Oubré on working her magic wand

Emmanuel Jones

FOR THE QC

Whittier College President Dr. Linda Oubré gestured to a picture up on the on the fourth row of the dark wooden bookshelf. It depicted an African-American gentleman with a white mustache, pushing a walker with a large “Join the 99 percent” poster taped to it. The gentleman was Oubré’s maternal grandfather, 97 years old at the time, at a rally for Trayvon Martin, an African-American 17-year-old shot by George Zimmerman in 2012.

Both of Oubré’s grandparents were involved in the Union Rights and Civil Rights Movement as she was growing up. They taught Oubré about the importance of speaking up for herself. They also taught her about the value of education. Despite her grandfather not attending school past third grade, Oubré considers him one of the smartest people she has known. “No one can take [your education] away from you. It’s the one thing that no one can ever take away from you,” he used to say to her.

Oubré’s grandparents and parents pushed her to go to college, and after four years, she graduated from University of California Los Angeles. She graduated cum laude in 1980 and became the first person in her family to complete college.

On the eve of her inauguration as the Whittier College President, Dr. Linda Oubré agreed to sit down for a wide-ranging interview focusing on her experience as a businessperson and educator, as well as her vision for the College’s future.

Before even applying for the position, Oubré established connections with the College. In 2015, she decided to go back to school to get her executive doctorate in higher education management, attending the University of Pennsylvania where Dr. Robert Zemsky, an alumnus of Whittier College, taught her. Although she knew of Whittier College from growing up in Southern California, Oubré became much more familiar with the institution after hearing Zemsky talk about it in his research and in his class.

Oubré has worked in the higher education industry for two decades, prior to which she served as president and in other executive positions for several private companies, including LSO Ventures, Walt Disney Company, and Trimcom Ventures. After deciding to offer the position to Oubré, the board of trustees asked for her opinion on which areas the school needed to improve. She stated that there did not appear to be anyone doing industry relations. As she explained, it is developing partnerships with companies to work with the students.

Oubré added, “Most organizations are very interested in our student body, whether it’s healthcare, the financial sector, tech, or whatever it is; they want employees who look like their customers.”

Whittier College has begun to receive more attention as the student body has become increasingly diverse, a trend now being followed by other universities, including being named number 15 in the nation in upward social mobility by U.S. News and World Report.

Although the student population is very diverse, Oubré suggests the school still has work to do with equity and inclusion, as there are notable academic disparities between groups.

One of her biggest concerns is the rate at which the College is losing its male students of color, with those who participate in sports leaving at an even higher rate.  

As a result, Oubré has been meeting with faculty and staff to educate them on how to support students. She is also following through with a plan she presented to the board of trustees in her interview last March by having the entire faculty participate in equity and inclusion training.  

“I always say that diversity is a numbers game,” Oubré stated. “You’re counting the numbers and checking the boxes, but equity and inclusion are hard work.”

Oubré has already started to bring in diverse new leadership. Recently, she hired a new interim Vice President of Advancement Timothy Anderson, an African-American and Latino man from Watts who, like Oubré, received a Master of Business Administration from Harvard.

Anderson also worked alongside Oubré at San Francisco State as her Chief of Fundraising. During Anderson’s and Oubré’s time at San Francisco State, they worked together to increase the school’s fundraising by over 300 percent.

When Oubré first came to Whittier in August, she would trek across campus from Mendenhall to the Science and Learning  Center in the balmy 105-degree heat to sit down with professors and faculty in their offices. So far, she has met roughly 60 of the 100 or so faculty members. In every meeting, she asks the same two questions: “What you want me to know as new president? And, if I had a magic wand, what would you want me to do?”

Oubré gives faculty the chance to imagine her as their fairy godmother because she wants them to disregard the idea of not being able to do something due to lack of funding. She mentions that she has found a lot of what faculty considers unattainable can actually be achieved.

Through these meetings, Oubré has become familiar with most faculty members; however, she does not consider herself friends with anyone. Oubré first became familiar with the housekeeping, grounds keeping, and facilities staff. She explained that she feels like they typically get ignored, but her grandparents taught her to pay attention to the people who keep institutions running, rather than those with the big titles. Even if students only meet Oubré once, they can be sure she will at least extend a warm smile and say “hello.”

One sentiment Oubré has repeatedly expressed in past interviews is that there are relatively few women who are university presidents, and, among them, women of color are quite rare. When asked whether she had faced additional challenges in her career stemming from being a woman of color, Oubré said, “I would be lying if I said I never faced unique challenges like that . . . at every stage of my life there have been challenges because of that. However, I also embrace those challenges because I think that there’s an advantage.”

Oubré further stated, “I’ve been where the students are for the most part, so I understand that. But yes, it’s different, which is why I started talking early on about how we are an extremely diverse campus, but we need to start talking about equity and inclusion and making sure that every student feels welcome here.”

Oubré’s family background is reflective of the multicultural environment she grew up with in Los Angeles. Her mother is African-American, her biological father is European and Native American, and her stepfather is Jewish.

She graduated from Hollywood High School in 1976, which, at the time, was the most diverse school in Los Angeles. Attending a school with a population that was equal parts Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Armenian taught Oubré to appreciate different cultures.

Additionally, it taught her to value people’s individuality and accept them rather than judge them. Oubré has observed the cultural melting pot of Los Angeles for six decades and has seen the city change a lot physically. Even when Oubré lived in Northern California, she would visit her family in Los Angeles five or six times a year to see her sons, and she has always considered it home.

She spent eight years working in Downtown L.A. at the Los Angeles Times, and she remembers when no one wanted to be in downtown. However, Oubré loves that people are now embracing the city, that Los Angeles maintains its multiculturalism, and the fact that the city’s diversity is visible outside of downtown and all over Los Angeles County.

One of the things that has impacted Oubré most since coming to Whittier is seeing the pride students and faculty of color take in having a president who is like them. A wide smile showed across the president’s face as she told me she heard an African-American student say, “We’re so happy you’re here; there’s someone who can relate to us, and you understand.”

We shared a laugh as I suggested she was a beacon of hope for the school, the way that U.S. President Obama was for the country in 2012. She joked that she hoped she could be as impactful as Michelle. Although Oubré is extremely dedicated to her work and capable of pushing herself, her biggest motivator is the student body.

She stated, “I get energized by being able to change students’ lives, especially the type of students we have here at Whittier. I always like to say that we change not only the students’ lives, but the lives of their families, their siblings, their extended families, and their communities. You touch one student, and it can change the lives of so many other people. And that’s what I like about the students. [Since] that’s my life experience, it must resonate differently with me than someone who doesn’t have that background.”