Still Asking the Right Questions: David Oxtoby OPC '68

It’s a risky business, trying to look for hints about someone’s future career from their high school yearbook, but in the case of David Oxtoby OPC ’68, the new president of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the temptation is hard to resist.

Beneath a long list of PC honors, achievements and activities, Oxtoby chose a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson—“Great geniuses have the shortest biographies”—but his own career belies that. Oxtoby’s biography is pretty long.

A Harvard-trained physicist and chemist with a PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, he was director of the James Franck Institute, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Chicago, and later dean of the university’s physical sciences division. He recently finished a 14-year tenure as president of Pomona College in California, where he championed sustainability and more than doubled the number of low-income students accepted. He also received the PC Alumni Award of Merit in 2003.

For the first time in decades, Oxtoby is out of the rhythm of the academic calendar, but he is adjusting well. In moving to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., Oxtoby is capping his career in a place where he can put all of his talents and experience to use.

Relatively little known to the general public, the American Academy is one of the oldest and most distinguished societies for scholars in the United States. It was established in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and others “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were among the first class of inductees, a list that over the centuries has included luminaries such as Willa Cather, T.S. Eliot, Robert Oppenheimer, Charles Darwin and Nelson Mandela. Today, the American Academy counts about 5,000 members in the United States and another 600 around the world.

Although it is an honorary society—members must be nominated and voted upon—Oxtoby said the American Academy’s chief purpose is to bring important issues before the public eye. “It has tremendous convening power to bring people together from all different fields and backgrounds to talk about important issues and try to make recommendations that will help the country.”

Recent studies have focused on a wide range of subjects, including nuclear proliferation, political corruption, undergraduate education, expanding civic participation, and even why jazz matters. Many are published in the society’s journal, Daedalus.

One of Oxtoby’s goals is to find ways to help the American Academy’s studies make a broader impact on the public debate. “It’s great to get people together and do a thoughtful examination and prepare a report, but if that report just sits on a shelf it hasn’t really accomplished its purpose,” he explained. “Who is reading our reports, and are they being put into practice?”

This work is particularly important in today’s fractious climate, Oxtoby added. “We are able to bring people together from across political divides in a setting where things are not, we hope, politicized. Bringing people together is important now as ever.”

Although Oxtoby’s career has taken him into higher education and public advocacy, it could have gone in many directions. At PC, he took two languages, French and Latin, and was also invited to join a small Greek class taught by Edward McMillan. He fondly recalled English classes taught by Joe Perrott and Peter Reinke as some of the best he took. But it was the physical sciences, especially an AP chemistry class taught by Bruce Hartman and an 11th grade physics class taught by Sam Tatnall, that turned him towards a career as a scientist.

Oxtoby acknowledged that he was fortunate to receive the sort of well-rounded education all high school students should get. “I think sometimes that high schools try to do all the same things colleges do in terms of [academic] tracks and offering many elective courses,” he said. “Sure, you want them to be offering challenging courses, but breadth of education is important, too. High schools should not be offering courses that try to be a direct substitute for college courses.”

Go back and thumb through that old 1968 PC yearbook and one other page stands out. The class listed each senior’s favorite catch phrase. Oxtoby’s was, “Are you sure that’s right?” A good quote from a budding scientist and academic. PC