When it was time for Marlene Tromp to start college in the mid-1980s, her mother and father helped her pack up to leave early in the morning, and they drove 14 hours to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Her parents bought her furnishings for her dorm room, but they couldn’t stick around for long to help her get settled. “They simply couldn’t take the time away from work and had to go back,” Tromp said.
Her parents cared passionately about her education.
“My father told me I could be president one day, if I wanted to do so,” Tromp continued. “He was so proud of my academic success and encouraged me to pursue my goals, even though they weren’t traditional goals for a girl. He got up at 4 a.m. every day to drive to work, but he also worked a lot of overtime to help pay my tuition. My mother also gave me incredible emotional support.”
Her parents provided a solid foundation for Tromp, the new executive vice chancellor (EVC) and campus provost for UC Santa Cruz, serving as chief academic officer and providing academic leadership for the campus.
The fast learning curve she picked up in her first days of college will serve her well at UC Santa Cruz, where she will manage the campus budget, guide the campus through long-term planning, and advise Chancellor George Blumenthal. She succeeds Alison Galloway, who served for six years and stepped down last December.
Like Galloway, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, Tromp is distinguished in a field outside of university administration. A respected Victorian and Edwardian scholar and the author of several books, she looks forward to teaching at UC Santa Cruz, although her first year will be spent “learning the ropes” for her new EVC position.
Tromp, as a first-generation college student, has plenty of experience when it comes to adjusting quickly. She followed the example of her sister, who also graduated from a four-year institution. Her parents did not have the same opportunity.
“My father was brilliant. But money was tight,” Tromp said. “He went to college, but he was never able to finish. He was working class. My mom came from a working-class family, too. My sister and I are two of the only people in the extended family who ever went to college and completed a degree.”
Tromp’s thoughts often lead her back to the recent and distant past, whether she is reflecting on her life, or delving into the world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Her college years taught her everything she needed to know about the value of perseverance, while delving into history gives her necessary perspective on the current political situation in America, with polarization between left and right and the demonization of people who are branded “the other” for the sake of political expediency.
“(UC Santa Cruz) is the sort of place where having people listen to one another is critical,” she said.” I care what people think … I am not someone who wants to execute (decisions) from the top, imperiously. I think that collaborative leadership is something this place really values.”
These qualities made Tromp stand out in a competitive field of highly qualified candidates during the search for a new EVC, said Chancellor George Blumenthal.
“She understands and appreciates the culture of UC Santa Cruz,” Blumenthal said. “She embraces our innovative spirit, values the role of faculty consultation in effective shared governance, and is committed to diversity and to making educational opportunities available to all.”
These days, Tromp’s family is enjoying the transition to life in Santa Cruz after making their big move from Phoenix, Arizona, where Tromp was a professor and administrator at Arizona State University (ASU). Tromp’s 15-year-old son, Jacob Tromp-Chacko, entered Santa Cruz High School this fall. Her husband, James Spearman, is now finishing up his master’s degree in sustainability at ASU.
Tromp joined ASU in 2011 as director of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies, and worked closely with faculty to invigorate humanities and arts education. From 2013, she served as dean of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and vice provost of ASU’s West Campus.
The lessons of history
If you ever find yourself having a one-on-one talk with Tromp, consider the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912 as a conversation starter.
Tromp will share fascinating and disturbing stories about the people who died in this maritime disaster and why, as well as the social dynamics and prejudices at work among the passengers and crew. When asked why so many people in steerage perished, Tromp sounded indignant, as if the tragedy had happened just yesterday.
She spoke, for instance, of how difficult it was for steerage passengers—third-class passengers primarily made up of immigrants moving to the United States and Canada for a better life—to get to the upper decks in time for the launch of the lifeboats.
Only 25 percent of the Titanic’s third-class passengers survived. By contrast, 42 percent of the second-class passengers aboard survived, and about 60 percent of the first-class passengers survived.
“Many factors played a role,” Tromp said. “It was difficult to ascend to the upper decks, when you didn’t know the way. It was a very complex and large ship. In the front of the ship, where single men were housed, water was coming in, which made it a very different experience than it was for people in first-class. People in steerage were often reluctant to go to places they hadn’t been given permission to go. In some cases, people were forced back below decks, or were forced to wait when they got close to the lifeboats.”
She spent five years poring through archives and reading newspapers, legal documents, and the transcripts of declassified legal conversations while writing her book, Untold Titanic: The True Story of Life, Death, and Justice.
Finding her way
Long before becoming a professor and scholar, Tromp, like so many first-generation students all across America, was a nervous young undergraduate trying to find her way.
“Going to college was like moving to a foreign country,” she said. “You don’t have anyone tell you how things work or advise you about what makes sense because they don’t know the customs of that foreign country.”
Tromp took on a job in her first semester, working hard in the hopes that she could save money and live off her earnings during her other years in college, without having to have a job. But it didn’t work out that way. Even in her senior year, she worked three jobs while handling a full course load.
Asked how she got through this period, Tromp chalked it up to “dogged persistence. I had to keep picking myself up off the ground over and over again. I think I am a natural optimist. That was probably a part of it.”
But she’s also read a lot of scholarship about grit and “the growth mindset,” in which students are committed to self-improvement. She is convinced that the same qualities that got her through can be taught, helping future generations of pioneer students make their way in the world.
A distinguished career
That resilience and sense of ambition led Tromp forward. After graduating from Creighton University with a B.A. in English, Tromp went on to earn an M.A. in English from the University of Wyoming, and a Ph.D. from the University of Florida.
These qualities also drove Tromp to take on new roles in academic institutions after distinguishing herself as a professor and scholar. Before her career at ASU, Tromp was a full professor at Denison University in Ohio from 2002 to 2008 and served as chair and director of the Women’s Studies Department.
Serving as an administrator never really occurred to her until friends and colleagues urged her to take on leadership roles because of her compassion, her feminist outlook, and her passionate support of faculty.
Administration and historical scholarship may seem like separate spheres, but Tromp said these two sides of her working life continue to inform one another.
“People think history is dead history, but it has shaped where we stand today,” she said. “It helps us understand the ground we stand on.” That understanding comes from “a little distance,” Tromp continued.
“The Victorian age is not that far behind us,” she pointed out, referring to the era from 1837 to 1901. “It’s a little bit harder to understand what life was like in the Renaissance [1300–1700], but the Victorians are pretty familiar to us.”
Tromp believes that the Victorians are, at the same time, close enough to be very recognizable today but different enough to provide valuable perspective regarding issues such as xenophobia—the fear and the demonization of a perceived other.
She speaks, for instance, about “interaction with cultures that hadn’t existed in their country before,” and how this could lead to prejudice and fear. She points out that we are in an “even more global world now … The technology and media have changed. The global economy has changed.”
She mentions white Americans who feel anxiety about being the minority in the near future. She argues that xenophobia is an “affective response”—relating to moods, feelings, and attitudes—consisting of a combination of loathing, fear, and panic.
But she said that Americans can analyze and get a bit of distance from such ingrained responses and manage their fear.
“You can’t tell someone having an affective response that it’s wrong” because the response is not rational, she said. “But we don’t need to make that the end of the conversation.”
That spirit of bridge-building enters into her job here at UC Santa Cruz. “I really care, and that is why I want to do this work,” she said. “It has never been about having power or authority. It is about how I can serve the community.”