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Pomona College’s new president will be the first woman and African American to lead the campus

Gabrielle Starr
G. Gabrielle Starr, a highly regarded scholar of English literature whose work reaches across neuroscience and the arts, has been selected as the 10th president of Pomona College.
(Jeff Hing / Pomona College)

Pomona College’s Board of Trustees has named G. Gabrielle Starr as the school’s next president, the first time a woman and African American has been appointed to lead the Claremont liberal arts institution.

Starr, the dean of New York University’s College of Arts and Science, will succeed David Oxtoby when he retires in June. She will join other new leaders at Scripps College and Pitzer College.

Pitzer’s appointment in January of Melvin L. Oliver, the first black president to lead one of the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges, came at a time of national campus unrest over racial, ethnic and gender equity. Across the Claremont schools, student activists had asked for steps to increase campus diversity.

At Pomona, Starr said diversity and accessibility will continue to be key issues when she takes office.

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“I think the No. 1 priority for me, and I think for a lot of colleges and universities, is to make sure that we’re building in the institution an equitable, accessible and truly free civic space that helps students and faculty achieve every part of their potential and enables students the room for thought and growth,” she said.

In an interview with The Times, she applauded Oxtoby’s recent leadership in rallying more than 300 college and university leaders across the nation to stand behind an Obama administration program that deferred deportation proceedings against certain young people who were brought to the country illegally as minors but stayed in school and out of trouble. Oxtoby wrote in an open letter that the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, should be continued and expanded as a “moral imperative and a national necessity.”

“I was really proud to see David Oxtoby and Pomona taking a lead on the questions of DACA and on access for every individual who is capable and gifted and committed and willing to attend our colleges and universities. That is what we are here for,” she said. “I absolutely will continue the commitment to undocumented students at Pomona.”

Pomona leaders pointed to Starr’s “inclusive leadership style,” as well as her academic accomplishments and unique background in literature and neuroscience, when they selected her as the school’s 10th president.

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Starr “embodies the liberal arts,” said Sam Glick, chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees, who said that he admired her “intellect, vision and humanity.”

Starr, who grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., in a family of educators, began her studies at Emory University at age 15. She had plans to major in chemistry and become a doctor. But she found herself drawn to the then-emerging field of women’s studies, which she majored in for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. True to the liberal arts experience, she also spent a year abroad in Scotland, where she studied the philosophy of language, Arabic and French.

She went on to Harvard University, where she earned a doctorate in English and literature in 1999. During a post-doctoral fellowship at Caltech and the Huntington Library, she began combining her interests in science and the humanities. In 2000, she was awarded a fellowship at NYU to further her studies in neuroscience and its intersection with aesthetics and the arts — looking at how people think about, and how the human body responds to, music, painting and poetry. Her work has been supported by such organizations as the National Science Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

At NYU, Starr served as the chairwoman of the university’s English department and director of undergraduate studies before becoming the dean of the liberal arts college. She currently co-chairs NYU’s task force on equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as the university’s task force on preventing sexual violence. Pomona leaders also point to her work with community colleges and in a university-prison program she co-founded that offers associate degrees to inmates at a medium-security prison in New York.

Starr said she is excited to live in Southern California again and to build off Oxtoby’s legacy on campus as a scientist who promoted creativity and the arts.

“Pomona’s a place where you’re always looking for an intellectual connection that goes beyond your immediate area of focus,” she said. “Pomona really has been, for me, one of the most important leaders in undergraduate liberal arts and the relationship between the liberal arts and the broader world. It has an extraordinary history of just punching way above its weight in terms of producing leaders, in terms of producing educators, researchers, lawmakers and people who really care.”

Click here for a Spanish version of this story

rosanna.xia@latimes.com

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