In the days leading up to Inauguration, Whittier College President Linda Oubré agreed to sit down for an interview to discuss everything from student success to local partnerships. Oubré is the 15th President to serve at Whittier College, the third woman, and the first black woman to fill this role. She will officially be inaugurated on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. in the Graham Athletics Center.
Oubré said, “The challenge is to think in new, open-minded ways about growing resources for our students without raising tuition. My background is in start-ups, and I hope to bring some of that entrepreneurial thinking to the conversation here.” In this interview, we take a closer look at her plans for creating a financially sustainable campus.
Madison White (MW): Thank you for agreeing to meet with me; I know the days leading up to Inauguration are super hectic. First off, how are you feeling about Inauguration?
Linda Oubré (LO): It’s very exciting; it’s gonna be a lot of fun. There are a lot of people flying into town. It doesn’t happen often – hopefully.
MW: What was the motivation behind having a big celebration, something that spans over the course over at least a week?
LO: That was the decision of the Board of Trustees and the Committee. The fun part about this is that I’ve actually not been very involved in the details. In the spirit of equity and inclusion, we appointed a committee of stakeholders from across campus: students, faculty, alumni, staff, Board of Trustee members. They decided what Inauguration should be.
MW: You’ve been here a little over six months; what’s something that’s turned out to be better than you expected?
LO: I expected the students to really be strong and smart and engaged. They’re even more so. I only had the chance to meet with about five students during my interview, and it’s just been really great to confirm how wonderful the students really are.
MW: What was something you didn’t fully expect, or challenged the way you viewed the school originally?
LO: A lot here that I see is that it’s gorgeous and beautiful, but we really need to find a way to find some resources to put into student success, to put into some of the facilities and dorms. That’s why, when I came, I started talking about the three strategic imperatives. The second one is finding new sources of revenue. The last one is really looking at our resources and making sure they’re aligned with our mission.
MW: Can you give me a specific example of an aspect of student success you’re working to improve, and how that’s being operationalized?
LO: Let me pick one that every college or university is dealing with right now: mental health. Cases of mental health across the nation, but also in college-aged populations, is growing. It’s an area that we have wonderful staff that work as hard as they can, but sometimes, someone that has an issue might have to wait two weeks to get an appointment. We just don’t have enough resources in that area. A very simple thing is just going to find new resources so that we can hire more mental health counselors.
One thing I’m very excited about is — I’ve been here seven months, and I’ve been talking about equity and inclusion, and student success — I’ve already noticed that because we’re talking about it, especially student success, donors are saying things like, “Well, let me give money to mental health,” and it’s not a ton of money, but everything helps. I was with a foundation about two weeks ago that had visited campus two years ago and nothing came of it, and we started talking about equity and inclusion, graduating students, student success, what we need. And he said, “I’m gonna give you fifty thousand dollars. It needs to go to student success, and let’s talk every year.” Again, it doesn’t sound like big dollars; it’s not a 25 million dollar building, but 50 thousand dollars could help us hire one additional person. So, the more we talk about it, the more I think we’re going to start seeing new resources come in.
MW: One of your big goals has been to find alternative sources of revenue aside from student tuition. How is that going?
LO: Because we’ve been going out and talking about student success and programs that are needed, donors are changing what they’re giving money to. I believe in verbal branding, and I believe that you have to talk the talk, but you also have to walk the walk about what’s important to us. The other piece that we’re just getting started on is looking at non-academic types of programs that can bring in additional money. It’s things like conferences, seminars, certificates. The student market is becoming more and more interested in short-term programs. This generation, but it really started about 10 years ago. You have to continually educate yourself. You don’t necessarily have to go back and get your masters degree, so we’re looking at short-term programs.
For example, we have a wonderful audio studio across the street, we’re looking at doing audio engineering certificates, that both students can sign up for in like a MayTerm, and external students can sign up for. That’s something you get certified in — Pro Tools, and then you can be an audio engineer. There’s a huge opportunity in this sort of thing, and Whittier College has some of these things but not a lot, so that’s one thing we’re looking at. The music department is talking about taking the money they make from auto-engineering to buy new instruments that they need, so it’s about being creative.
Industry, organizations, and nonprofits are way ahead of us, and they want to come to institutions like Whittier College to build a pipeline of their future employees. We were very successful at San Francisco State, getting them to pay for things. They would pay for resume writing workshops, and leadership development workshops, and fellowships so students could learn more about [that field].
MW: How would those kind of supplemental, continuing education programs work capacity-wise for our staff and faculty?
LO: We have a lot of capacity on this campus. We have evenings, we have weekends. A lot of these types of programs are attracting a market that are not the traditional college-aged market, that wants classes 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. So we have to leverage what we already have.
Via the Whittier College website: “Linda Oubré, Ed.D., an accomplished leader in higher education and highly successful businesswoman, took office as Whittier College’s fifteenth president on July 1, 2018. A native of Los Angeles, Oubré previously served as the Dean of the College of Business at San Francisco State University (SFSU) for six years . . . During her time at SFSU, she increased fundraising by more than 300 percent — including support for student career and leadership development — and launched innovative programs, including a graduate curriculum review and a new executive MBA program.”