Huntington Library picks Pitzer College president as next chief

Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College in Claremont who has been chosen as the next president of the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, seen on the Huntington's grounds.
Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College in Claremont who has been chosen as the next president of the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, seen on the Huntington’s grounds.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

After nearly 10 months searching the globe for its next president, the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has found her about 27 miles down the freeway in Claremont: Pitzer College’s president, Laura Skandera Trombley, who’ll become the first woman to lead the sprawling, 207-acre multidisciplinary hub for art, the humanities and botany since it opened in 1927.

Trombley, a literary biographer whose books have focused on the women in Mark Twain’s life, has led Pitzer since 2002. She’ll succeed Steven Koblik at the Huntington helm in July 2015. He announced his impending retirement in February.

Koblik leaves a nearly 14-year legacy of robust growth that sets up the next administration with an array of new gardens, galleries and a $68 million entrance, education and visitor center, named for Koblik. The new entrance will open next month and the other facilities in the spring.

Trombley, 54, also will inherit something any cultural institution’s chief executive covets: an ample endowment, about $450 million, that’s second only to the mammoth J. Paul Getty Trust among Los Angeles’ arts and cultural institutions.

In the four fiscal years following the Great Recession, the Huntington raised $302 million under Koblik, keyed by a $123-million bequest from its longtime patron, Frances Brody.


Trombley grew up in Southern California and earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in English from Pepperdine and USC, respectively. Her books include “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years” (2010) and “Mark Twain in the Company of Women,” (1994).

The Huntington “is a place I know well, and it has been a constant part of my personal and scholarly life,” Trombley said in the Huntington’s announcement Tuesday of her hiring.

The connection, she said, began in her childhood, strolling through the botanical gardens with her mother, and continued after she became a literary scholar who used the Huntington’s collection of books and historical documents in her research.

The Huntington’s appeal to a public exceeding 600,000 visitors a year springs mainly from the gardens that take up much of the estate bequeathed by industrial magnate Henry Huntington, and humanities and art collections that include a Gutenberg Bible, a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s complete works and the famous 18th century British portraits “Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough and “Pinkie” by Thomas Lawrence.

But Trombley noted the Huntington’s role as a magnet for scholars as well.

“I love the Huntington not just for its considerable library and art collections but for the importance it places on using these primary-source materials to impact scholarship, education, and — through exhibitions and displays — public understanding,” Trombley said.

“Laura is a woman of fierce intellect, a solid leader with tremendous energy and a strong vision for how to continue to build on the Huntington’s substantial strengths,” board chair Stewart Smith said in the announcement.

Smith also cited Trombley’s track record at Pitzer, a campus of about 1,000 students, praising her administrative skills in managing the college’s finances, picking top lieutenants and building its national reputation among small liberal arts schools.

U.S. News and World Report’s influential rankings had placed Pitzer 70th amng liberal arts colleges after 2002-2003, Trombley’s first academic year as president; its position quickly began to improve and Pitzer ranked 35th among 178 colleges n the magazine’s most recent list.

Trombley’s career turn is a case of history repeating: Both Koblik and his predecessor, Robert Skotheim, had plenty of seasoning as presidents of small liberal arts colleges — Koblik at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and Skotheim at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

Koblik earned $446,225 in salary and benefits in 2012, according to the Huntington’s most recent public tax filing; Pitzer’s filings show that Trombley has earned a comparable base salary for 70-hour work weeks, but retirement fund payments and benefits boosted her average annual compensation to $767,000 from 2010 to 2012.

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