This column originally appeared in the Fall 2002 Participant.
In Feb. 15, 1963, an earnest Midwestern family man who landed in California in 1893 via Colorado and Iowa founded Pitzer College. Russell K. Pitzer believed in the transformative value of higher education, and his philanthropy was dedicated to developing educational and medical centers in his new home of Claremont. The fledgling college’s first president was a poet, John W. Atherton, whose inauguration was held in the College’s new blacktop parking lot on a cloudless, azure sky California day.
A different kind of educational philosophy would be created here, a structure where students, faculty, and administrators would all have a voice in determining their common future. College Council was instituted and emeritus faculty still remember with a laugh and a groan the intense battles, the endless arguments, and the late nights, because everything was so important, so crucial, and the future sufficiently uncertain that they could ill afford lapses in judgment or direction. These raw, exciting, and iconoclastic times for the College were matched by the turmoil that existed in California and the rest of the nation that year. This was a time marked by civil rights protests throughout the South; 200,000 people marching on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; a growing war in Vietnam; journalists and political commentators taking note of a “credibility gap” in the U.S. government’s statements concerning foreign affairs; and President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. About the Vietnam War, President Kennedy had commented on Sept. 2, 1963, during a TV news interview with Walter Cronkite: “If we withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would control Vietnam. Pretty soon Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya would go.”
Nearly 40 years have passed since Kennedy’s pronouncement. Generations have come of age, and Pitzer College has matured and grown. The College’s first endowment campaign is under way with two years remaining and $29 million has been raised toward the $40 million goal.
The College is in excellent financial condition, and in order to continue to maintain its position as a preeminent institution in an era of keen competition among liberal arts colleges and to remain true to its mission of teaching young people to question and challenge established wisdoms, this is a crucial campaign.
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. Pitzer College has never been stronger. This year Pitzer is ranked the 8th most diverse campus in America by U.S. News and World Report with students of color representing 30% of the Class of 2006. Pitzer, one of the youngest colleges included in the rankings, is rated 38th out of 217 liberal-arts colleges in academic reputation and 47th in selectivity of applicants for admission. Pitzer is included in the Princeton Review’s “The Best 345 Colleges” – where it is ranked the ninth most politically active campus. Kaplan Publishing’s “The Unofficial, Unbiased Insider’s Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges,” cites Pitzer as offering “the most creative curriculum of all The Claremont Colleges.”
Wonderful news for the College, all of it, and yet it is tempered by the realization that nearly 40 years after the founding of the college and Kennedy’s predictions America talks again of war. As opposed to the conventional platitude that the world has grown smaller, the world has grown larger within the all-too-clearly vivid recent past. The idea of a shrinking globe is reassuring, cozy and facilitates a warm glow that we are all coming closer and all coming along into a better near-future across the many political and economic bridges that now connect all points on the globe. But then there are the daily headlines and the present preoccupations with security that get in the way of the cozy projections, leading to doubts about the future. The idea of a world becoming larger – as when seen close-up in newspapers and broadcast media – is much less reassuring. Some of the world’s peoples and cultures feel threatened by the prospect of having their way of life submerged or pushed aside by alien value systems. What makes the world a larger place for us, the people who live in the richest and most powerful nation, is the task before us, the task of becoming sensitized to the resistant pluralism of the peoples of the globe, the job of working out creative strategies of mutual accommodation rather than confrontation that will make the image of a materially better future for everyone a place where global pluralism is protected and respected. What makes the world a larger place for us is the enormous task ahead, for each of us individually, as a Pitzer College community and together as a nation; to communicate clearly a message of tolerance and respect to our old friends, to skeptics, and to people who regard with hostility the current position of the United States as the preeminent world power. We need to say that we understand that we have a lot to learn in a short time about the mutual management of social change; we are committed to the process of learning to join with others to preserve traditions that are not our own; and we will do all that we can to support the preservation of a pluralistic global future – because we have learned an important lesson – to value difference for its own sake and for what we can learn from it. In short, in a world made larger by our responsibility of living in this time, we need to turn the world toward the values that define the mission and goals of higher learning, and I am proud to say, that define Pitzer College in particular. We can start by each of us redoubling our efforts to carry our shared values and message of openness, humility, and eager dedication to creating fairness beyond our campus.
In that spirit of openness, Pitzer College students travel throughout the world to study, to learn and to contribute to their host communities. Last year, Pitzer students studied in 36 countries and studied 16 languages, and of our graduates in 2002, 57% participated in an external studies program. Because of our outreach, Pitzer occupies 39th place in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings for its study abroad programs, and 19th place in its percentage of students who study abroad. Education is Pitzer College’s deepest purpose; in the Jeffersonian sense of a people enlightened, we educate and prepare people for the task of exercising the wisdom called for by the circumstances of the historical hour. To prepare ourselves to pass on a preserved and refreshed standard of freedom and security, every one of us must take responsibility to educate ourselves to embrace a new level of humanism strong enough to face the challenges of a changed world. Nearly 40 years have passed, new solutions are needed, and Pitzer students both past and present will help create them.
We have come of age.