Cyndia Clegg: Scholar, Professor, and Pioneer
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Seaver Newsroom will be publishing a series of three articles that highlight significant women who have impacted Pepperdine University in a positive and meaningful manner. This second installment highlights the accomplishments of Distinguished Professor Emerita, Dr. Cyndia Clegg.
In 1978, women professors comprised less than one percent of Seaver College’s faculty.* Despite taking steps toward equal pay and more robust co-ed athletic programs, the burgeoning Christian College had yet to fully address the gender disparity present on its campus. However, when Dr. Cyndia Clegg made it to Malibu that same year, things began to change.
Clegg, a professor of English literature with a Ph.D from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) – burst onto the Seaver scene with a powerful voice and the courage to take on whatever professional opportunity presented itself. As a result, Clegg served as a trailblazer for women within the Pepperdine community.
“I suppose the one thing I did to acquire positions was just say, ‘yes,’” explains Clegg. “A long time ago I learned that if I said yes to chairing a committee, I had a lot more ability to [govern the proceedings].”
Utilizing this philosophy, Clegg became the first woman to hold a number of appointments across the University. Specifically, she was the first female president of the Seaver Faculty association, the first female associate dean of International Programs, the first female chair of the University Faculty Council, the first female distinguished professor, and the first female distinguished professor emerita. However, this career of breaking barriers was not one Clegg originally set out to lead.
“When I think of education, I think of high school and public education for children,” Clegg exclaims. “That was one thing I knew I didn’t want to do.”
An avid reader, Clegg earned a bachelor of arts degree in English Literature with a minor in History from UCLA. Upon graduating, she expected to become either a historian or attend law school. Yet, when a mentor encouraged her to consider earning an advanced degree in the discipline of English, Clegg was hooked to the idea of becoming a professor.
“In reading books – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, anything really – you have extraordinary contact with the human experience,” says Clegg, concerning her love of literature. “Sociology discusses how people work in groups; psychology talks about how people think; business teaches you how to form productive organizations; but literature does all of that… it engages you with thinking about possibilities.”
Fueled by her disciplinary passion, the California native raced through two more English Literature degrees at UCLA, earning a master’s and Ph.D.. Immediately after finishing graduate school, Kenneth Hahn, a professor at Pepperdine and a member of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, requested a meeting with Clegg to discuss the potential of her teaching at Seaver College. Ultimately, this job interview with Hahn spurred a 44-year career which helped to reshape the University.
When Clegg joined Seaver College she was one of just six women faculty members. Despite the gender gap, the new literature professor felt she had gained the respect of her peers. This fact illustrated itself to Clegg as, shortly after starting at the Malibu campus, she became pregnant with her first child. Although the University had never encountered this situation before, Seaver College and its administrators supported Clegg as she continued to instruct her course load. As a result, she became the first faculty member to teach a class while expecting a child.
“There were funny reactions to [my teaching] while pregnant. There was one man, a religion professor, who really thought I was doing the wrong thing,” explains Clegg. “When you get that, you realize, ‘maybe I am breaking some ground…’ Some of the first generation of women were nervous about speaking out. The thing is, I wasn’t. I’m just that kind of person.”
In staying true to herself and her passion for higher education, Clegg paved a new path for Seaver College and Pepperdine University. Her presence, her voice, and her courage all contributed to fostering a more inclusive and welcoming campus. And while she was a leader of women's rights during her teaching tenure, Clegg’s sole focus was on enhancing the institution she called home.
“I always tried to work for the good of the campus, the community, the students, and the good of fellow faculty members,” she says. “I was always focused on what Pepperdine and Seaver College is as an educational institution.”
*Fun fact: Today, Seaver College has 120 full time, female faculty members. Thus, the percentage has jumped from less than 1% to 49% in 45 years.