The president of Whittier College announced her resignation Friday amid financial troubles, plunging enrollment and criticism of her performance at one of California’s oldest liberal arts institutions.
Linda Oubré, who took the helm five years ago, did not address the controversies in her resignation email, sent to the campus community. She said it was the “right time” to step down.
“My five years as President of Whittier College will be ones that I will look back on with pride,” she wrote. “It is our students, many of who, like me, are the first in their families to go to college, that have motivated and sustained me in this work. … We make a difference and we change the world one student at a time.”
She said she sought to reaffirm the college’s values of social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion to help students succeed and had made the “tough decision” to realign resources. “We have faced hard challenges and headwinds due to the shifting context for higher education. And we have thrived and are well positioned for the future,” she wrote.
Kenya L. Williams, interim chair of the Whittier Board of Trustees, expressed appreciation for Oubré’s leadership, crediting her with attracting the largest gift in college history: a $12-million unrestricted donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Williams’ statement on behalf of the board also credited Oubré with steering the campus through the COVID-19 pandemic and an eight-year reaccrediation process, and expanding efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We are very appreciative of her hard work and have complete confidence that Linda’s leadership and vision have built a strong foundation for Whittier’s future,” Williams said.
Elizabeth Power Robison, another trustee, was critical of Oubré and some of her fellow board members.
“President Oubré’s departure is just the first step to restore this venerable college,” she said in a statement. “The Board of Trustees remains negligent in its fiduciary duties to the institution. Our highest priority is establishing qualified leadership on the Board and in the Administration. We are not there yet.”
The college was founded in 1887 by the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, but is secular today. It is the alma mater of President Nixon.
In recent years, Whittier has seen enrollment plunge 35%, from 1,853 students in 2018 to about 1,200. The decreases have driven down annual revenue by 29% over roughly the same period, according to audited financial statements. In an effort to balance the books, the college last year cut football and three other sports programs and unveiled plans to sell the president’s residence, Wardman House, a hilltop mansion with views to the ocean.
Enrollment downturns — brought on by population declines and rising tuition costs — have buffeted other small colleges across the country. The pandemic exacerbated their woes.
Whittier has also grappled with a leadership crisis, including numerous departures from the board.
Oubré, Whittier’s first Black president, was hired with top-flight credentials: dean of San Francisco State University’s business college; a corporate manager for two decades, including stints at the Walt Disney Co. and the Los Angeles Times; developer of numerous business ventures; a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Business School.
She was outspoken about barriers to educational equity, criticizing higher-education leadership for lacking diversity and saying Whittier itself was entrenched with pockets of racist attitudes. Others countered that the problem was mismanagement by college leaders.
Frustration and alarm about the college’s direction had mounted. The Whittier chapter of the American Assn. of University Professors told the board this year that the college suffered from “mismanagement” and was in “turmoil.” Alumni and students complained about the college’s troubles in open letters and social media posts.
Oubré declined an interview request. She said in her annual college address that Whittier was “financially strong and not in danger of closing.”
The college will begin a national search for a successor. Professor sal johnston, the vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, will serve as interim president after Oubré’s June 30 departure, Williams said.
Alesix Timko and Shreya Agrawal, reporters with the investigative journalism program at USC, contributed to this story.