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Alma Mater - Letter From President Oxtoby

Alma Mater Information

Research and Analysis

December 15, 2008

Last spring, I announced a temporary suspension of performances of the Alma Mater and the creation of a committee to explore issues surrounding this and other College songs. My reason was our community’s concern over a rediscovered aspect of Pomona history—that our Alma Mater, Hail, Pomona, Hail, might have been written for a blackface minstrel show. The goal was to make this an educational opportunity for all members of the College family to benefit from research concerning the history and historical context of these songs and from discussions concerning our own relationship with unfortunate parts of our past.

Today, after receiving the College Songs Committee’s final report and after much deliberation, including a full discussion with the Board of Trustees, I am writing to you with my decisions concerning the Alma Mater and Torchbearers.

First of all, I have decided to confirm Hail, Pomona, Hail as Pomona’s Alma Mater and to end the suspension of performances at official College events such as Alumni Weekend. Given the divisive nature of the controversy over the song on our campus, however, it will not be included in the programs for Commencement or Convocation for the present. In doing this, I have chosen to replace a compromise put forward by the Committee with a compromise of my own. The Committee recommended that Hail, Pomona, Hail should no longer be our Alma Mater but should remain as a college song, to be sung only by our alumni. They also recommended that a new Alma Mater should be composed to take its place.

My decision to confirm the status of Hail, Pomona, Hail as our Alma Mater, rather than replacing it, is based upon a conviction that traditions—like people—should be judged on their merits, not on the basis of historical associations unconnected to their actual character. All are agreed that there is no harmful meaning in either the words or the music of Hail, Pomona, Hail. The question is whether the context of its possible first performance should be determinative.

Three things concern me here. First, there is the inconclusive nature of the evidence. While research conducted by two students and an alumna taught us much about the minstrel show that took place here in 1909–10, it also revealed that the evidence for a connection between that event and Hail, Pomona, Hail is contradictory and open to interpretation. Second, there is the troubling idea that all things associated with an imperfect past should be considered tainted even if there is nothing inherently objectionable about them. And finally, there is the false sense of closure provided by getting rid of something so that we no longer need to talk about the issue that it calls to mind. The Alma Mater still has things to teach us, and the people who cherish it should not be constrained in any way from honoring it.

That said, however, we must also be sensitive to the concerns of the diverse College community of which we are so proud. It is clear that many of our current students—including students of all races—would now find it uncomfortable to be asked to stand and sing the Alma Mater during Commencement or Convocation. Indeed, in solidarity over these concerns, the Associated Students of Pomona College voted this year to recommend that the Alma Mater be decertified. Commencement belongs to our seniors, who are celebrating the culmination of their college years, and Convocation is where we welcome a new class into our midst. In these special, student-focused settings, unity and a sense of mutual respect are paramount. For that reason, we will not sing the Alma Mater at these events for the present.

In the case of Torchbearers, the Committee was divided, but I am accepting the recommendation of a plurality of the Committee that the song should be sung by our choral groups only after a thoughtful revision of some of the words. This is appropriate because portions of the song make reference to Native American traditions in ways that are, at best, stereotypical and, at worst, offensive. It is worthy of note that these words have already been rewritten once, in 1930, so this is consistent with our past practice. I will consult with the Music faculty to explore how the rewriting may be done in a professional fashion.

Finally, I strongly support the final recommendation of the Committee that we should take steps to increase the understanding of College history throughout our community. The attention this process has received, both on campus and off, has already played a role in this regard. Discussions began last spring at Alumni Weekend. This was followed in the fall by a forum for students and another for faculty and staff. The community learned about our history in a number of ways, including a performance of The Dance, an informative and compelling presentation about minstrelsy, and summer research projects by two students, presented in a poster session and a website. An alumna followed up with additional research about the Alma Mater, and another conducted research concerning Torchbearers. All of these things have added to our understanding of the history surrounding these songs.

But understanding the origins and connections of our College songs is only the first step. Traditions are intended to connect us to our history, but unless we understand them in their full historical context, they are empty vessels. To build a deeper engagement with College history—including the ambiguous role race has played throughout that history—some steps can be taken relatively quickly: in the coming months, we will work to create a website concerning Pomona history, including such source materials as past issues of the Metate. Other important steps, such as developing a curated space to present historical materials on campus, will take somewhat longer to carry out. Ultimately, we need to introduce a position of Campus Archivist to help us to safeguard and learn about our past in ways that will inform our understanding of Pomona College and its traditions.

I am deeply grateful for the hard and thoughtful work of the faculty, students, staff, alumni and trustees who made up the College Songs Committee. I understand the challenges that they faced in dealing with issues on which there are such honest and forceful differences. Their full report is available here, through the links above and navigation at the left. I have benefited greatly from their analysis and counsel, and I believe the entire College has been well served by the public forums that they organized. I have also appreciated hearing from so many alumni and other members of the Pomona family with a range of views.

Through my years at Pomona, I have come to treasure our traditions as vital touchstones with the past. Singing the Alma Mater is always a moving experience for me—I love the profound sense of connection that it gives me with the generations who were here before me. However, in a changing world, the reality is that each generation decides which traditions to honor. One cannot impose a tradition, and efforts to do so generally fail. The future of our traditions will always remain in the hands of the people who will come after us, and that is as it should be.

I make these decisions with the support of the Board of Trustees and the full understanding that some members of our community will disagree. In the months ahead, I welcome the opportunity to discuss any questions that may result from the Committee’s report or from my own decisions in these matters.

Sincerely,

David Oxtoby

Communications

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