Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Milestones / Dean Gary Kates
Whatís Next for Dean Kates?

Interview by Mary Marvin


After serving eight years as vice president and dean of the college, Gary Kates will take a yearlong sabbatical before returning in 2010 to full-time teaching as a Pomona College history professor. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a B.A. from Pitzer College and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and was a professor and dean at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, for 20 years. Kates, who will be succeeded this summer by Cecilia (Cece) Conrad, recently sat down with PCM to talk about his student days, his years as dean and what he doesnít have planned for the future.

What small colleges do best
One of the things I learned at Pitzer is that good small colleges reach out to you. They get you out of your shell, out of the limited ways you think about who you are and what you want to be. I was not a particularly gifted student in high school; I was very social and into music. At Pitzer, I became a born-again intellectual. I discovered reading and books and was influenced by some key professors, including a history professor at CMC who encouraged me to go to graduate school.

10:30 on a Tuesday morning
Before I went to Pitzer, I was going to become either a lawyer or a rabbi. By the fall of my senior year, I had decided I wasnít going to rabbinical school. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had applied to six graduate schools in history and seven law schools. I finally figured it out by asking this question: ďWhat is a lawyer doing at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and what is a history professor doing at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning?Ē I figured whatever anybody does, theyíre doing it at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning. I thought about it and decided Iíd rather be doing what a history professor does.

Working under the hood
I was drawn to working in administration in the same way that a lot of people who drive cars want to go under the hood and find out how they work. It started in a first-year seminar on the politics of the university, taught by Pitzer College President Bob Atwell. A lot of the course was about the free speech movement in Berkeley and what was happening on other college campuses. That not only drove my interest in the 1960s and later led to my graduate school study of 18th-century Europe and the French Revolution, but it also seeded an interest in college administration.

Inheriting luck and good fortune
I found out there is a lot of luck and good fortune that you inherit when youíre in a place as good as Pomona. Part of Pomonaís success is having a high percentage of students for whom the College is their first choice. Iíve come to realize that it is more important than SAT scores, more important than a lot of things. The students who come to Pomona have a lot of other choices, but they really want to be here and want to make the most of it. And that sets the tone for the whole College.

Providing building blocks, strengthening relationships
I was blessed to be at the College during a time of fiscal health, and the two presidents I worked with, Peter Stanley and David Oxtoby, allowed me to put those resources into growing the tenured track faculty. Weíve added over 25 tenure track lines since Iíve been dean, and thatís been a wonderful accomplishment. You really feel youíre providing the building blocks for the College for the next 30 or 40 years.

Iíve also tried to do as much as I can to strengthen the relationships among the Claremont Colleges. Iím the first dean who has graduated from one college and become dean of another. As an administrator, I know that the consortium can sometimes be difficult and frustrating to manage. As a former student, I know what a gift the Claremont system is. Pomona benefits so much from being in the consortium; the relationships among the colleges are so close and interlocking that our fates really are tied together. There have been periods in the our history when weíve turned away from the consortium or let our diplomacy slide a bit, so I feel a lot of pride that David Oxtoby and I have put those relationships on the front burner.

One foot in the classroom
Iíve taught one course every semester, which is very unusual for someone in my profession. If Pomona needs to be about the students, someone sitting in my chair canít forget that. It probably drove my staff crazy, but Iím so glad I kept teaching. Itís going to make the reentry into the classroom easier.

The next stage
When youíre lucky enough to become a dean of a college like Pomona in your 50s, you are naturally primed to be a college president. Iíve been approached by headhunters, so Iíve had to think about that. As interesting as being a college president would be, my ambitions and fantasies for the next stage of my life are much more in a Pomona classroom. Itís a no-brainer because this is such a wonderful place to teach that youíd like to stay awhile and have that experience.

Planning not to plan
I tend to plan too much too early and commit to different projects, so I keep telling myself I shouldnít have a plan for the sabbatical until Iím in it. I know Iím returning to the 18th century, but I donít want to lock myself in until Iíve read widely and let myself imagine different possibilities.

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