Laura Skandera Trombley’s new office on the eighth floor of the University of Bridgeport’s Wahlstrom Library offers a sweeping panoramic view of the Long Island Sound, Seaside Park and miles of Fairfield County. It’s a brilliant distraction, albeit one that Trombley rarely gets to fixate upon.
“I wish I could get distracted with that view,” she said, with a laugh. After taking over as the university’s 10th president in July, she has been on a whirlwind schedule of meetings with staff, students, local elected officials and administrators at area middle and high schools. And while her roots in the region were only recently planted, Trombley insisted she was in the right place at the right time.
“I believe that you love a place for what it is and you love it for what it will become,” she said. “I love Bridgeport because it is a city with a great tradition and extraordinary people. And I love what it will become because everywhere I see amazing promise and possibility. Over a short period of time, more and more and more people are going to discover that and you will see a lot more reinvestment in Bridgeport.”
Trombley may be new to her job, but she has already made her presence felt. In an Aug. 6 email to the university’s alumni, she announced a dramatic change to the university’s structure by unveiling a new academic administrative structure with the formation of three colleges — arts and sciences, health sciences and engineering, business and education — along with a dramatic consolidation of the existing setup of 14 deans into a consolidation of three deans reporting to the provost.
Also on her agenda is addressing a problem of student retention. “The retention is now lower than I want it to be,” she said, pointing to a level that is 71 percent. She added that she is only beginning to research the issue to “find out and fix it. We need to find out why students decide to cancel before they graduate.”
Trombley arrived in Bridgeport following a three-decade academia career that included work as an associate professor of English and assistant provost at State University of New York at Potsdam, as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and as president of Pitzer College in Claremont, California. In 2016, she served as chairwoman of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and was president of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.
Having worked in colleges across the country, Trombley noticed the differences from both a geographic and demographic consideration.
“There are differences in term of area needs and specialization,” she said. “On the West Coast, there are a lot of Pacific Rim programs, while here there might be a greater emphasis on business and entrepreneurship. But I also look at education as pre- and post-Great Recession, and that has taken an enormous consideration on how people view higher education, what they have to pay for it and the return they expect. That affects all institutions, no matter where they are.”
Trombley has also gained literary fame as a prominent scholar on the life of Mark Twain, authoring the books “Mark Twain in the Company of Women” (1994) and “Mark Twain’s Other Woman” (2011) and offering commentary on the subject in Ken Burns’ PBS series on the celebrated author. Since arriving in the region, she has reached out to the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford to discuss creating a University of Bridgeport program for them. She added that Twain had a great fondness for Bridgeport and used the city as a memorable punchline in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” where the time traveling engineer Hank Morgan is taken by a knight to the royal capital.
“Hank sees this beautiful shiny city and Hank asks the knight, ‘Is this Bridgeport?’” Trombley recalled. “And the knight says, ‘This is Camelot.’ I think it’s a message.”
Trombley noted she has been “working with Twain for almost 30 years and I haven’t exhausted him yet.” She defined him as “the first modern celebrity.”
“He was a genius and that’s always interesting,” she continued. “He was an extraordinary writer and not just in terms of the quality, but also the productivity: he wrote classic novels, thousands of essays, over 50,000 letters in his lifetime and he possessed an almost superhuman amount of human energy. This is somebody who voluntarily crossed the Atlantic 29 times in his lifetime. He went around the world at the age of 59 — it wouldn’t be easy to do that now, and I can imagine how difficult it must have been to do that then. And he could be very difficult — he had a real temper, he was extremely impatient. But by the end of his life, he was the most famous person on Earth.”
While looking back at Twain’s canon, Trombley is also looking ahead at the university’s future. She has already pinpointed an area where she hopes to see the next wave of university students become thought leaders.
“One of the big areas where we already have a stake in the ground but where we’ll be expanding over the years is data analytics,” she said. “We are in a world where there is an enormous amount of data being generated. This generation of students sees the world differently and understands it differently and interprets it in a way that I don’t.”
And Trombley said that she does not want the university experience to be limited to the campus.
“The city of Bridgeport and the University of Bridgeport are truly interconnected,” she said. “Our students are already very well known in the community because they are doing a great deal of community work, they have internships and they are working at local schools. I would like to see that relationship become even closer.”