prestigious graduate schools and fellowships, but some privately chuckled with self-recognition.

Occidental is ranked 36th among the nation's top liberal arts colleges in the latest rankings by U.S. News & World Report, up five steps from two years ago. A major reason the school is not ranked higher is its endowment, which was $378 million as of June 30, 2007.

That is considered small compared with higher-ranked rivals such as Pomona College (which had $1.7 billion), according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Occidental raised $25.7 million last year, a record. But giving is down 10% so far this year, and campus spokesman Jim Tranquada said it was unclear how much of that may be due to a weaker economy and whether the presidential changes had any effect. Some faculty point to a six-month vacancy in the top fundraising position, but say they are pleased with Skotheim's recent appointment of John Tomlinson, of USC's law school, to fill that post.

Skotheim said he would beat the bushes for donations during his 18 months but that he would focus mainly on improving the working climate on campus, in part to attract a top-flight successor. "There is a need for people to pull together, to try to understand why the recent period has been so turbulent," he said.

A cultural historian with a bachelor's, a master's and a doctorate all from the University of Washington, he served as head of Whitman College from 1975 to 1988 and then led the Huntington until 2001. At both places, he helped boost endowments and is remembered for turning the previously insular Huntington into a popular tourist spot and research center, including reaching out to the Asian American communities nearby.

That record was appealing but so was his personality, said Dennis Collins, chairman of Occidental's trustees. "The kind of wisdom he is able to transmit in a very friendly and unassuming, aw-shucks kind of way was very endearing," Collins said. "Some healing is going to have to take place, and Bob is going to be enormously important to the college community in that process."

Skotheim said he strongly believes that small liberal arts and science colleges provide a much better learning environment than large universities.

"It's where the best social, personal, intellectual and academic development for young people take place," he said. Yet he and his wife, Nadine, have no intention of staying at Occidental. They want, he said, to return to their Pacific Northwest home and family "in 18 months and not linger."

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

1887

Year founded in Boyle Heights

1914

Year moved to Eagle Rock

39%

Freshmen from California

61%

Freshmen from out of state

1930

Median freshman SAT score (out of 2400)

$34,440

Annual tuition

$13,111

Other annual expenses

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Source: Occidental College

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