We Have Come of Age

Given by President Laura Skandera Trombley, February 15, 2003 at her inauguration which was also Pitzer College’s Founders Day, celebrating its 40th anniversary.

I stand here today for every student who ever attended Pitzer College, for every faculty member who ever taught here, and for every staff member who ever dedicated themselves to our institution. I speak for everyone who sat in a classroom illuminated by our faculty’s passion and love for the liberal arts. For everyone who has understood and worked to sustain the mission of this college, we owe you respect and a profound debt of gratitude.

There happens, at times, an intertwining of moments that occur in synchronistic ways; when despite practical and rational limitations there opens a boundless space for dreamers, poets, and us. Emily Dickinson described such a moment:

 I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–

Superior–for Doors–
Of Chambers as the Cedars–Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–  

 Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–

Today we celebrate Pitzer College. Faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, community partners, trustees, and honored guests-welcome. This is a significant day for Pitzer, and an extraordinary moment for me. I am honored to be with you, this one morning out of all of our lives, gathered here collectively in hope and trust believing in our College’s past and future.

Expectation and vision are fragile entities and require constant support and belief. I have had experience with such things. When I was a child, my family would drive past Claremont every weekend, through the endless orange groves, to our cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains. On one trip, when I was just ten years old and apropos of nothing, I said to my mother from the backseat, “When I grow up I want to do something important.” Without skipping a beat, she looked into the rearview mirror, caught me dead in the eye said, “Well, you’ve had the idea and that gets you fifty percent of the way there. Now you just have to do the work.” I sat back astonished, marveling in my good fortune, almost home, just having had the thought. A quick exchange, soon forgotten by my mother, yet never by me. And today, thirty-two years later, here we are together, home at Pitzer College, at such an important time in America’s history.

Exactly forty years ago today, February 15, 1963, Pitzer College was chartered-a new Claremont College born of hope and possibility. In April of that year, John W. Atherton, a poet and visionary, was hired as Pitzer’s first president, and over the next seventeen months he recruited students, faculty, and trustees and constructed Scott and Sanborn Halls-just in time for the beginning of the fall 1964 semester. During the College’s first year, students and faculty created the curriculum and our system of governance.

That first academic year began with ten professors and 153 students from sixteen states and five countries. In the colorful words of President Atherton:

Pitzer was built of dreams — and firmly rooted in the Claremont village dump. Born from a mystical union of the Claremont Colleges, the unborn infant drew its earliest nourishment from the cast-off detritus of generations of Claremont citizens. The big yellow bulldozers leveling the mounds for Scott and Sanborn Halls turned up bedsprings and baby buggies — all the effluvia of the early pioneers underlay the educational hopes of the wonder child who came to transform the world.

We certainly weren’t short of expectation. But like most healthy infants, we soon began to kick with our own desires. We thought a new College with ‘an emphasis on the social and behavioral sciences’ had a mandate to change the universe.

As you sit here today, now surrounded by the beauty of the arboretum and in the company of buildings new and old, you are witness to the transformation of this place by the guiding vision of the founders and the sustained commitment of their heirs.

Forty years later, we have come of age.

We were different from the beginning, and proud of it. From the start, our community demonstrated a unity and intentionality of purpose in its respect for difference and independence of thought. In 1963, the Dean of Students at UC Berkeley closed their campus to “all student political action.” The next year, Pitzer’s faculty thanked President Atherton following a Vietnam protest rally that many in the college community had attended. In their letter, the faculty recognized that the College had set an important precedent, “concerning the right of faculty, students and administration to participate in what [they hoped would] be a continuing discussion and debate of current social and political issues.” The letter concluded: “We feel that this attitude of respect for all opinions and the right to express them cannot fail to create an exciting and intellectually stimulating atmosphere at Pitzer College.” Some of the young faculty firebrands who signed the letter were John Rodman, Ruth and Lee Munroe, George Park, Werner Warmbrunn, and Valerie Levy. Their words were prophecy. I believe everyone here today will agree that this precedent for “a continuing discussion and debate of current social and political issues” is still solidly in place at Pitzer and sorely needed during our current troubling times.

For Pitzer, the heady days of exhilarating creation have given way to a College that has been recognized time and time again for its tremendous contribution to the landscape of higher education. And while Pitzer is consistently rated highly by traditional benchmarks, we are more than an excellent liberal arts college. We are at the forefront of educating for and effecting social change. We stand as a model for other liberal arts colleges of how they could and should be educating.

Audre Lorde realized that, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” After forty years of growing and changing as an institution, we well know that our house will never be built. We must continue to create our own tools and we must always keep our deeper purpose foremost in our hearts and minds: to educate young people to see their world, in all its beauty and tragedy, in all its socio-economic differences, in all its prejudices and judgments, in all its joy and promise. Martin Luther King, Jr. keenly understood the darkness that comes with passivity, a lack of vision, and a deficiency of will: “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who posses power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” We are living at a time when our commitment to intercultural cooperation and understanding is being tested, and when our commitment to community at the local, national, and international levels is being challenged.

Today Pitzer has matured into one of America’s great liberal arts colleges, rightfully taking our place among our institutional elders, having become their equal. Pitzer has grown to 824 full-time students from forty-three states and twelve countries, and we are proud of our national ranking of thirty-eighth for academic reputation and proud as well that thirty-nine percent of our student population are people of color-proving that through diversity excellence is achieved.

Our faculty are at the heart of Pitzer College. They are nationally and internationally recognized scholars, artists, filmmakers, activists, writers, and teachers. They are probing the molecular mechanisms of cancer and AIDS, they are exploring the boundaries of the universe, and they are searching the limits of the human mind. Since joining the Pitzer community, I have traveled across the country meeting alumni who time and again tell me how our faculty have changed their lives, their intellect, and their souls. Yet even such an extraordinary faculty as ours is not enough to account for the success of this institution. Our students who select Pitzer because they want to build meaning through their liberal arts education, our staff and administration who understand and seek to facilitate the uniqueness of our mission, our community partners who teach and learn with us, and our deeply loyal alumni and trustees-everyone who is part of our community who has dedicated themselves to preserving and building on our character, has created a treasure within higher education. All my life I have been taught by my family, my teachers, my students, and my colleagues to believe what Plutarch knew: “The mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled.” That fire has burned at Pitzer College for forty years.

We have come of age. Pitzer College has never been stronger.

We must continue to provide our students with the intellectual tools to understand and to be agents for change in local and global communities. We must increase our funding for faculty so they may continue our tradition of creating an innovative, fearless, interdisciplinary curriculum, and we must increase opportunities for students to work collaboratively with the faculty in their scholarship. Currently sixty percent of our students study abroad in thirty-two countries on every continent in the world. It is my goal to increase participation to one hundred percent. All Pitzer students should have the experience of immersing themselves in cultures that are not their own so that they may gain deeper understanding of themselves and their native communities. One of our seniors wrote to me this year from abroad: “It is here, as a teacher, that I have discovered what to be a student means, what is learning, what is education. As a first-year student, I thought I knew the world. Now I find myself knowing less and less everyday and understanding a little more-to what end do I seek to teach? To inform my students’ minds or to inform their person? If we inform their person, then perhaps they will be able to walk more clearly through their world.”I believe that serving the community is not a charity, but a reciprocal process where partners derive equal benefit. What our students learn in their studies around the world — and closer to home in our external studies site in Ontario, California or through the Center for California Cultural and Social Issues community partnerships — is one of the College’s most distinctive educational objectives: concern with social responsibility and the ethical implications of knowledge and action. If we are not profoundly connected to our community then we have lost our connection to ourselves, and it is my goal to increase our social engagement through helping to grow and strengthen the community-based programming at Pitzer-both at home and abroad.

Pitzer’s iconoclasm is a founding principle and we have always been a step ahead in our purpose. In order to support our mission, we must continue to solidify our financial base. Our future is only as secure as the support we bring to it. Building the endowment will guarantee our ability not only to continue expanding upon the distinctive intellectual landscape we have created for ourselves these past forty years, but also the physical. Upon completion of our master housing plan, we will be one of the few liberal arts colleges in the nation to raze and completely rebuild our student housing. Our aim is nothing less than to re-envision and reinvent the student residential housing experience. This new housing will be designed so that our students will enjoy a wholly integrated living and learning environment, and working together we will complete this next phase in the history of the College.

We are still young, yet we have proven that a college doesn’t have to be old to be effective. How many of our peer institutions can make the claim that their founding faculty still contribute to the intellectual life of the College? And how many can claim that members of their first graduating classes still visit campus to meet with faculty and engage in meaningful dialogue with current students? We are privileged as an institution to still encounter our founding faculty in the halls, to still work together with them on our research, and to still teach with them in our classrooms. And we are privileged as an institution to still learn from our founding alumni.

I am proud and honored to see so many of you gathered here today, and I would like to pay special thanks to Russell and John Pitzer, representatives of the Pitzer College founding family, and to founding President John Atherton’s wife, Ginny, and grandson, John, who share the stage with me now. I would like to thank every member of the Pitzer community for the role they have played in shaping our institution, and I am grateful to those founding members of the College present at this ceremony today who, working together, crafted our curriculum, established our system of shared governance, and articulated our mission. We are deeply indebted to you. I would also like to express my appreciation to the inauguration committee, consisting of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees, who over the past six months planned such a wonderful week of events. To our facilities, maintenance, and food services staff, we appreciate all your wonderful efforts today.

Finally, I would be terribly remiss if I did not recognize Professor Stephen Glass who after forty years still teaches at Pitzer full-time, still serves actively on faculty committees, and still participates regularly in College Council, where he reminds us of our founding principles when we begin to stray. Fittingly, Professor Glass is the historian of Pitzer College’s motto: Provida Futuri. Mindful of the Future. Mindful of the future, mindful of the past, the two are fused together in a precious constancy. Together we will walk into the next moment. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain commented on the promise of the new communities he encountered during his travels:

Such a people, and such achievements as theirs, compel homage. . . . This region is new; so new that it may be said to be still in its, baby hood. By what it has accomplished while still teething, one may forecast what marvels it will do in the strength of its maturity.
To my parents and family, thank you for the constancy of your love. To Nelson, when we met, I was a graduate student, then professor, mother, dean and now President. Clearly you possess some superior mentoring skills and I love you dearly. To my Sparkey, you now say, “This is our College,” and in 12 years you had better make it your own. Pitzer College’s mandate is to change the universe and we have come of age!

And so to all of you here today who have believed in the possible, thank you for the treasure of Pitzer College, thank you for this place of beauty unique within higher education, and thank you for being here on one of the happiest days of my life.

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