He grew up in a hardscrabble home with only one book — the Bible — and parents who worked blue-collar jobs and never advanced beyond ninth grade.
But Melvin L. Oliver rose to become an award-winning University of California professor, researcher, author and administrator noted for championing campus racial diversity. Now he will become the sixth president of Pitzer College — and the first African American to lead one of the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges, officials announced Wednesday.
Oliver, 65, will assume office July 1 at a time of national campus unrest over racial, ethnic and gender equity, including protests that forced out the dean of students at nearby Claremont McKenna College last year. Pitzer student activists have also asked for steps to increase campus diversity.
Oliver, who has tackled racial and economic inequality with both research and practical initiatives during three decades at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, along with a stint at the Ford Foundation, said he would seek to address those concerns as one of his top priorities.
“I want to deepen the commitment of Pitzer to recruiting, supporting and graduating those students [of color] because I think it’s an exceptional education and I want it to be available to as many of them as possible,” he said in an interview.
The University of California, Santa Barbara, has established a visiting professorship to honor Ella Baker, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and its network of Freedom Schools. Baker was born in 1903, the granddaughter of slaves. She was the valedictorian of the Class of 1927 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She joined the NAACP in 1940 as a field secretary and then served as director of branches. She later move the Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Baker died in 1986.
The first holder of the Ella Baker Visiting Professorship is Shana Redmond, an associate professor of American and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California. While at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she will teach, lecture, conduct research, and produce a special edition of the BLST Review.
“Shana Redmond perfectly fits our expectations for the Ella Baker Visiting Professor,” said Jeffrey Stewart, professor and chair of Black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “She is very enthusiastic about working with undergraduates. Indeed, her personal embrace of the spirit of the Ella Baker Professorship and her sense of the larger possibilities of collaboration with students that the professorship embodies made her a clear choice for the position.”