Nestled among similarly beige-toned buildings, Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum might not be the
first building to catch a wandering student’s eye. But hidden beneath the ordinary façade is one of the foremost venues at CMC—and the Claremont Colleges—for intellectual discourse, hosting a variety of
speakers nearly every evening Monday through Thursday. Under the leadership of director Bonnie Snortum, who will retire June 30, the Athenaeum has consistently offered
the Claremont community a space to engage in topical and stimulating
The list of people who have spoken at the
Athenaeum is long and varied, catering to the many interests and diverse
minds of not only CMC students, but of all students at the Claremont Colleges.
Athenaeum speaker series have often reflected the dominant issues and topics of their time. The
1989-1990 school year, for example, featured a series entitled “The Soviet
Union Today and Tomorrow: A Time for New Thinking,” and a 2007-2008 series
entitled “Health Care Reform: Markets, Mandates, or ‘Medicare for All?’”
presented different angles of the health care debate.
While the Athenaeum hosts many speakers whose talks reflect the college’s focus on government and economics, many other subjects are explored at the venue. Andy Willis CM ’14, who was an Athenaeum student fellow this school year, described a recent emphasis on social responsibility.
“Over the past four years, we’ve tried to use the Athenaeum as a vehicle
for discussion about social responsibility, so we’ve featured a number of talks
on that,” he said.
He mentioned another series, called “Shifting Perceptions: Celebrating the Spectrum of Leadership,” which addressed social justice issues in the queer community.
“We had a
really good series my sophomore year focused on LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer] issues, which was really
powerful,” he said.
“Shifting Perceptions” series was also a powerful one for former Athenaeum
student fellow Jeremy Merrill CM ’12, who emphasized the importance of the
series as evidence of the Athenaeum’s ability to adapt based on the 5C
Ath is such a gem and such an important part of the Claremont Colleges
community because of the wide range of ideas discussed there,” Merrill wrote in
an email to TSL. “The range of speakers doesn’t only span political orientation
(consider, say, Glenn Greenwald and Condoleezza Rice), but also subject matter,
from economics to an performance of Beowulf in Old English.”
The vast array of
guests who have spoken at the Athenaeum is no doubt a result of the speaker selection process. Speakers are chosen not only by Snortum and the fellows, but also by administrators, professors, research institutes, and student groups,
allowing for the entire community to suggest scholars, politicians, and practitioners.
According to Willis,
this method of choosing speakers was only initiated under Snortum’s leadership.
“Prior to formal position of athenaeum director, the Athenaeum was handled by members of the faculty kind of on a
part-time basis, so the list of speakers and the speakers that
were brought to the Athenaeum were nowhere near as comprehensive,” Willis said.
Founded in 1970 based on the
ideas of one of CMC’s founding trustees, Donald McKenna, and then-CMC president
Jack Stark, the first Athenaeum building was actually Stark’s unused
president’s house on Columbia Avenue. When interest in Athenaeum activities
grew, however, a larger space soon became necessary. In 1982, construction
began on the new Athenaeum building, and in 1983, the building was finished,
cementing the Athenaeum’s status as a permanent fixture of Claremont life.
Snortum became director in 1989 and made significant changes at the Athenaeum, including making a more consistent speaker schedule and inviting increasingly prominent guests.
“Bonnie has really made the Athenaeum into what it is today in
terms of the speaker selection,” Willis said.
Since her background is in music,
Snortum has also had a hand in making sure that the Athenaeum features a variety of musical
guests, whether they be professional musicians or students looking to showcase
CMC literature professor Audrey Bilger recalled collaborating with Snortum to bring a musical performance to the Athenaeum in 2003.
“Ronnie Spector, lead singer of the 1960s girl group The Ronettes,
premiered an early version of her autobiographical show, ‘Beyond the Beehive,’” she wrote. “Bonnie worked tirelessly to ensure that this event succeeded,
transforming the Athenaeum into a concert hall.”
A retirement reception will be held for Snortum on May 5 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Athenaeum.