David Alexander, former American Rhodes Secretary and President of Pomona College

Cynthia Peters
Pomona College obituary

David Alexander, American Rhodes Secretary and Distinguished President of Pomona College

John David Alexander, president emeritus of Pomona College, who enjoyed one of the longest and most distinguished college presidencies in American higher education, died on July 25, 2010, in Claremont, California. He was 77.

A Rhodes Scholar, David Alexander served as the president of two liberal arts colleges, a professor of Old Testament, the American Secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a Distinguished Friend of Oxford University, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Alexander was inducted as the seventh president of Pomona College on October 18, 1969, the day of his 37th birthday and the 82nd anniversary of the College. It was a tumultuous time for the nation and for many colleges and universities, including traditionally tranquil Pomona College. In his inaugural address, “A Perspective on Renewal,” he dealt forthrightly with the threats to American society posed by the Vietnam conflict, which was dangerously divisive. He helped to bridge national and campus concerns by saying “Our task now is to winnow from the welter of changing values those transcendent values for which this college exists, so that while trying to move with society, Pomona College will help move society through education.”

He also addressed the subject of academic freedom. “Often misunderstood and frequently attacked, the concept of academic freedom must continue to animate teaching and research in all colleges and universities. Simply defined, freedom of inquiry means that the sole test of the rectitude of an idea, a fact, or a theory is its rightness, and this correctness can only be tested in as open-minded a manner as fallible man is able to contrive. If the test of truth telegraphs the answer in advance of the actual result, then academic freedom is trammeled and the result itself will falter and eventually die.”

According to David Oxtoby, current president of Pomona College, “David Alexander was a passionate supporter of the liberal arts college in America and served Pomona College with distinction, creativity and compassion. During his tenure as president, Pomona solidified its reputation as one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges. In finance, admissions, and national rankings, Pomona grew in excellence during David Alexander’s 22 years of leadership. His dedication, his high aspirations, and his moral integrity were at the core of his extraordinary contribution to making Pomona College what it is today.

“It’s hard to think of David without acknowledging his wife Catharine’s contributions to Pomona,” added Oxtoby. “Theirs was a true partnership, and the College has benefited enormously from her warm, wise and ever-gracious presence.”

During Alexander’s tenure, Pomona’s endowment increased from $24 million to $296 million; faculty grew from 130 to 156; and new construction added 15 major buildings to campus. The geographic and ethnic diversity of the student body increased dramatically as the college made the transition from a primarily regional institution to a national liberal arts college with the majority of its students from outside California. The year after his retirement and in recognition of his leadership and commitment to the campus community, Pomona College named its new administration building the David Alexander Hall of Administration in 1992.

Born in Springfield, Tennessee, in 1932, Alexander attended Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), graduating in 1953, Phi Beta Kappa with honors in Greek. At Southwestern, he intended to major in music but soon discovered that the keyboard proficiency required was beyond his reach. Undaunted, he turned to the French horn, which remained an abiding passion, while shifting his academic focus to the study of classical and biblical texts and theological history. He went on to study at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In 1954, Alexander was named a Rhodes Scholar, and he earned a D.Phil. in Theology from Oxford University (Christ Church) in 1957. In 1965, after teaching for eight years at San Francisco Theological Seminary, Alexander was named president of Southwestern at Memphis, his alma mater, at age 32. Four years later, he succeeded E. Wilson Lyon as Pomona College’s seventh president.

Many consider Alexander’s charges to graduates at commencement to be masterpieces of the genre—beautifully crafted, perceptive, accurate, timeless, spare and inspiring. On one occasion, he said to students: “You will begin to appreciate the elegant paradox that Pomona College will continue to be yours, yet it is not yours. It is ours.” In 1980, he advised graduates that, “Pomona College and your experience during your collegiate years should have taught you one lesson of transcendent value: temper your self-confidence with the assurance that there is more to learn, mitigate your certainties with the awareness of opposing points of view, and bolster your resolve to try always to improve yourself and to work for the improvement of the world around us. The summation of that transcendent lesson is openness: to be open to new and different ideas, to be open to the needs of others, and to be open to learn as much as your life can bring you.” The qualities and habits of mind and heart he exhorted graduates to embrace are ones he himself possessed.

From 1981 to 1998, Alexander served as American Secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust and from that position oversaw the selection of the 32 Americans chosen each year to study at Oxford. He was also the author of “The American Scholarships” in The History of the Rhodes Trust (Oxford UP, 2001) and served as editor of the American Oxonian, the magazine of the Association of American Rhodes Scholars. For his service to Oxford, he was decorated Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1998 and two years later named a Distinguished Friend of Oxford University.

Among his long-time associations, he served as a trustee of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA, 1970-2002), the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (1978-99) and on the Board of Overseers of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (1991-2010). He was also a director of KCET, the Seaver Institute, the Great Western Financial Corporation and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Early in his tenure at Pomona, he served as a trustee of the American Council on Education and later as a trustee of the Fellows of the Society of Phi Beta Kappa. From 2004, he served as president of the American Friends of the National Portrait Gallery, London. In 2006, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Alexander frequently contributed to Pomona College Magazine and was the author of an elegant book on the subject of the College’s namesake, The Goddess Pomona: or, A Harvest of Digressions (2007). The text, which traces Pomona’s appearance in literature, art, and popular culture from classical antiquity to the present, epitomizes Alexander’s signature blending of intellect, eloquence and sly wit. Alexander wore his erudition lightly; like the man, the book is, at once, scholarly and engagingly accessible.

Alexander is survived by his wife, Catharine Coleman Alexander of Claremont; two daughters, Kitty Alexander Shirley (William Shirley) of Larchmont, N.Y. and Julia M. Marciari-Alexander (John Marciari) of San Diego; a son, John D. Alexander III of Oakdale, Conn.; five grandchildren (Alexander, Oliver, and Theodora Shirley; and Jack and Beatrice Marciari); and sister Jane Alexander Biedenharn and brother-in-law John U. Biedenharn of Vero Beach, Fla.