Q&A: Meet Laura Trombley, Southwestern University’s new president

Laura E. Skandera Trombley became Southwestern University's first woman president July 1. (Courtesy Southwestern University)
Laura E. Skandera Trombley became Southwestern University's first woman president July 1. (Courtesy Southwestern University)

Laura E. Skandera Trombley became Southwestern University's first woman president July 1. (Courtesy Southwestern University)

Southwestern University President Laura E. Skandera Trombley took over her new role July 1.

Trombley was named president April 3 after former President Edward Burger stepped down at the end of the 2019. She is also the first woman president of the university.

“I am really happy to be here, and I am looking forward to meeting everyone here who are a part of the Southwestern community as well as becoming an active Georgetown community member,” she said.

Trombley was previously the president of University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. She attended Pepperdine University at age 16 and earned a Bachelor of Arts in English/Humanities as well as a Master of Arts in English. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California.

What drew you to Southwestern University?

What drew me to Southwestern first is its great history in that it is the first institution of higher education in Texas. That was really quite interesting to me—its importance and significance. And then, as I learned about Southwestern, I realized that as someone who had a liberal arts education, this was an institution of the highest order that had programs for students that I had always wished had been offered. I’m talking about programs with emphasis on interdisciplinary work and transdisciplinary work as well as mosaic, where we're looking at the development of the whole student, not just classroom performance. That is something that didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate.

I was so impressed, and when I came and met with people here on campus, I just walked away really enjoying the conversations that I had with students here. They are clearly very involved, very passionate, and they’re activists, and I really liked that kind of student population. So those were the reasons why I was particularly interested in coming, and I am happiest, quite frankly, in a liberal arts environment.

The coronavirus pandemic has altered education in the United States. How will you ensure students of SU will continue to get a quality education during this time?

Even though my first day officially starts [July 1], I have been part of conversations folks have been having on campus for the last several months. All of those conversations have started from the place of making sure that we can, despite the pandemic and its challenges, still offer what we consider to be an excellent liberal arts undergraduate education. Enormous amounts of time and energy have been devoted to that. And we are working with experts as well as our faculty and staff here on campus to make sure that we can keep students safe and healthy and, at the same time, deliver class in person.

With coronavirus cases increasing in the area, do you think SU will alter its current plan for on-campus classes in the fall?

I think [on-campus learning] is a big component for our students as well as myself. I was teaching this past spring and, in the course of a week, went online, and while we finished the class and I would say that we had a successful class, there was, in terms of my experience as well as for my students, such an absence of the community we had developed in class. I think the joy we felt coming together and having a free-ranging conversation and talking about literature, we couldn’t really recreate while we were online. And because of the absence of the in-person instruction, what I am hearing from students more and more is a deeper appreciation of just how important the residential experience is for them.

Now, we certainly want to embrace that obviously and have people come on campus and have class together, but we have to take multiple measure to make sure that we're having everyone in a safe environment. Like everyone else, I have been watching and reading the news constantly, and if we need to, we might have to resort to online [learning]. But that certainly isn’t anything that would be our first option. We would try and crate a safe environment so people could be together in person.

Diversity has also been a hot topic recently. How will you ensure students of color and different backgrounds feel welcome at SU, and what are some of your top priorities when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

The way that we are making students feel welcome [is by having] a very proactive group of administrators and directors and residence assistants and certainly faculty who are reaching out to students at this time. We have very small class sizes, we have a very active advising and mentoring [staff], and we also have a number of programs for students of color as well as organizations. In fact, when I was visiting here, I met with some of those student leaders, and we talked about what their concerns were, what their aspirations were.

In terms of what I would like to see regarding diversity is—what we’ve been hearing in particular in the last month is greater representation through all ranks. It’s time for us to, I think, look at what we have been doing and then come together and re-envision where we really want to be, and then, we have the opportunity to evolve. I think that means that we need to have a greater representation on campus, not just in terms of people of color, but we also need to look at the kind of curriculum we are offering, the kinds of programs we have and also how included students feel and are in terms of the on-campus governance that we have.

What other priorities do you have for SU that you would like to accomplish in your first year?

First, I’d like to make our way through the pandemic. Then, I’d like to begin—likely in the spring—a tactical planning process that would create a five-year plan for the institution that we could put into practice by the end of next year. Without the pandemic, I would have given an earlier timeline, but I think this fall, it’s still undetermined what will happen, so I am giving this an extra semester. We have some decisions to make—I mentioned faculty, curriculum. But [I] also think we need to discuss—how do we really want to perhaps really re-engage our thinking about what is the ideal residential experience? I know that the university has been planning growth in terms of total student numbers, and with that, we will need to have additional housing available because we don’t have enough housing right now to house all of our students. And there’s a great interest here, in addition to social justice diversity, in sustainability. So how could we continue to create a highly sustainable and environmentally minded campus in terms of our current practice and any additional buildings we may bring online?


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