Interim Ath Director Diversifies Speaker Lineup

Transgender rights activist Janet Mock. Artist Mary Weatherford. Spoken word poet Anis Mojgani. Comedian David Misch. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. All of these speakers have visited Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum this fall under the leadership of Interim Director Priya Junnar. 

Since replacing longtime director Bonnie Snortum in August, Junnar has made it a priority to continue Snortum’s work in increasing the diversity of speakers at the Athenaeum.  

Our students are very interested in having more artists coming to campus—whether slam poets, painters, musicians, or dancers,” Junnar wrote in an email to TSL. “We are also striving to bring more science-oriented speakers on a range of topics from neural prosthetics to genetics to ecology.” 

Junnar earned an MBA from Case Western Reserve, a master’s in International Relations from Yale University and a bachelor’s degree from University of California, Berkeley. She has worked in communications at two different universities, yet sees CMC, and its Athenaeum, as especially unique and with “no parallels in higher education.”

“I quickly recognized the Athenaeum as a cornerstone of intellectual and cultural life at CMC,” wrote Junnar, who is married to CMC President Hiram Chodosh. “In all my experience in higher education, I’ve never seen anything like it: the diverse range of speakers, the central role of students at the events, and the engagement of the CMC faculty, staff and larger Claremont Colleges community.”

Under Junnar’s leadership thus far, the Athenaeum has hosted speakers from a variety of disciplines. While stereotypically ‘CMC’ topics continue to be covered, with speakers like New York Times editor Len
Apcar and California politics expert Tony Quinn, many speakers hail from other sectors as well. The arts have been thoroughly represented, including by speakers like Mojgani and pianist Uri Caine.

Calla Cameron CM ’17, who attends the Athenaeum dinner series every weeknight, said that Junnar has continued, and even strengthened, Snortum’s dedication to bringing diverse culture to CMC. 

“I think if quintessential, stereotypical CMCers were to run the Ath without a director dedicated to culture, we’d have hundreds of economists and political theorists speaking,” Cameron wrote in an email to TSL. “Bonnie and Priya both were, and are, intent upon giving CMC the opportunity to learn from experts in classic literature, poets, and musicians, who bring a different type of learning to the audience.”

Junnar has many other plans for the Athenaeum. In hopes of making the Athenaeum a more easily accessible resource for all 5C students, Junnar is working on upgrading the marketing, communications and technology infrastructure. 

Students can look forward to an Athenaeum smartphone app in the near future, which will consolidate all the information circulated on a user-friendly platform. Users will be able to view calendars, research speakers and make a reservation with a click of a button. 

“Since we increasingly (especially students) live on our phones, I feel that this will be a welcome breakthrough for the community,” Junnar wrote.  

Junnar emphasizes that the core role of the Athenaeum remains constant. 

“[There are] great speakers to educate and challenge us; music and performance art to stimulate our senses; and writers, poets and artists to expand our imaginations,” Junnar said. “We remain true to that tried and tested formula.”

Likewise, Athenaeum Manager David Edwards said that the venue has always offered a variety of speakers. He says that the process of getting speakers depends strongly on teamwork, often involving the input of several different departments. Still, Edwards does notice a difference in this year’s lineup. 

“I think the direction Priya is going in, the speakers she has booked are a little different from what we’ve had,” Edwards said. “We have an electronic musician coming in next semester, which of course, is very different from our usual academic talks.”

Edwards said that Junnar is constantly working to schedule interesting speakers, noting that she has already booked almost all of next semester’s slots. Students and chefs working in the kitchen love to see Junnar’s cheerful smile as she enters the room. 

“Priya is bright, friendly and energetic, so she’s been a great influence on me and Dante [Toppo CM ’15] when it comes down to getting things done,” added Shannon Miller CM ’16, one of this year’s Athenaeum Fellows along with Toppo. 

The Athenaeum has always been a distinctive feature of CMC’s intellectual life, and the speaker lineup this semester has only added to that sentiment. 

“The Ath has come to mean more to me as a CMC student than a lot of other hallmarks of CMC do,” Cameron said. “I can’t wait to see how Priya and this year’s Fellows integrate literature and government, economics and science, and poetry with politics.”

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