Marsha Schnirring is a busy woman. Managing meetings for the Board of Trustees, serving as a liaison for multiple departments and the President’s Office and showing her colleagues pictures of her grandson William, the secretary of the college has become the behind-the-scenes “it-lady.” Now, after 17 years of serving Occidental, Schnirring is retiring; according to her colleagues, she has more than earned it.
Before coming to Occidental, Schnirring worked at bookstores, in early childhood education and in information technology doing technical support and training. She said her prior work experience, combined with the completion of her graduate studies, led her to pursue positions in higher learning. So when a position opened at Occidental’s library in 2006, Schnirring, with her newly acquired Masters in Library and Information Services (MLIS), decided to apply.
“I didn’t want to work for a huge institution,” Schnirring said. “I wanted the opportunity to really get to know the people — the faculty and the students and the staff — and to work closely with them and have an impact.”
After enduring a multi-day interview process, Schnirring officially made Occidental her home.
Schnirring said that at the time she viewed the college as a great place to do foundational work while keeping her eyes open for larger opportunities in other libraries. But as time passed, Schnirring said she was able to expand her role within the library to include some of her other passions, cementing her decision to stay at Occidental.
After working with Pam McQuesten, the former vice president for Information Resources who was interested in instructional technology, Schnirring combined her technical background with her knowledge of libraries and instructional services. She founded the Center for Digital Learning and Research (CDLR) — now rebranded as the Center for Digital Liberal Arts (CDLA) — an accomplishment that garnered the attention and respect of many colleagues, including James Uhrich, the college’s current vice president for Information Technology Services (ITS).
Uhrich applied to work at Occidental just a few years after Schnirring did, aiming to join what was then known as the Information Resources team: a partnership of the library and the IT department. Coming from the East Coast, Uhrich said he was originally hesitant to take a job so far away. That changed when the first person he met at Occidental was Marsha Schnirring.
“She impressed me as a just fantastic human being. A kind, smart, energetic person, and I was like, ‘Wow! If I get to work with people like this I’m going to move across the country,’” Uhrich said. “And I moved across the country.”
Uhrich said he and Schnirring worked closely, routinely starting their days off with morning meetings where they chatted about ways to deepen the college’s connection with the internet and technology. Schnirring served as a bridge between ITS and the library’s resource-sharing operations.
“I worked side-by-side with Marsha on things because we were trying to build an organization that addressed the intersection of technology, teaching, learning and the tools and the resources you would need,” Uhrich said.
The two continued to work together over several years and were known as a well-established ITS duo when a renovation of Johnson Hall began in 2014. According to Uhrich, both he and Schnirring were asked to participate in the building’s interior redesign; of course, they said yes.
“Marsha and I led the charge of working with people — faculty, students, the community and outside experts — to think about classroom design,” Uhrich said. “We redesigned with modular furniture and multiple projectors and all kinds of technology, as well as [planning] furniture layouts, and literally designing the entire classroom spaces in each of the locations.”
Anyone who has ever seen the interior of Johnson Hall, particularly its media wall, would know the renovation was a success. The media wall is a two-story installment that showcases student work and other media content. Uhrich and Schnirring’s work on the renovation allowed them push the boundaries of IT: but for Schnirring, this was also a taste of life outside the library.
Around the same time, a position had opened in the Office of the President, piquing Schnirring’s interest in working within the higher education landscape.
“It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to learn more about how institutions are organized and work in the president’s office,” Schnirring said. “So I went to work there as the Chief of Administrative Affairs, and that role entailed my working closely with the president, and with senior staff.”
Once again Schnirring’s IT background came in handy, and made her a natural candidate for moving into her current position as Secretary of the College, through which she works closely with the Board of Trustees.
A seemingly mysterious entity, the Board of Trustees has two main functions, according to Schnirring: hiring the president and assessing their performance, and planning for the long-term financial sustainability of the college. Schnirring also noted that a significant strength of Occidental’s Board is that many of them are alumni, or have family members who are.
“They have a lived experience at Oxy at different periods of time, because they’re a pretty diverse group. So it spans a long period of time, in that their days go back to Oxy,” Schnirring said. “And because they’re familiar with Oxy, they have that built–in commitment to the institution.”
Schnirring said that working with the Board allowed her the opportunity not only to use her IT skills, such as coordinating Zoom meetings and recording minutes, but also to approach administrative work from the perspective she gained from her library work.
“I think that anybody that’s in an administrative role, whatever their background has been, they bring that particular focus and lens,” Schnirring said. “And one of the nice things about a library perspective is we seek to be really open in our perspective, and celebrate diversity of thought.”
According to Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein, there was plenty of diversity of thought during Board meetings, for better and for worse, and many perspectives that often collided.
Himmelstein, who manages several committees on the Board that deal with finance, often works closely with Schnirring ahead of meetings to ensure that the agenda and extra materials are in order. He specifically lauded her ability to ensure Board meetings run smoothly, with her often having to call people to attention when tensions run high and the meeting gets off track.
“She [handles] situations that could be difficult, but she handles it with such grace and ease and strength,” Himmelstein said. “When she speaks, you listen, you sit up straight in your chair.”
According to Himmelstein, Schnirring has the same gentle but assured aura outside of Board meetings too.
“She’s a great colleague, and what I mean by that is she’s very collegial,” Himmelstein said. “She will speak her mind in a way that again is not off-putting, but she’s happy to be able to let me know how she’s feeling, what she thinks, what’s on her mind. She will correct me, help me, tell me if she thinks I’m wrong. All in a good way.”
Himmelstein also said that he admired Schnirring’s well-rounded approach to bettering the college as a whole.
“She is so loyal and loves the college itself and what we do,” Himmelstein said. “She’s always thinking about what’s right for students or what’s right for faculty or what’s right for staff. She’s not just about the board or herself. She’s actually really looking at the whole community. And I’ve admired that. And I’ve learned [that] from her.”
Himmelstein wasn’t the only one to learn from Schnirring.
Although President Harry Elam has only worked with Schnirring since 2020, when he joined the College, he said he and Schnirring have built a great friendship. He said that Schnirring took him and his wife on one of their first proper tours of campus, and remembered immediately noticing her love for Occidental.
Similarly to Himmelstein, Elam said he also appreciated Schnirring’s peaceful presence and happy nature — something that made working with her all the better.
“Seeing her and seeing [her] sense of self, and self-awareness, is something I appreciated in her, and I would like to emulate that,” Elam said.
According to Schnirring, the process of moving towards her official retirement in March has involved a lot of letting go of responsibilities, one bit at a time.
“Often in one’s career, you move from being a star or a lead performer into management; and when you do that, you take a step back and you move other people forward,” Schnirring said. “So as I’m retiring, one of the things that I wanted to try and do was be as conscious as possible about the transition and working with the people that are going to do the work and after I leave.”
According to Schnirring, President Elam has been helping in that transition, working alongside other senior staff members to slowly take over Schnirring’s responsibilities.
“What’s been key is Marsha downloading all the things that she does, and what I discovered was that Marsha makes it look easy,” Elam said.
President Elam said that although the transition has been relatively smooth, there have been a handful of issues, but thankfully Schnirring was able to handle them with her usual grace. Elam also said this was in part facilitated by two of the senior staff members who will be splitting up and taking on Schnirring’s former duties: Executive Assistant to the President Gretchen Saalbach and Chief of Staff Priya Sridharan.
Saalbach said she will become responsible for the more detailed aspects of the Board of Trustees meetings such as handling set-up and taking minutes. Meanwhile Sridharan was officially sworn in as the new board secretary at the most recent meeting in January.
Saalbach said that with Schnirring out of town and working remotely at this point, this meeting functioned as a trial run for adjusting to life without Marsha. But at the last minute, they flew Schnirring in under the guise of an emergency, having secretly planned a surprise farewell for the retiring secretary.
“During the meeting, we had officially approved Priya to be the board secretary. But we also took that moment in the business meeting to honor Marsha and her contributions. So the trustees got to say thank you for what Marsha has meant for them,” Saalbach said.
Himmelstein and Uhrich were also present at the meeting, and recalled the experience to be very touching. Himmelstein said he especially loved when Schnirring herself spoke after receiving so many thanks.
“When she spoke, she said, ‘You know, I don’t know who that Marsha Schnirring is that you all mentioned, I’d like to meet the Marsha Schnirring you all talked about,’” Himmelstein said.
While Schnirring will return to campus for her retirement party in March, she says she is adjusting well to her life in the DC area. She says she is now much closer to her daughter and grandson, and is looking forward to dedicating more time to her favorite activities — particularly golf.
“I’m an avid golfer, so I’m going to be doing a lot of golf,” Schnirring said. “There’s a program in golf called The First Tee which is a way to introduce [young] people to the game of golf and to the principles, not just how to play the game.”
Schnirring said that golfing is a common interest that she shares with her husband, so she is especially excited to share that time with him. But, she also has personal plans, including putting her MLIS to use as she has applied to be a docent for the Library of Congress and completing her mindfulness and meditation certification.
Yet, amidst all of this change and looking forward to the future, Schnirring said she is immensely grateful for her time at Occidental, and plans to stay in touch with many of her West Coast colleagues and friends.
“There are some lifelong relationships that have been forged, just like for students and faculty, and those relationships won’t be diminished by my move. In fact, I keep telling people, they’re invited to come visit the D.C. area,” Schnirring said.
Saalbach also commented on how grateful she was to have Schnirring not just as a friend, but as a mentor from whom she’s learned so much.
“What has been meaningful for me is we share bits and pieces of what’s going on for both of us,” Saalbach said. “She’s had some crazy things happen over the course of her lifetime. And it really meant something to have an older woman speaking into my life experience, because I mean, I’m not exactly young, but … it’s really helpful to have an older person take the time to say, ‘It’s going to be fine, it’s going to work out.’ That was really meaningful for me. And the times that she let me do the same when she revealed something that’s hard and allowed me to be a friend to her too.”
Uhrich said Schnirring has certainly made an impact on Occidental and its staff — something that is not likely to be diminished by a cross-country move.
“I will say this to anyone that will listen, I want to be Marsha when I grow up! She has had such an impact on me personally and professionally that I don’t look at it as a loss,” Uhrich said. “I look at it as being so happy for what she is gaining in her life because of all that she’s given to me personally and professionally right. I will certainly miss her.”