With the announcement of a record $25 million donation, Pomona College unveiled the Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity, a move that has left some excited for the new center's potential and others unsure of its nature and intentions.
The Sept. 10 announcement of the Center marked the conclusion of a two-year planning process that started with conversations with donors Rick HM ’64 and Susan Sontag PO ’64. After receiving the funds for a pilot program last year, Pomona convened a faculty steering committee for the Center, chaired by Pomona Associate Dean Fernando Lozano, and hired outside consultants to hold workshops with students.
Tom Maiorana and Vida Mia Garcia of Red Cover Studios, a Bay Area-based consulting company that helps organizations “develop future products and design thinking capabilities,” will serve as full-time employees. Harvey Mudd College engineering professor Patrick Little and Pomona physics professor Dwight Whitaker will serve as the Center's co-directors while a search for a permanent director and staff takes place this academic year.
Posters and a chair attached to a wall in the Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity's new location in Pomona's Seeley Mudd Science Library. • Wesley Liang
The Center, which is located in Pomona’s Seeley Mudd Science Library, has already provided funding or resources to about 20 classes across the 5Cs. For instance, Pomona art professor Mark Allen used a grant from the center to fund field trips to visit artists across the Los Angeles area.
This semester, the Center will be holding Tuesday night mini-workshops on a variety of topics, as well as longer workshops and other events to be announced throughout the semester.
Last year, the Center held workshops and granted faculty fellowships using provisionary funding from the donors, but it was not apparent to the student body at large that they were linked to a multi-million dollar center until last week’s announcement.
The only public reference by the Pomona administration to the initiative was a single Chirp sent out to students on Jan. 21, 2015 that referenced “a hands-on workshop” with professors from the Institute of Design at Stanford that was “part of a 5-C creativity and innovation initiative.” Another Chirp advertising a similar workshop was sent out Feb. 11.
The Sontags donated to Pomona with the intention of involving students and faculty from the other Claremont Colleges, and the presidents from the other colleges will participate in its governance. According to Pomona President David Oxtoby, the majority of the donation for the Center will be placed in the Pomona endowment for investment.
The money that Pomona does not invest will go to the upkeep of the Center, including the salaries of two full-time staff members and a permanent director starting in the 2016-2017 academic year. However, Oxtoby said the Center’s budget has yet to be finalized.
The Sontags’ gift is the largest single donation ever made to Pomona, eclipsing the $10 million donation from Lillian Lincoln Howell PO ’43 to construct Lincoln and Edmunds Halls. It is also the second multi-million dollar gift from the Sontags in the last decade, following their $7.5 million donation in 2009 to construct Sontag and Pomona Residence Halls.
The $25 million donation is the largest to the 5Cs since George Roberts CM ’66 donated $50 million to Claremont McKenna College in 2013.
The Sontag Center's space in Seeley Mudd Science Library. • Kevin Tidmarsh
Estela Sanchez PO ’17, who got involved in the Center by attending a workshop last spring, addressed concerns of making the Center a welcoming space to low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students. Sanchez noted that students belonging to those groups often do not feel welcome in organizations that were not designed specifically for them.
“That’s part of the reason I felt the need to be so involved with this initiative,” Sanchez said. “I don’t want this to be another white space. I feel like this is a great opportunity to redefine that narrative that we’ve been seeing within these spaces on campus.”
Lozano said that outreach to a variety of student groups was vital to the Center’s success.
“My goal is that the Center is really a welcoming space for all faculty and all students across the 5Cs,” Lozano said. “Some of our centers have become enclaves for different student groups—it would be a tragedy for this to happen to the Sontag Center.”
Rick Sontag said that Oxtoby visited his Florida office about two years ago to discuss potential ideas for a new center. In the planning stages, they looked to design schools, like the Institute of Design at Stanford University and the Harvard Innovation Lab at Harvard University, for ideas.
Although the conversations started less than two years ago, Rick and Susan Sontag had been thinking about a donation of the type for years.
“The thought had been floating around my brain for a long time—doing something bigger, doing something related to entrepreneurial activity and creativity, something that could involve all of the colleges instead of just one,” Sontag said.
According to students involved, the Center has had remarkably little direction or oversight from administrators to this point.
“They have basically told us that this center will come to life by the different ways that students use it,” Gail Gallaher PO ‘17 said, who has been involved in planning for the initiative since attending a workshop last January. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to take this funding that’s come into our school and say, ‘This is what we want to do with it. This is what collaborative creativity and innovation mean to us.’”
The workshops that Gallaher and Sanchez attended were facilitated by Maiorana and Garcia. Most of the students involved in the initiative last semester were involved either by attending one of the workshops or through word of mouth.
The announcement of the Sontags’ donation comes near the end of the “Campaign Pomona: Daring Minds” initiative, which has the stated goal of promoting “creativity and active engagement” at Pomona. The campaign ends in December 2015.