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Occidental president decides to step down

Susan Prager will leave Dec. 31 after only 17 months in the post. She cites compatibility problems with trustees.

November 20, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

After only 17 months in the post, Susan Westerberg Prager announced her resignation Monday as president of Occidental College amid reports at the Eagle Rock campus that she had clashed with the school's board of trustees over not being an aggressive-enough leader.

Prager, 64, a former dean of UCLA's law school and the first female president at Occidental, said that she had not been fired from heading the 1,877-student liberal arts college. In an interview Monday evening, she said she had not developed "a strong compatibility" with the board chairman and senior administrators.

"I've been unable to accomplish that. And because I think so well of the quality of this place and its educational program, I think it's best for me to step aside," said Prager, whose resignation, effective Dec. 31, surprised many on campus. She expects to become a history professor at Occidental in 2009 after spending much of next year completing research at UCLA.

Dennis Collins, the board chairman, said in an interview that no particular event or controversy led to Prager's departure and that she had not been fired. "I think over time it became increasingly apparent to Susan that it wasn't moving in the way she wanted, and it probably made sense to acknowledge that," he said.

While stressing that Prager had done "many wonderful things" at Occidental, he said he regretted that "we were not able to work together as we envisioned."

Collins, the former president of the Irvine Foundation, said the Occidental board would appoint an interim president by Jan. 1 and that a national search would aim to install a new leader no later than July 2009.

Derek Shearer, a professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental and a former U.S. ambassador to Finland, said Prager "proved to be not the strong, dynamic leader that the school both wanted and needed." He said Prager seemed to have a more deliberative administrative style instead of the more aggressive, entrepreneurial one trustees wanted. "I would say it was a mismatch of styles of leadership," he said.

Ryan Bowen, president of the Occidental student government, said Prager showed strong concern for the school's and students' well-being. Otherwise, she seemed "slow in adjusting" to the presidency.

"As for really coming in with some real mission to stand behind, it seems that was slow in progress, but none of us thought it was slow enough" to trigger her resignation, he said.

Prager said she thought she had focused Occidental on serving its students better than in the past and that she had helped boost enrollment in overseas study programs and in providing more library and food services at night. Her fundraising efforts helped Occidental raise a record $25.7 million in 2006-07, campus officials said.

Asked about comments that she was not a good fit for the college, Prager declined to comment, saying that would be "just too speculative on my part."

Prager earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in history from Stanford University and her law degree from UCLA, where she was editor of the law review and later served as law dean for 16 years. She became the second woman to serve as president of the Assn. of American Law Schools, the leading professional organization in her field.

In 1999, she left UCLA to become provost of Dartmouth College but returned to UCLA in 2001 as a law professor. Prager's research has focused on California legal history and marital property law.

She replaced Theodore R. Mitchell as Occidental's president. Mitchell, who served for six years and was credited with reinvigorating the college, left to become chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit focused on improving public education in urban areas.

Prager's resignation caught many students and faculty off guard as they prepared for Thanksgiving break.

Professor Louise Yuhas, chairwoman of the department of art history and visual arts, said she had no inkling of the announcement and described it as "very unsettling, to say the least." She said many professors were concerned about the school's stability and "what's going to happen next."

Kendra Dority, editor in chief of the Occidental Weekly newspaper, said students were "just kind of bewildered" by the resignation. "She was a relatively new president," Dority said. "We were still getting to know her."

Occidental, founded in 1887 and located at its current Eagle Rock campus since 1914, was 36th nationally among the nation's liberal arts colleges in the latest rankings by U.S. News & World Report magazine.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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