Chodosh Highlights CMC's Liberal Arts Approach

With the selection of “Liberal Arts in Action” as the focus of his inauguration, Claremont McKenna College President Hiram Chodosh has drawn further attention to the ongoing conversation about how CMC’s emphasis on economics and government influences its status as a liberal arts institution. 

In an interview with TSL, Chodosh said that he does not see a tension inherent in CMC’s approach to the liberal arts.

“Government and economics are part and integral to the liberal arts,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of confusion that there’s identification with some disciplines being in the liberal arts and others not being in the liberal arts … It’s not a dichotomy, it’s a not a duality."

“It’s viewed through our mission and through our whole ethos as interdependency,” he added. “There’s an intertwining between these notions of learning and doing, of research and application, of theory and practice that pervade our model. ‘Liberal Arts in Action’ wasn’t framed to change CMC; it was framed to capture this underlying interdependency that CMC so brilliantly designed in its mission and has animated through its programs.” 

CMC literature professor Audrey Bilger, Faculty Director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse, was a member of the Presidential Inauguration Steering Committee. She said that Chodosh chose the “Liberal Arts in Action” theme because it would successfully “encapsulate themes that he wanted to be discussed throughout the year and would be productive as conversations for the college.” 

Bilger said that it is important to discuss the role of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

“The public wants to see everything that happens in academia for students as transactional—you take these classes and get this job,” she said. “Liberal arts are really about asking good questions, living lives that are thoughtful and productive. As an institution, ‘Liberal Arts in Action’ is to say that we don’t represent some kind of ivory tower philosophy [but rather] that liberal arts really engages in life and creates good citizens and people who will go off and lead well-balanced lives.”

Students at CMC spoke about the influential role of the studies of economics and government at CMC and how the school's reputation contributes to the preference of certain majors on campus.

“I think there's historically been a preference to major in government or economics, because the school established an especially strong reputation in those subjects,” wrote Nadeem Farooqi CM ’15, a philosophy, politics, and economics major, in an e-mail to TSL.

Literature and philosophy major Joel Kirk CM ’16, however, said that he thinks there is too great an emphasis on economics and government at the school.

“We do not need to change our school's identity by weakening any of the popular departments, but I do think that we need to expand our college in order to attract and better serve those that are interested in different subjects,” he said.

As to whether CMC is academically diverse enough, Aurelio Puente CM ’16, who has not yet declared a major, said that he thinks it is, “to an extent.” 

“There is definitely a strong vibe that pushes you to go and major in economics or government, but it is completely fine to explore other areas and pursue other majors,” he said.

Chodosh said that there are no plans to expand the reach of any academic departments.

“We don’t have plans for substantial growth of the faculty,” he said. “We don’t have plans to create new departments. We don’t have plans to somehow reconfigure the proportionality of resources in any one department. That is really not on my radar as something we should be thinking about in the short term.”

Chodosh said that he thinks the college should emphasize “leveraging the resources that we do have to … create the most integrated community of scholars and students.”

One concern some professors and students have expressed in recent years is that the addition of the Robert Day School (RDS) in 2007 has shifted attention from the liberal arts at CMC. RDS, which includes more than 30 tenured or tenure-track professors, offers a master’s program in finance, undergraduate majors in economics and economics-accounting, and several accelerated dual-degree programs. Scholarships are also available to both undergraduate and graduate students who are part of RDS.

The program was established after Robert Day, a college alumnus and trustee, donated $200 million to the college, prompting literature department chair Robert Faggen and other literature professors to send a letter to then-president Pamela Gann expressing their concern that using the donation to establish the graduate program would "distort the college into a single focus trade school,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

When asked about the possibility that RDS detracts from CMC’s mission as a liberal arts college, Bilger noted that while there was tension created between RDS and the rest of the departments, it is temporary.

“What has happened after the Day School is that it’s big,” Bilger said. “It’s bigger than any of the other departments, and so we’re probably going through some growing pains in thinking of what it means to have one area of the college be much bigger than the others.”

Dean of RDS Brock Blomberg said that he believes the school does not contradict CMC's liberal arts focus.

“The RDS is completely aligned with the idea of ‘Liberal Arts in Action,’” Blomberg said. “Liberal arts is a set of skills and concepts that you can gather independent of your discipline, [such as] being creative, communicating effectively, and thinking justly. We embrace these ideas here at the RDS in all of our classes.”

This article has been updated to correct an error in the printed version of the article, which stated that Chodosh does see a tension in CMC’s approach to the liberal arts. Chodosh said that he does not.