Envisioning a Consortium of Specialization

“My own very deep hope is that instead of one great, undifferentiated university, we might have a group of institutions divided into small colleges—somewhat of an Oxford type—around a library and other utilities which they would use in common. In this way I should hope to preserve the inestimable personal values of the small college while securing the facilities of the great university.”—James M. Blaisdell

The eminently quotable Blaisdell, Pomona’s third president and the founder of the Claremont Colleges, wrote these words in 1923 to Ellen Browning Scripps, the philanthropist who would found Scripps College three years later. Searching for a solution to maintain Pomona’s character as enrollment increased, Blaisdell envisioned the Claremont Colleges as providing the best of both worlds in higher education: the community and personality of the small liberal arts colleges, with access to the resources of a large university.

Today, the Claremont Colleges remain unique for their close collaboration and the quality of the resources they share, like the Honnold-Mudd Library and the ability to immediately notify every 5C student of potential danger. But has the collegiality, so to speak, of the consortium become more strained over the years? Competition between the Claremont Colleges can push each institution to improve, as good ideas and new initiatives spread among the Claremont community. However, it sometimes seems as if we're past the point of celebrating each other’s achievements—and what they add to the resources and reputation of the consortium—and instead race to outdo each other. As several of the schools rush to increase the size of the student body and then struggle to accommodate incoming students, it is important to examine the long-term consequences. While the Claremont Colleges are not about to turn into UCLA size-wise, the current trend may eventually undermine Blaisdell’s vision of maintaining the small college experience.

The question of specialization within the consortium—whether we would be better off if it were stronger or weaker—also follows. The idea of having multiple liberal arts colleges next door to each other, each providing a broad education, is a bit strange on the face of it. While each college has its particular strengths, many multiplicities remain. Interconsortium competition has already differentiated departments to a certain extent, but greater specialization and encouraging students to cross-enroll at other schools would uphold the liberal arts experience while potentially improving academic quality.

Finally, taking steps toward a fuller integration would benefit the students of the Claremont Colleges. Taking the Colleges’ student populations as a whole, we remain a very small institution. It speaks to the talent and dedication of students and faculty, not to mention the size of the schools' endowments, that we can support parallel academic departments, musical groups, and athletic teams. However, there is a certain element of redundancy and even a dilution of talent in this. For example, the 5Cs currently have two orchestras, two choirs, and two chamber choirs, one for Pomona’s music department and the other for the joint music program of Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, and Scripps. Instead, the groups could combine or become parts of an integrated, tiered program, with different groups having a different time commitment, expected level of technique, or different repertoire. Also, think about the benefits of combined athletic facilities. Does it really make sense to have four different gyms in one square mile?

The personality of each school won’t be eroded by a stronger relationship among consortium members. It could even flourish with greater specialization. Bringing the schools closer together forces us to examine what makes us different and what we share. As the consortium continues to explore expansion overseas or adding another institution in Claremont, it must examine how we can fully reap the benefits of our current configuration and maintain the legacy of the Claremont Colleges.

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