Growing up surrounded by tract housing in a Los Angeles suburb, Laura Skandera Trombley PhD ’89 loved to escape with her mother to visit the Huntington Library. There, on the San Marino grounds, the youngster played. She marveled at the beauty of the formal, manicured gardens and at Thomas Gainsborough’s celebrated 18th-century portrait “The Blue Boy.”
This month, Trombley’s life came full circle as the Pitzer College president and noted Mark Twain scholar was named the new president of The Huntington. She will succeed Steven Koblik upon his retirement in July and is the first woman to take the helm of the prestigious institution with a staff of 450, since it opened in 1927.
To be the first woman president of The Huntington shows the board and directors are very interested in inclusiveness.
Laura Skandera Trombley
A marvelous match
“To be the first woman president of The Huntington shows the board and directors are very interested in inclusiveness,” Trombley said. “I think they’re excited to have someone who has grown up in Southern California and has been part of their orbit for 40 years and who I would hope is well prepared to assume this position in every way. So I think it’s a wonderful match in all ways.”
As a doctoral student in English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in the 1980s, Trombley had rediscovered The Huntington, becoming a regular visitor to the institution’s archives as she researched her dissertation on Twain — a dissertation she later turned into Mark Twain in the Company of Women (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), her first book.
Upon completion of her doctorate at USC, Trombley accepted a teaching position at the State University of New York in Potsdam, where she served as assistant provost. After five years as vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Coe College in Iowa, she became president of Pitzer College in 2002.
A few years ago, she returned once more to The Huntington archives to research her fifth book, Mark Twain and the Other Woman (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). In December 2012, President Barack Obama named Trombley to the 12-member J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, established by the U.S. Congress to supervise the global Fulbright program.
Running The Huntington is a complex, fascinating, important job.
“Running The Huntington is a complex, fascinating, important job. The appointment of Laura Skandera Trombley is exciting on so many fronts,” said William Deverell, professor and chair of history and director of The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. “She is a respected, highly successful leader in higher education; she’s a fine literary scholar whose work explores fascinating dimensions of the life and legacies of a canonical American writer; and she knows The Huntington well. It will be a pleasure to work with her, as it has been to work with her predecessors.”
Peter Mancall, USC Dornsife’s vice dean for the humanities, echoed Deverell’s sentiments.
“It’s wonderful that a leading scholar who received her Ph.D. from our English department will take the lead at an institution that many Dornsife faculty and graduate students regularly use,” said Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, professor of history and anthropology, and Linda and Harlan Martens Director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.
“I look forward to working with her and my colleague Bill Deverell during the next stage of the partnerships we have created with the institutes for early modern studies and for California and the West.”
Trombley said she is determined to use her new position at The Huntington as a platform from which to convince the public of the vital importance of the humanities.
“The Huntington, like all institutions, whether they be liberal arts colleges or museums or intellectual centers, must consistently demonstrate their relevancy,” she said. “Simple survival is not nearly enough. To instill the importance of thought and the appreciation of the humanities in future generations, you have to demonstrate why they are absolutely crucial. The Huntington is perfectly positioned to do just that.”
Describing The Huntington as “a beautiful distillation of the humanities,” Trombley said it heralds the importance of the humanities as essential in our lives by its presentation of them from numerous perspectives — from the aesthetic beauty of the botanical gardens and art galleries to its collections of world-class manuscripts, and most recently, music in the form of concerts.
Life and the humanities are inextricable, she said.
In some ways the humanities are like involuntary breathing. Human existence fully realized would almost cease to exist in the absence of the humanities.
Laura Skandera Trombley
“In some ways the humanities are like involuntary breathing. Human existence fully realized would almost cease to exist in the absence of the humanities. We’re talking about a world without any sense of beauty, without any questioning of one’s existential relationship with the universe, without any critical faculties, without the ability to have an emotional reaction to poetry or music or movies. That is simply a possibility that nobody would want to entertain, but the humanities are so ingrained and so much a part of all of us that I think we tend to take them for granted.”
As president, Trombley plans to combat that tendency by expanding The Huntington’s use of information technology to present its collections in new and innovative ways.
“Too often there is a sense that there is a binary opposition between technology and the humanities and that is utterly false,” she said. “It’s a partnership, and it can add a wealth of information, context and relevancy in ways that can reach all generations.”
Trombley credits her dissertation chair, Jay Martin, the Leo S. Bing Chair Emeritus of English, with being her greatest inspiration at USC Dornsife, where she was the Lester and Irene Finkelstein Fellow and received the Virginia Barbara Middleton and the English Graduate Student scholarships.
“Dr. Martin gave me an entrée into my chosen field of Mark Twain studies,” she said. “He is a phenomenal individual who had a profound impact on me.
“Frankly, the kind of support that USC was able to offer me as a self-supporting graduate student made all the difference in the world,” she added. “It actually determined whether I would become a Ph.D. or not, so I am forever grateful to USC. It’s an absolutely phenomenal, world-class institution.”
During her 13-year tenure as president of Pitzer, Trombley was inspired by The Huntington to create an archive and to hire the college’s first curator. She filled many on-campus galleries with art and transformed the campus into a desert arboretum.
“In fact we hired the former curator of The Huntington to oversee the creation of our desert and native garden at Pitzer. In some ways I’ve been working to create my own version of The Huntington while president of Pitzer because The Huntington made such an enormous impression on me ever since I was a child.”
A legacy of love
What kind of legacy would she like to leave at The Huntington?
Without missing a beat, Trombley responded, “That I acknowledged all of those who came before me and that I tried to encourage and instill a love of the humanities in future generations.”
Asked whether The Huntington would be hosting a Mark Twain exhibition under her presidency, Trombley laughed, before replying, “I think we can safely assume that will be happening at some moment. After all, when you have an author of 33 books, there’s always an anniversary to celebrate.”