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Pomona College Inauguration - David W. Oxtoby

"The Place of Prometheus"

October 11, 2003

Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, students, staff, alumni, distinguished guests, and friends of Pomona College: What a thrill it is to stand before you today as President of this College! I’m delighted that so many of you could travel from such distances to be here today, and I’m particularly pleased that so many members of my family and Claire’s could join us on this occasion. I’d like to thank those who brought greetings for their warm welcome to the campus, and especially to thank Pat McPherson for her remarks today.

As we approach the 116th anniversary of the founding of Pomona College, I stand in awe of those who have preceded me in this role. Our first presidents (Baldwin, Ferguson, and Gates) had the courage to establish a college that would stand for excellence in a place where only citrus groves existed; James Blaisdell had the vision to plan for a group of Colleges here in Claremont that has shaped our distinctive character ever since; my fellow scientist Charles Edmonds built the auditorium in which we assemble today; E. Wilson Lyon transformed Pomona College into an institution visible on the national and international stage. Finally, it is a special pleasure to welcome David Alexander and Peter Stanley here today. Their collective 34 years of leadership, their calmness, high aspirations, and firm moral values, have shaped what Pomona College is today and prepared us for further growth in the future.

What is a liberal arts college today, in 2003? To begin to answer that question, let me go back one hundred years to the eloquent polemic written by W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk.” This monumental work from 1903, which Du Bois introduced with the prophetic words “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” touches on the role of higher education in ways that speak profoundly to us today. In his words, “The function of the university” (and, I would add, the liberal arts college) “is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”

Let’s explore these words carefully. Note the three functions that Du Bois mentions first, each of which is a desirable goal, and in fact part of the reason why we have a Pomona College today, although each is inadequate by itself to justify our existence. The first of these is “to teach bread-winning.” We want students emerging from Pomona to get good jobs, and we know that the skills taught in our curriculum will equip them well for life in the world outside. But this alone is not the justification for a liberal arts college. Nor is the second function, “to furnish teachers for the public schools,” which in broader terms can be thought of as preparing an engaged citizenry who will use their talents to help society. Desirable as this is, it alone is not enough. Nor is the third function, “to be a centre of polite society.” This suggests a traditional image of an “educated lady or gentleman” who speaks foreign languages, appreciates the arts, and can discourse on philosophy and other intellectual subjects. All of these are desirable outcomes of an education, but not the full basis for a College in 1903 or in 2003.

What, then, does Du Bois tell us is the real function of a college? It is, to quote him again, “to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life.” This is a plea for a holistic view of education. The aim of a college is to build a lasting connection, for both students and teachers, between what we do in life and what we think about, between our activities and our understandings. For Du Bois, this task “forms the secret of civilization.”

As I think about the future of Pomona College, two complementary images come to mind: the cloister and the crossroads. Each has something to say to us about what our college can and should be at the dawn of the 21st century.

The first image, the cloister, is the more traditional model of a college, bringing to mind a picture of Oxford from the fourteenth century. It is present in much of our architecture, in the enclosed spaces represented by Lebus Court or the Clark residence halls. Symbolically, it represents the college as a “protected space” for teaching and learning, where students and faculty in classroom, laboratory, and library can join together in the discovery of knowledge. In earlier times, the cloister has been too often a way of excluding certain types of people, using race, religion, or income level as tests for admissibility to a club. We must work consciously to make our own community one that welcomes diverse students, faculty, and staff. Only in this way can the dialog within the “cloister” be a meaningful one. One can never permanently achieve true diversity in a world that is constantly changing; rather, it is a target toward which we need to strive continuously through our student admissions and faculty and staff recruitment efforts.

The cloister model of the college brings two very positive values to the fore. The first is that in the protected space represented by a college, students and faculty are freer to take risks. To students, I say: use these four years not for narrow vocational training in a pre-selected field, but rather as an opportunity to explore new subjects that you may never have thought about before setting foot in Claremont. Follow your passions, and you will end up with an education that prepares you for the world outside the cloister. To faculty, I say: think big in your scholarship. Use your teaching and research to move into new areas, to make new connections with other faculty and with fields that are far from your dissertations and your pasts. That is a special value that is fostered in a liberal arts college. The stretches that you make, both as students and faculty, bring excellence to life in this community.

The second value which is brought by the college-as-cloister is one of freedom of speech. In the protected spaces of our classrooms and residence halls, members of the community should feel able not only to speak openly, but also to listen carefully to the views of others. Freedom of speech is only useful if it frees us to hear different kinds of speech than our own, and to welcome the contributions made by others even if we disagree with them. For Pomona College to be a strong community, we must bring diverse voices and opinions inside our walls, and encourage open and frank discussions of difficult subjects, allowing ourselves sometimes even to be persuaded by a different view. In that way we can serve as a model for our country and for the world.

A second and complementary model for Pomona is the college as crossroads. This image of openness is also reflected in our architecture, in the broad expanse of Marston Quad and the vision of our campus planner, Myron Hunt, which has enabled us to expand over the years and yet still retain our small-college character. An openness to change and to the spaces beyond our borders was very much present in the vision of our fourth president, James Blaisdell, who was bold to establish the Claremont Group Plan, which has led to the creation of four additional colleges and two graduate schools, working cooperatively to share resources, where possible, but also retaining independence and individual missions. I welcome and celebrate this vision, and I pledge in my time as President to fight against the bureaucratic boundaries that have crept back. In every area, whether it is information technology, intramural sports, or the language program, our first question should be “What is right for Pomona College?” but our second question should always be “Can this be enhanced by working together with the Claremont Colleges?”

Pomona College as crossroads needs to be placed squarely in our setting in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, connected more closely with that community than in the past. As Steve Koblik argued persuasively in his speech this morning, California is part of the Pacific Rim just as much as China and Latin America, and it needs to be part of Pomona’s identity, even if we are a college of national and international aspirations. There are extraordinary opportunities right here in southern California to connect with the leading issues of our day: the environment (think of questions of energy policy, water resources, and air quality), community development (think of immigration, the schools, and the impact of political systems), and modern culture (from the Getty to the vibrant modern art scene to Hollywood and the media). We need to know our region better, and Los Angeles needs to know Pomona better. Some of this may involve simple steps such as organizing more trips for students off campus into the city and surroundings. Other parts involve reexamining our priorities, and may lead to new directions in faculty hiring, new or redesigned courses, or new summer internship programs that place Pomona students in non-profit organizations through the metropolitan area. By strengthening our connections with this region we will not be sacrificing our national reputation; rather, we will be making the theories from our classrooms come to life in a real setting.

Los Angeles is an international city, and we will only understand our region if we see it in its international context. Our students take part in an outstanding range of study-abroad programs, and many report this as one of the most positive parts of their Pomona experience. This is wonderful. But we need to explore together ways of increasing the international dimension of our program right here on campus. Should there be more international students matriculating here in Claremont, bringing a different dimension to our classroom discussions? Are there ways of enhancing language study so that students are better equipped for their experiences in other cultures? How can we revitalize the Oldenborg program to make it a model for the years ahead? I look forward to exploring all these questions with the Pomona community.

So far, I’ve spoken mostly of the “curriculum”: the analytical and thinking skills taught in classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and, increasingly, over the worldwide Web. In the next few minutes, I’d like to turn my attention to several areas that fall between the curricular and extracurricular sides of Pomona. Our challenge here is to integrate these further types of activities into a Pomona education, breaking down artificial barriers that now exist between the curricular and the extracurricular.

The first of these is the creative arts, encompassing art, music, theater, and dance. To see the world around us not just through words and books, but through the eye and the ear, and to integrate analysis and criticism with creation and performance: this is one of the goals of a Pomona education. We are not a conservatory, nor a professional art school, but we declare that the creative arts are a vital component of a liberal education. Certain obligations are then thrust upon us. First, we need to develop facilities for the creation and display of art that are comparable in quality to the well-designed and flexible Seaver Theatre and to the restored gem of Bridges Hall of Music. Second, we need to bring to campus creative artists and performers, both on our own faculty and from the outside, to provide examples to our students and to work with them to raise their sights and improve their skills. And finally, we need to establish a culture on campus that celebrates and recognizes the arts.

If I have spoken up to now about the development of the mind and of the senses, it is time to turn to the third side: the body. I welcome the new, broader emphasis that Pomona College has been placing on “wellness,” including educating the entire community about substance abuse and encouraging a lifelong commitment to fitness. I’m delighted that the new Claremont Consortium Wellness Center will by 2006 provide a state-of-the-art facility for health services, counseling, and wellness education. Matching this is a commitment from Pomona College to physical education and athletics. This starts with our varsity teams, where we must provide excellent coaching and first-class facilities so that our athletes have the opportunity to compete successfully with counterpart schools, keeping firmly in mind the ideal of the student-athlete that Pomona has preserved since its founding, in a period where increased professionalism threatens our values. But our commitment has to extend to our physical education classes, intramural, and club sports as well. I’d like to see an increase in participation in all of these areas. In particular, I’d like to challenge all of the Claremont Colleges to work together to provide the playing space and facilities for a top-notch intramural program involving far larger numbers of our students.

Third and finally, let me turn to a subject that I know is on all of your minds: having fun. As many of you know, Pomona slipped from its first-place position a couple of years ago as the most “fun” campus in the country to number two. How can we regain our proper place? First, I’d like to celebrate the steps taken over the last decade under Peter Stanley’s leadership to remake the campus as a center for student life, starting with our wonderful Smith Campus Center and moving beyond to the wide range of activities that come right here to campus every day and every night of the week. The next step to move forward, in my view, is to encourage students to break out of what they refer to as the Claremont Colleges “bubble”: the delightful but somewhat artificial world that seems to confine them to our campuses twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. To this end, I am announcing here the creation of my first presidential-level task-force: a committee to prepare a list of the 47 things that every Sagehen should do in the Los Angeles area during his or her four years on campus. I’m delighted that David Menefee-Libey has agreed to chair this committee, which will bring together students, faculty, and staff in an effort to assemble the best suggestions and prepare a definitive list. I hope all of you will contribute to it.

In my remarks today, I have tried to lay out some areas for growth and change at Pomona College, and to identify some challenges that we will be working together to meet. In the end, though, our success will not be marked by quantitative measures such as buildings built and funds raised, or even by our standing in national surveys. Rather, it will rest on the passion for learning stirred up in the hearts of each of the members of our community: this is the ultimate goal of education.

Here on the Pomona College campus stands a graphic image of this passion: the fresco painted in Frary Dining Hall by Jose Clemente Orozco of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity. If you haven’t seen it before, go and look at it this afternoon; if you have seen it many times, take another look, and go to the Art Museum to see the artist’s sketches for this masterpiece. The precious gift of fire represents knowledge, which transforms human experience; that is the reason Orozco chose this theme for Pomona College as an educational institution.

The story of the creation of this mural still surprises even today. For a small college like the Pomona of 1930 to place such a radical mural in such a visible location took real courage; it was the first major mural by a Mexican artist in this country, and set the stage for subsequent work of Diego Rivera and others. The initial vision came from a faculty member, Jose Pijoan of the Department of Art. Students played a critical role in achieving this goal. Because the College had not really raised the money to pay for the mural, students organized fundraisers toward Orozco’s fee, and the muralist lived in Clark and took his meals with students in Frary while he worked. Finally the administration under our fifth President, Charles Edmonds, together with the trustees had the sense just to step back and let this happen, a bold move to present such a revolutionary work of art to conservative California.

The story of Prometheus is one that has had a resonance for me throughout my life. In my early teens, my first intellectual passion was not for chemistry or mathematics but for Greek literature. One of the very first books that I bought using my own allowance was a volume of plays by Aeschylus, translated by David Grene, of the University of Chicago (a university that I’d never heard of at that stage) and Richmond Lattimore, the Greek scholar at Bryn Mawr College at whose home I once had the privilege of dining with my parents. The play “Prometheus Bound” in that volume stood out for the way it grappled with fundamental issues of free will and human destiny. When I first visited Pomona last year, Frary was tantalizingly closed for renovation, so it was not until the summer that I had the opportunity to see our “Prometheus” at first hand.

When I had lunch recently in Frary, I was struck by the incongruity of munching brownies in a dining hall in front of this dramatic mural. It felt a bit uncomfortable, as I am sure it has to some of you. I realized, though, that this is exactly the point. The conversations we have in the dining halls, banal or profound, are part of the Pomona education, and so it is fitting that this dramatic image of fire coming down from heaven is not locked up in a museum, but is right in the middle of our everyday life. It symbolizes the passions that break through into our daily activities. It reminds us that education is not always easy, but that it can be life-transforming. That is what we celebrate today; that is what we will work for in the years ahead.