Why CMC Is Different

Remarks at 60th Anniversary Founders Day

Friday, March 23, 2007


            Why is this college different from every other college?

            I could answer that question with other questions.

            Where else would alumni get sentimental – truly misty-eyed sentimental – about econ-accounting courses?

            Where else could you turn on cable news and see your students talk about Internet fantasy teams made up of members of Congress?

            And where else would so many people sport T-shirts proclaiming that the registrar is their homegirl?

            I could keep asking rhetorical questions, but instead I recently posed real questions to students and alumni.  Here’s what they said.

            CMC is different because:

            It has a distinct mission;

            It welcomes diverse opinions and lively debates; and

            It’s a lot like the bar in Cheers.

            That last point doesn’t have anything to do with adult beverages -- even though Doug Johnson says he remembers Ken Kesey drinking from a flask of peppermint schnapps while giving his speech at the 1992 Senior Class dinner. 

            It’s like the Cheers bar in other ways, and we’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

            But first, let’s think about the mission.

            Claremont McKenna College is about leadership and public affairs.  This focus pervades everything we do. Alex Lamy says:  “[CMC] allows a wide variety of students to participate in student governance--and to cause controversy with little effort.  I think it epitomizes the approach of allowing anyone interested to get hands-on experience as part of a CMC education, even if the events/activities/controversies are not as important in hindsight that they were at the time.”

            Liz Huttner remembers one night in the congressional simulation: “My committee was working late and we decided to get fast food. I don't remember where we went, but I do remember that we handled orders using parliamentary procedure. `I move to order an extra large fries with so-and-so.’ `I second.’ This didn't seem particularly weird at the time.”

            Alex Piazza offers another example:

“I work in the Ath kitchen, and after the reservations filled up in a record three minutes for Justice Scalia, I offered to do dishes so that I could watch him speak.  CMC is probably one of the only places:

            (1) that has a venue like the Athenaeum

            (2) uses that venue to bring in the likes of Justice Scalia

            (3) has a student body that will reserve the room to capacity in less than three minutes, and, finally,

            (4) provides students with an opportunity to do dishes to see a Supreme Court Justice.”   

            CMCers excel in writing and research, and they put their academic work into action.  A few years ago, Sarah Awad wrote her senior thesis in math on A Statistical Analysis of Combined Deterministic and Random Changes.  She then presented it to the United States Navy Strategic Systems Program.

            In the classroom, we look outward as well as inward.  We learn what Robert Frost’s poetry says about evolution, and how religion has shaped the American presidency.  Stacy Beck says: “When I see the ads for `Save Darfur,’ I’m taken back to the transformative experience of taking John Roth’s Holocaust class and so grateful that he has institutionalized the study of genocide at CMC so that it will remain after his retirement.”

            CMC alums, as we all know, go on to become leaders in business, government, and the professions.  Sometimes they lead where it’s dangerous.  Some have served in Iraq, and at least two of them – Matt Pedersen and Kincy Clark – kept blogs about their experiences there.  They showed humor and compassion and the grace under pressure that Hemingway described as the very definition of courage.

            CMCers start changing the world before they graduate.  Mike Peel tells me about SOURCE, a student-run group that consults for nonprofits.  With help from Kevin Arnold and the Kravis Institute, students thought it up and got it running.  Mike quotes the head of one local nonprofit as saying that CMCers  “allowed our children’s mentoring program to double in size. SOURCE has been the single most effective organization with which [our group] has collaborated.”

            We’re big on organization here in Claremont.  A guru of organization studies was the late great Peter Drucker.  He said:  “The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision without disagreement.”

            There’s plenty of disagreement here at CMC – it’s intentional and it’s good.  Throughout his long presidency, Jack Stark worked hard to make sure that there were a variety of viewpoints on campus.  Here’s what I tell prospective students:  During your time at CMC, you’ll have some classes with liberal professors and some classes with conservative professors.  And after four years, you’ll walk out thinking for yourself.

            Jana Hardy says: 

            “CMC is different because we learn to engage those with whom we disagree.  Having    lived in New York for almost three years, I now realize that it is a rare talent.  I like to tell   people that when I participated in the Washington Program, I shared a two bedroom apartment with four other girls … Two of us worked at the Heritage Foundation and the        others worked at Population Action International, the Sierra Club and People for the     American Way.  It was the fall of 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq war, and we had lots of energetic, often heated discussions.  Unless the discussion was about whose turn it was     to buy the toilet paper, we always walked away friends.”

            Two such friends were Clark Lee of the College Democrats and Rob Carpenter of the College Republicans.  At a moment of crisis for the college, they helped organize our public response.  Or as they put it, “Democrats and Republicans put aside their differences and successfully worked together against a fake hate crime.”  Later on, during meetings to discuss their senior theses, we’d have to take time out when reporters called – for them, not me.

            CMC isn’t just a college – it’s a community. President Gann knows a lot of students by name, and can tell you all about their backgrounds.  Freshmen actually get to spend a lot of quality time with her – especially if they can keep up with her during a 5-kilometer run.

            That closeness is a longstanding tradition here at CMC.  Doug Johnson recalls his favorite Claremont memory: “Jack Stark doing his regular shifts at Collins and with the Physical Plant staff. Nothing captured the school’s focus on the student experience like having the President come in wearing Physical Plant blues and clean a student's room!”  

            Jil Stark is part of that tradition, too.  Christiana Dominguez tells this story:

            “I went down to the Pomona soccer field to watch a Stag v hen face off.  True to form, Jil Stark was there, faithfully cheering on her beloved CMS   Stag   Soccer team, umbrella in hand to keep her shaded.  There was either a bad call or a taunt from the sagehen side of the field and Mrs. Stark did NOT take kindly to her boys being messed with … [S]ome young, male, sagehen fans tried to engage and exchange some unfriendly words with Mrs. Stark.  I thought she was going to throw down.  She held her own just fine and shocked the holy hell out of the sagehen fans.”

            Students get to know administrators, too.  Here’s what Jake Zimmerman says: 

            “The day before graduation, I was at a reception attended by Admissions office staffers, and I started chatting with a (now-departed) Associate Dean of Admission. She told me, with some amusement, about her impression of me at the McKenna Achievement Awards weekend more than four years earlier. She said: `I remember that we were all a little worried about you when you first came here. We didn't know if you were going to succeed in this environment, and it's been a great pleasure to see you put our fears to rest in the last four years.’

            "Think about that. Admissions officers read countless applications every day for months at a time. Every year, they confront a whole new class of high school seniors, and every year the process must be exhausting. Yet she somehow remembered not just my name -- she had followed my career at CMC, remembering my questionable behavior in 1992, and actually taking pleasure in knowing that the Admissions office had made the right call, after all!"

            Indeed.  Jake was a Truman Scholar, went to Harvard Law School, and last year won election to the Missouri State Legislature.

            Stacy Beck went to Yale Law School, and she thinks CMC’s intimate setting provided her with a good start. “I actually knew my professors -- were invited into their homes, broke bread with them at the Ath -- and they knew me.  When I needed recommendations for law school five years after graduation, I didn’t have to approach near-strangers, hoping they’d recall me from the back of the lecture hall.  They remembered me -- my work, my personality, my writing.  And still do!”

              Jonathan Medina sums it up: “Professors' passion for their subject and teaching is self-evident and rubs off on the students in a very real way, so real that CMC people become `family.’  Not only what goes on in the classroom, but having dinner at professors’ houses, going with them on hikes on Mt. Baldy - they all add to the sense of belonging and the sense that CMC really is set apart.” 

            A sense of belonging, community, and friendship – these things really do set CMC apart.  Two years ago, my family and I got a vivid reminder of the CMC difference when a mudslide destroyed our house.  We’re fine now, but it was a tough time then.  And during that time, Joe Bessette organized an effort to see us through.  And we got help from students, faculty, alumni, and trustees.  So when I look out at this audience, I see friends to whom I am forever grateful.  I see people who still care and come up and ask me how everything is going.

            So that’s the real reason why CMC is a lot like the bar in Cheers.  It’s a place where everybody knows your name.


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