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Image credit: William Vasta

I. Introduction

When talking about his experience asking Marian Cook for a donation to help create the Athenaeum at CMC, President Emeritus Jack Stark mentioned that he had no problem asking for money because he had “faith in the importance of our mission.” As someone who has benefited greatly from his efforts over the past three-plus years, I am eternally grateful for President Stark’s faith. The Athenaeum is a perfect example of the kind of innovative idea that makes CMC a unique institution that engages its students in a variety of ways.

The idea for a CMC Athenaeum sprung from the mind of our namesake, Donald C. McKenna, as he sought to strengthen relationships between students and faculty. His vision stemmed from his memories of bonding with faculty at off-campus houses at Pomona in the early 1900s, a cordial and relaxed atmosphere that spurred intellectual discourse over good meals. Interestingly enough, they chose to locate it off-campus to appease professors who were not allowed to smoke on campus.

When McKenna proposed the Athenaeum in the late 1960s, the college understood that it would take significant fundraising and construction before the vision could be realized. Instead of waiting for construction of a permanent space, they adapted the existing President’s House—empty since the Starks lived in Claremont already—to temporarily host events and conversations. President Stark felt that students were not getting enough out of their dinner hours, and sought to recreate the literary and scientific dining clubs of Victorian London so that students could enjoy the additional benefit of intellectual discourse with their meals.

When the fundraising and construction were completed in the Fall of 1983, the Athenaeum as we now know it came into existence. In the 33 years since, it has certainly fulfilled McKenna’s vision and brought students and faculty together to share ideas and increase community. 

II. Athenaeum Speakers Over Time

Athenaeum staff have consistently put in the effort to attract incredible speakers who otherwise would be unlikely to visit a small community college near Los Angeles. From Eugene McCarthy (1984) and Peggy Noonan (2004) to Milton Friedman (1986) and bell hooks (2003), the Athenaeum has served to expose students to a wide variety of perspectives that they can then evaluate for themselves. Athletes such as Reggie Jackson (2000) and authors like Joyce Carol Oates (1986), poets including Czeslaw Milosz (1995) and politicians like Dianne Feinstein (1991), all are welcome at the Athenaeum.

The Athenaeum has also hosted several speakers more than once. Often, these individuals are associated with the Claremont conservative movement, like William Kristol, Peter Drucker, and Shelby Steele. However, Cornel West and Jesse Jackson have spoken three times and two times, respectively. Academics like Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) and James Q. Wilson (the proponent of the controversial broken windows theory) have also presented three times, as have award-winning writers and performers like Elie Wiesel and The Mariachi Divas. Henry Kravis ’67 leads for number of speaking engagements, with a record-setting eight Athenaeum appearances.

III. Excitement at the Athenaeum

The diversity of speakers in the past has both challenged and inspired students, such that students have both camped out in anticipation of a head table spot and protested certain speakers for their political actions.  

Jon Huntsman, the 16th Governor of Utah, and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, visited the Athenaeum in November 2012. A group of 10 students camped outside (some in tents) the Athenaeum the night before for a shot to sign up to sit at the head table with Huntsman. This was documented as the first time students have camped out, and the commitment paid off for a lucky few students who succeeded. One student, who showed up at 4:45am, only got to be first on the waitlist.  Huntsman himself was quite impressed with the students’ dedication when they told him they had camped out the night before.  

Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the Athenaeum in December 2011, on the other hand, incited protests from all across the 5Cs. The atmosphere at not only CMC, but also the Claremont Colleges was described to be “politically charged” as Rice visited amidst protests and teach-ins held outside by Pitzer students. Leading into the Athenaeum, students held signs that said, “Unwelcoming Condoleezza Rice,” and “War Benefits the 1%”. In her talk, she discussed her experience as Secretary of State in the President George W. Bush’s administration, the importance of education in discovering one’s passions, and justified the administration’s use of waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique,” since the Justice Department deemed it legal at the time. Rice concluded with, “I have no problem with protests, this country was born in protests,” but commented that when people protest, “they need to be sure they’re not getting in the way of others who might want to have a civil dialogue about differences.”

Perhaps the most politically charged protest was in September 2008, when Karl Rove, former Bush administration Deputy Chief of Staff, visited the Athenaeum. Hundreds of protesters lined the route to and from CMC, as well as on campus, chanting “war criminal.” He proved to be an affable speaker, and the talk was about “Politics and the Presidency,” but by the end of it, Rove found himself boxed in by protesters from outside. CMC staff finally helped Rove exit through Seaman Hall’s side exit through the Athenaeum’s rooftop bridge. During the protests, a Pitzer student was hit in the eyes with pepper spray, while a CMC student complained that they were grabbed and then thrown to the ground by Claremont police.

IV. Culture at the Athenaeum

Though CMC has not always had the best track record of supporting art within its community, the Athenaeum has long been a home of public art at the college, including the work of muralist Mary Weatherford, currently. With the intention of showcasing both local and internationally renowned artists, the Athenaeum has hosted various galleries, large-scale pieces, and exhibitions within its walls.

Igor De Kansky, an innovative French designer and craftsman, contributed the impressive wooden carvings that have now stood in the lobby of the Athenaeum for over twenty-five years; see if you can spot the frog next time you’re walking by. The Athenaeum has also been lucky enough to host an exhibition of artwork by the famed singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen during his residence at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. And, of course, it wouldn’t be CMC without some political artwork. Frederick Doar P’12, the nephew of the influential civil rights lawyer John Doar, presented a gallery in Fall 2009 that included work examining perspectives on the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the role that Doar, a former assistant attorney general in the US Department of Justice, played in assisting Black activists in the South.   

The food at the Athenaeum is simply fantastic. Originally designed to provide fine dining experiences for students, the Athenaeum food also incentivizes students to sign up for talks. With this in mind, McKenna proposed that the very first Athenaeum meal be a steak with all the trimmings.

Chef Dave Skinner, who has been with the Athenaeum for more than twenty-five years, has since compiled a cookbook with some of the Athenaeum’s most beloved recipes. Since its recipe was revealed in December 2001, the salmon with lemon dill butter sauce has remained an Athenaeum favorite. The Athenaeum archives also provide us the ability to make a favorite baked good, leftover from the Madrigal dinners of old, for students to savor during the holiday season: the pine nut cookies.

In the end, the Athenaeum has consistently evolved as an institution during its more than thirty years of existence, but it has always served to fulfill Donald McKenna’s original vision that it would serve as a conduit for the CMC community to come together, “to share ideas, debate issues, and build friendships.”