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University of Bridgeport Making her mark

July 14, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — Laura Skandera Trombley is getting settled in her new office atop the University of Bridgeport’s Wahlstrom Library, but the literary scholar turned university president has had a presence in the eight-story campus high-rise for some time.

Two of Trombley’s books on Mark Twain have had shelf space on the third floor of the spacious library for years.

Both recently made their way down to a first-floor shelf dedicated to works by university faculty.

“I’d like to try to be a contributing part of the community and so one of my upcoming appointments will be with the (district) high school principals and superintendent to tell them ‘I am here for you,’” Trombley said.

She called the idea of teaching a class on Twain — whom Trombley has dedicated most of her career exploring, even as she advanced up the ranks of academia — “super fun.”

Named UB’s 10th president in March, Trombley said she has hit the ground running, working to get the lay of the land and to meet faculty, staff, and members of the community.

“So far, I love this place,” said Trombley, who until now has spent much of her career on the West Coast.

For several years she was an English professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam before becoming a vice president at Coe College in Iowa, then president of Pitzer College in Claremont, California by the time she was 40. She spent 13 years at Pitzer before becoming president of the Huntington Library, Arts Collection and Botanical Gardens. After two years, she said, she began to miss academia.

Her name rose to the top of the candidates to replace Neil Salonen, who spent the last two decades rebuilding UB after it nearly closed in the early 1990s.

Presidcential search committee chairman Robert Berchem, now co-chairman of the UB Board of Trustees, said Trombley is outstanding.

“I think she is going to be a very vibrant (presence), both on campus and in the city,” Berchem said.

Trombley said she has started driving around the Park City and has notice something of a transformation.

“I could not have imagined a place where I could feel more at home and feel like I could really contribute something for the good of the whole,” she said.

She sees this as a new chapter for both UB and herself.

“I kind of feel everything I have done has led me to here,” she said.

Finding Twain

As a University of Southern California graduate student, Trombley imagined herself writing her dissertation on the British Romantic Poet William Wordsworth.

Her focus instead on Twain was based on a chance encounter on a city bus between a USC classmate and a guy who showed her letters he was carrying around signed by a S.L. Clemons. It was suggested he contact the university. Trombley’s professor in turn, asked the graduate student to check it out.

“I showed up at his house wondering why I was there,” Trombley said.

The guy with the letters was a retired banker. He had invested $100 on a box of letters from a hobby shop in downtown LA, primarily for his stamp collection. The stamps turned out to be worthless but before he threw them out, his wife started reading them and declared “the author is really pretty funny and tells a pretty good story.”

Neither recognized S.L. Clemens as Mark Twain, the 19th Century American author of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and more.

Trombley, 26 at the time, rifled through the pile of letters stacked on a cardboard table as the owner went to watch TV in the other room. Trombley said she got goosebumps.

“I called him back in and said. ‘I don’t know what these are worth, but you need to stop showing them to people and get them into a safety deposit box,’ ” Trombley said.

Before leaving, Trombley jotted down the addresses on the envelope. They turned out to be letters Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had written from homes in Hartford and Redding, Conn., to his youngest daughter, Clara, who as an adult lived in California.

“I decided maybe this would be more interesting than writing about William Wordsworth,” Trombley said.

She not only read all the letters, but figured out where they came from and how they ended up in a hobby shop. They would form the basis for her dissertation on the influence that the women in Twain’s life had on his political views and his writing.

“Some scholars said, ‘Why on earth would you think women would have any influence on him?’ I say, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ ” Trombley said.

She is now working on her sixth book, the fourth about Twain.

“I have not been able to exhaust my interest in the subject,” she said.

Ann Ryan, an English professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse who is spending her summer helping educators learn how to teach classes on Twain, said Trombley is a preeminent Twain scholar who is also an imaginative and hardworking college administrator.

“She understands an education is transformational and she wants to make it as affordable and effective for as many students as possible,” Ryan said. “I know she wants to lead Bridgeport into a bright and strong future.”

Bridgeport plan

Trombley said she wants to create something she calls “the Bridgeport Plan” for students at UB.

“I want to give parents and students a much clearer picture as soon as they arrive so they can develop a personalized plan,” Trombley said.

What she calls “the Bridgeport Plan” involves sitting down with students and developing a road map based on their interests when they enter as freshmen. They would learn their options and expectations, and their future employment options.

Trombley said her immediate focus is not so much on growing enrollment — which as of the fall of 2017 stood at 5,434 — but on retaining it.

Only 56 percent of UB students who arrive as freshmen stay on to become sophomores, according to the website CollegeFactual.com. Nationwide, the average first year to second year retention rate is 71 percent. Just over 41 percent of UB undergraduates finish their degree in six years, according to the website.

“When students start at the University of Bridgeport. I want them to graduate as proud alumni,” Trombley said.

She also wants to do more to reach out to the community, so that UB is seen as an asset to the city.

The public should know, she said, that she is the daughter of educators and grew up surrounded by teachers who cared about her. She said she is a proud English major and a caring mother, who loves students, respects faculty and is excited to get started.

First, however, Trombley planned a return to California to finish packing up her home. She will return with her partner, Bruce Raben, her college-aged son, three cats and an 80-pound bulldog named Miss Wrinkles.

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