Claremont Colleges : What began 100 years ago in an empty hotel surrounded by sagebrush has evolved into a unique success in American higher education

Times Staff Writer

In October, 1888, one hot afternoon we found Claremont entirely grown up to tall weeds, with three inhabited houses, as many more unoccupied buildings, and the big, empty hotel. I sat on the lowest step of the big staircase, waiting and dreading the coming life in these new and desolate surroundings. I wept some hot tears down my baby’s neck.

--From the journal of Mrs. Edwin

Clarence Norton, wife of the first

dean of Pomona College.

On the day the dean’s wife wept, Pomona College was 1 year old and caught in a real-estate market collapse that dashed the founders’ hopes for a new campus.

Opened in 1887 with 30 students in a rented five-room cottage in Pomona, the school was hopelessly short of funds. It survived only because a failed development company offered Pomona College the unfinished Claremont Hotel and 260 barren lots surrounding it.


The hotel at first housed the entire college--as dormitory, classrooms and faculty home. Today it is Pomona College’s administration building. The land, which was covered with sagebrush, is now home to six colleges in a unique cluster called the Claremont Colleges.

As it begins a year-long celebration of its centennial, Pomona College has attracted visitors from all over the country.

Speaking at the Oct. 14 Founders Day celebration, Kingman Brewster, master of University College at Oxford University in England, former Yale University president and former U. S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, lauded Pomona College and the Claremont group as a model for higher education.

Academic leaders continually visit the cluster to find out how one small, private college could plant the seed for five others.

College officials hope that a seventh school will be built in the next decade.

Last month, Claremont Graduate School, the second-oldest college in the group, dedicated its new Peter F. Drucker Graduate Management Center. The center, with leading industrialists and businessmen on its board, is named for the school’s widely known professor, author and innovator in business management.

Local historians say the Claremont cluster was the result of one man’s vision.

James A. Blaisdell, president of Pomona College from 1910 to 1928, was intent on creating a group of colleges patterned after Oxford and Cambridge in England. He was a strong and persuasive leader who “made people feel like he was doing them a favor by getting them to give money,” according to a history of Scripps College, the third school formed.

Blaisdell’s dream became a consortium of five undergraduate liberal arts colleges and a graduate school, each operating independently yet sharing major facilities and programs. Like their English models, the schools are small and specialized. Yet by sharing libraries, auditoriums, science laboratories and health services, and meeting many other common needs, they offer benefits found elsewhere only in large universities.

Besides Pomona, the cluster includes the Claremont Graduate School, founded in 1925, one of three institutions in the country that grant only master’s and doctoral degrees; Scripps College, founded in 1926, a women’s school specializing in humanities and the arts; Claremont McKenna College, founded in 1946, specializing in economics and political science; Harvey Mudd College, opened in 1957, which offers degrees in engineering and science, and Pitzer College, founded in 1963, which focuses on the social and behavioral sciences.

Each school has its own board of trustees, as does the Claremont University Center, which governs joint facilities and has a committee that plans for the future.

Students enroll in one college but are allowed to take courses in any of them.

“There’s a lot of interaction--I’ve taken classes on every campus,” said Brighid Brady, a senior at Scripps. “You can make it any way you want--you can take all your courses on your own campus, or all of them off.”

Jennifer Eberhardt, a senior majoring in international relations at Pitzer, said: “I chose this school because I could design my own major. I take a lot of classes at Pomona and Scripps.”

The campuses cover 317 acres and are contiguous, with no boundaries or gates separating them from each other or from the town of Claremont. They have a total of 3.2 million square feet of building space.

If the Claremont consortium lacks anything, it is emphasis on sports. Most Claremont athletic teams are made up of students from more than one school, and none make headlines on sports pages.

Little Known

Since World War II and the founding of Claremont McKenna College, the cluster has rated high academically, yet in some parts of the country it is still little known.

There are no similar groupings in this country. Several colleges near Amherst, Mass., share some facilities, as do those in another group in Atlanta, Ga. The University of California campuses at Santa Cruz and San Diego were patterned after the Claremont cluster in some ways, with separate schools but central facilities, such as libraries and athletic fields.

“There is always a great deal of interest in the Claremont plan,” said Howard Bowen, former president of Grinnell College and the University of Iowa, who once served as president and chancellor of Claremont University Center.

“Many members of academic bodies come through here to see how the colleges work together, because these are absolutely first-class institutions.”

One such visitor was Hans Giesecke, assistant vice president of the Assn. of Colleges and Universities, which has 62 member colleges in California. “What’s intriguing is the overall level of quality among them, even the newer ones,” he said. “It’s very unusual to find a group of colleges clustered together, each being recognized as a leader of its type.”

Several studies rate Pomona as one of the country’s best private liberal arts colleges because of its highly rated faculty and small classes that encourage close teacher-student contact.

Outstanding Graduates

Harvey Mudd College has produced the nation’s largest percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctoral degrees. Claremont McKenna College boasts an exceptionally high number of graduates who eventually became board chairmen and chief executive officers of major businesses.

John David Maguire, president of the Claremont Graduate School and Claremont University Center, thinks that the time is ripe for the cluster to consider a seventh college.

“There’s a growing feeling that in the 1990s there should be what we are calling ‘a major new venture,’ something like a seventh college,” he said.

“There must be six or seven ideas kicking around, but the most interesting model to me would be a new kind of creature, a four-year program that would be the last two years of college and two years of graduate school.”

The Claremont colleges own the 140 undeveloped acres, next to the cluster of campuses and north of Foothill Boulevard, that would become the site for a seventh school.