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Claremont Colleges: Can Bigger Be Better?

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

In 1925, the president of Pomona College dared to believe his little liberal arts school could have it both ways.

James A. Blaisdell thought that if Pomona--then 38 years old--remained small, it would never achieve the intellectual vibrancy of a large campus. If it followed the lead of Stanford University and went big, he worried, it would lose the “richer intimacies” of a tight-knit community.

So he chose a middle course. Inspired by England’s Oxford University, he created the first American college consortium. Clustered 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, this group of bantam institutions would share expenses and give each other scholarly breadth while also maintaining their own identities.

“In effect, Pomona rolled the dice,” said Peter W. Stanley, Pomona’s current president. And indisputably, that gamble has paid off.

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Today, the Claremont Colleges include five prestigious undergraduate institutions--Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona and Scripps--and the nationally renowned Claremont Graduate School. Together, they have about 6,350 students, about the size of many universities. But each school is small enough that students and professors greet each other by name.

Leafy, shady Claremont, once dubbed “the city of trees and PhDs,” is more hamlet than metropolis, and its residents are determined to keep it that way.

No wonder, then, that the Claremont community has recently begun to ruminate anew about the merits and dangers of growth. The colleges are considering adding an institution for the first time since 1963, when Pitzer was founded. The proposed new venture--a graduate school of bioengineering--has prompted concerns that resonate beyond Claremont and into higher education as a whole.

For at the heart of the debate is a question that universities continually face, whether they are expanding or cutting back: What elements are essential to maintain a dynamic learning environment, particularly for undergraduates? At Claremont, that question has a corollary: If the current recipe seems to be working, will a new ingredient spoil the stew?

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If nothing else, said Nancy Y. Bekavac, president of Scripps, the proposal to add a school “has made us all think again about what we are for.”

Step onto any of the campuses, stroll under the sycamores and elms past students playing Frisbee or studying on vast lawns, and it is obvious what everybody is so determined to protect. There is an easy grace to the way the Claremont Colleges coexist, jammed up against each other and yet distinct in architecture and in scholarly ambience.

Pomona, with its pillars and ivy-covered buildings, evokes Ivy League West. It is still the largest of the undergraduate colleges, and its academic departments are strong across the board. Scripps, the women’s college, is more Spanish in style, with whitewashed walls and red tile roofs. It is strongest in the humanities, fine arts and social sciences.

Claremont McKenna, a former men’s college that emphasizes economics and government, is contemporary-looking, while the style of Harvey Mudd--the college of engineering and sciences--is more Mayan-modern. Pitzer, where social and behavioral sciences are emphasized, is less notable for its boxy, functional architecture than for its creative approaches to education. Students, for instance, are encouraged to invent their own majors.

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The Claremont Graduate School offers master’s and doctoral degrees in 18 fields. It is centrally located, touching most of the other campuses. And yet, it is largely off to itself--its students have little contact with undergraduates.

‘We Just Have a Lot of Options’

But while individual quirks make the Claremont Colleges interesting, the relationships among the schools make the system work. Each has its own endowment and board of trustees--annual tuition varies from $17,700 at Claremont McKenna to $18,680 at Scripps--and the college presidents meet as a council to manage the consortium. The colleges, which are on sound financial footing, cooperate to save money on expenses. They buy everything from paper clips to electricity collectively, and share a central library, student health center and other services.

Most notably, they open their classrooms to one another. A majority of students enroll in some courses at other colleges--to take advantage of Scripps’ dance department, for example, or Pomona’s classics professors. Just as Blaisdell intended, it seems, students reap the benefits of the big, while enjoying the comforts of the small.

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“We just have a lot of options,” said Anna Delgado, a government major at Claremont McKenna, who belongs to a five-college Latino student organization and often takes courses at Pomona and Pitzer. “You don’t have this giant bureaucracy you have to weave through.”

Fear of giant bureaucracy underlies the current impassioned discussion about adding a new school--as one administrator put it, “We need more and longer meetings? Oh, boy!”

Blaisdell’s original vision was for the consortium to keep growing at the rate of one institution a decade. Everyone agrees that if there is an upper limit on the optimal number of colleges, Claremont probably hasn’t reached it yet. Nevertheless, people are uneasy.

“There is a quality of life here that goes beyond the pretty trees--a quality of intellectual life that could be imperiled by too much growth,” said Stanley, Pomona’s president. “A little infusion of energy from other sources can only help us. But you can easily imagine something that kind of neutered us. And that would be a big mistake.”

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Partly because of such sentiment, the Claremont Colleges have considered--and rejected--several proposals for new schools. In the early 1970s, administrators asked a blue-ribbon commission to evaluate the possibility of a medical school. Too expensive, the commission decided, and it later reached the same conclusion about a law school.

In 1979, the colleges agreed to add an existing institution: Immaculate Heart, an independent liberal arts college perhaps best known as the home base of Corita Kent, a nun and noted artist. But before the union could be finalized, the Hollywood-based college shut its doors.

The last expansion idea to be considered seriously was for an undergraduate college that emphasized international studies, particularly the Pacific Rim and Central America. John D. Maguire, president of the Claremont Graduate School, recalled that everyone liked that idea a lot--too much, in the final analysis.

“At the end of the day,” Maguire said, “several [Claremont] presidents spoke up and said, ‘This [topic] is so important that we all need to increase and enliven international studies in each of the existing colleges.’ ”

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It was then, Maguire says, that “it finally dawned on me: The competitive concerns were dominating.” No one wanted to be overshadowed by a new institution, particularly one that might have overlapping areas of concentration. No one wanted to create another potential contender for treasured fund-raising dollars. All the schools said they wanted change, but they seemed to want anything but.

Then, as now, said Jack Stark, Claremont McKenna’s president, some of the foot-dragging stems from an unexpected source: the Claremont Colleges’ success.

Biotechnology Field Scares Some People

“Part of the academic community’s structure is to be critical of issues and ideas. And as we have become more affluent, it’s harder to get people to risk,” Stark said. “ ‘We’re doing fine now,’ people say. ‘What if it doesn’t work out?’ ”

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Most of the worries this time around, however, are centered on the specific nature of the latest proposal. And Henry E. Riggs is spending a lot of time trying to reassure the worriers.

Riggs, the president of Harvey Mudd, is the self-described “most vocal advocate and lightning rod” for the newest expansion proposal. It was his idea to create a graduate school of engineering that focused not on physical principles, such as those used to build bridges, but on the life sciences.

“What’s going on new in industry? A whole host of things that are biologically based, from biotech to biomedical to environmental cleanup,” he said. “My hypothesis is that those industries are not being as well served as they might be if there were an institution devoted to those things.”

Moreover, he said, the school--which he estimates would cost $100 million to start up--would reinvigorate Claremont.

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“It would create new intellectual fervor around the place--stir us all up in a useful way and bring additional attention and resources,” Riggs said. “We could bring the excitement of something really new to Claremont without messing up what we do really well.”

But the very things that Riggs and other supporters see as pluses make some see red. The field of biotechnology scares some people, who worry it would bring thorny ethical problems that the Claremont Colleges would do better to avoid.

Also, the idea that the school would work closely with industry has prompted criticism from those who fear that the school’s research mission soon would be defined by what is profitable, not what is important.

“The plan is basically to feed the corporations,” senior Kim Richman, a Pitzer psychology and political science major, said of the new venture. “It’s not exactly what we’re told the consortium is supposed to be based on.”

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Bekavac, Scripps’ president, says she is generally supportive of Riggs’ idea. But as the president of the women’s college, she raises another concern: “What assurance do we have, and I mean this quite seriously, that this isn’t just going to be a bunch of guys playing with very expensive toys?”

There are other problems. The likely site for the new school is a vacant lot--facing Harvey Mudd--that now is a biological field station. Environmentalists on campus have put Riggs on notice that his vision of a new college, whatever its merits, is not welcome there.

“Why should we take land that’s so useful and valuable?” asked Pitzer President Marilyn Chapin Massey. “There is a consensus on this campus that it [the new school] should go elsewhere.”

Add to that “the validity question,” as some people are calling it--that is, will students trained at this school be able to find jobs?

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“Riggs has talked to some of the really important CEOs in this area and been encouraged to go forward, so I have a feeling that when this is done, he’ll reassure me,” said Laura Mays Hoopes, the dean of faculty at Pomona. “But I need to be reassured about it. I’m very concerned.”

And finally, there is the question of whether the proposed school would shift irretrievably Claremont’s center of gravity from undergraduate liberal arts education toward graduate-level science.

Alexander W. Astin, the director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, is a big fan of the current Claremont Colleges model. He warns that if a new graduate school of science isn’t kept administratively separate from the undergraduate colleges, it could hurt them.

“You would start siphoning off the resources of those existing colleges to support it,” Astin said, adding that he’s seen that happen before. “It follows as night to day. . . . If you try to combine undergraduate and graduate education, you know what’s going to pay the price.”

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It may not be easy to avoid such linkages, Astin said, “because you just know some of those faculty at Harvey Mudd and Pomona are going to be very drawn to this place. Their mouths are going to water.”

Maguire, the graduate school president who also heads the Claremont University Center, the consortium’s parent corporation, offers a different view. He thinks undergraduate-graduate linkages--if carefully planned--can enhance education for everyone.

$50-Million Donor Must Be Found

“The truly great institutions of the next century are clearly going to have a lot of science and technology in them, even though their mission is the liberal arts,” Maguire said, adding that the proposed new school “stands to benefit everybody. The undergrads will have the chance to work with world-class scientists. It’ll sharpen and enliven science education at the undergraduate and graduate level.”

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Two things must happen before the new school can go forward. Riggs, who has resigned from Harvey Mudd effective June 1997 in order to work more steadily on the project, must find a donor to put up at least half the money--$50 million--no small feat. And a majority of the colleges’ trustees and presidents must sign off on the idea.

But for all the obstacles, for all the looming ethical and financial complications, those who are willing to wager say they bet the new school will happen.

“I have a kind of intuitive, in-my-bones conviction that this one will be realized,” said Maguire. He predicts that when the school is built, it will break a logjam and allow a surge of new growth at Claremont.

“It may be like getting the first olive out of the bottle,” he said. “I have a hunch that after this one comes, in a decade there will be another and another. It’s in our destiny to unfold that way.”

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Added Alan Heslop, a government professor at Claremont McKenna and an Oxford alumnus: “Oxford had 34 [colleges] at last count. Why should there not be that many at Claremont?”

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The Claremont Colleges

Like a little educational United Nations, the six schools that nestle together 35 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles share interests and expenses. Key services, such as the student health center and central library, are paid for jointly. But the colleges remain distinct, individualized institutions marked by small classes taught by professors, not teaching assistants.

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Pomona College

Profile: Considered one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the nation

Founded: 1887

Enrollment: 700 men, 700 women

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Footnotes: Oldest and biggest of the undergraduate colleges, it is strong in almost every academic discipline. It has a reputation for smugness, but it’s hard to be smug when your team mascot is Cecil the Sage Hen. Actor-singer Kris Kristofferson is among the school’s 11 Rhodes scholars.

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Pitzer College

Profile: Liberal arts college that emphasizes the social and behavioral sciences and interdisciplinary study

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Founded: 1963

Enrollment: 320 men, 405 women

Footnotes: With Pomona, the most ethnically diverse. Students are encouraged to invent their own majors; nearly two-thirds study abroad. Has Claremont’s only composting area, community garden and annual music bash named for the comet Kohoutek. Notable alumnus: Susan Feniger, chef and restaurateur.

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Scripps College

Profile: Strong interdisciplinary tradition in the humanities, fine arts and social sciences

Founded: 1926

Enrollment: 680 women

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Footnotes: Students have stopped calling themselves “Scrippsies,” a nickname some found ditzy. But the campus, arguably the prettiest, still maintains its traditional “clipping gardens” where students can snip fresh roses. Alumni include authors Harriet Doerr and Molly Ivins.

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Claremont McKenna College

Profile: Liberal arts college with special emphasis on economics and government

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Founded: 1946

Enrollment: 540 men, 420 women

Footnotes: Claremont McKenna students are seen as politically conservative. They’re also jocks: Nearly 60% of students lettered in a varsity sport in high school. One in four graduates goes on to law school. U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) is an alumnus.

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Harvey Mudd College

Profile: Among nation’s top undergraduate engineering schools

Founded: 1955

Enrollment: 470 men, 160 women

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Footnotes: “Mudders” are said to throw the best parties, complete with computerized special effects, and one dorm is devoted to unicycle riders. Students are required to take a third of their classes in the humanities. Shuttle astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson is a graduate.

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Claremont Graduate School

Profile: Offers master’s and doctoral degrees in 18 fields.

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Founded: 1925

Enrollment: 1,030 men, 925 women

Footnotes: Largely independent of the undergraduate colleges, by design. Distinguished by special institutes that conduct research on everything from biblical interpretation to import/export infrastructure. Thomas W. Gillespie, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, is an alumnus.

Researched by AMY WALLACE / Los Angeles Times

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