Why is Pam Gann President?

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question. Claremont is a special place. More than a mere school, CMC trains future leaders, combining the breadth and analytical rigor of a liberal arts education with an emphasis on practical application.  Claremont McKenna makes students apply theory in everyday and real world situations, from the Atheneum to our school's many research institutes to building social capital at TNC. Most importantly, that wonderful pedagogical experience takes places in a warm, nurturing community. As Professor Pitney has said, “It’s a place where everyone knows your name.” Personally, I think such a special place deserves a special president. Beyond satisfying the typical requirements of an elite liberal arts college, CMC deserves a president who thoroughly appreciates and is committed to what makes it special: its unique brand of liberal arts education and the intimate, nurturing atmosphere that it affords.  Crucially, this requires professors and administrators to interact with students at more than a formal level. Yet I don’t know anyone who thinks Pam Gann knows their name, let alone them as a person. Maybe it’s different for the ASCMC crowd or the hyperactive on campus, but it seems that us mere mortals don’t register on her radar.

As a part of being on the football team, I’ve been forced able to go to the IRanWithGann event the past three years at CMC.[i] Besides getting an awesome selection of free t-shirts, this has also illuminated Gann's relationship with the student body. First of all, this is one of the few times each year that I see her walking around on campus—let alone talk to students. More damningly, at the 5K, her conversations with students always seem to be of the “What’s your name/major?” variety. You’d think at some point she’d run into a student whose name she already knew or whose major she actually remembered. It’s hard to escape the feeling that she’s there to check a box (“See Board of Trustees! I told you I care about the student body!”) rather than have a genuine interaction with students.  Perhaps, though, this is just me being biased.

I suppose that could be forgiven. Over the past four years, my love for CMC has outgrown my demands for what it does for me. But more disappointing, I don’t see that same love of CMC, that wholehearted embrace of what makes the school special, in Pam Gann.  It may sound corny, but when she talks about the school, I don’t see a twinkle in her eye. Gann speaks highly about CMC, but her comments often feel like they would fit any elite liberal arts college. She praises our small classes sizes, our great professors, our selectivity, but always seems to miss the part about things that make CMC special.

In her first convocation, Pam talked about the how CMC fits into the broader higher education landscape and the importance of branding in “outrunning” the competition. This would have been a perfect place to talk about CMC’s unique attributes. Glaringly, though, she doesn’t even allude to the special character of the school. The implication is that we’re a liberal arts school like any other, struggling to (1) to be within the group of "brand name" colleges and universities; and (2) to compete effectively within this "brand name" group for students, faculty, and resources. The same speech would have worked at Amherst, Williams, or even Pomona.

At this point in the conversation, a voice of reason will often say “Yeah, but at least she’s raised a lot of money.” That is true. But money is not raised in a vacuum, and one person is not responsible for all of an institution’s fundraising success. Furthermore, our alumni population is getting older. It seems reasonable to think that older alumni 1) have more money since they’ve been able to work more years and 2) are more likely to donate money because, to put the matter bluntly, they want to have an impact on something they care about before they die. The steady increase in annual donations in the chart below seems to evidence this story. There is more volatility after Pam becomes president, but there isn’t a marked increase in donations over the trend line.

At a personal level, I don’t have any particular problem with President Gann. She hasn’t done anything outrageous or grossly failed in her duties as president. But CMC is much more than a typical liberal arts college and deserves much more than a typical president. At a dinner honoring Gann for her ten years of service to the College this past December, former CMC president Jack Stark thanked her for what she didn’t do: change the character of the school. But I think CMC deserves better. CMC deserves a president that doesn’t make its students question whether the president cares about them. CMC deserves a President that is firmly committed to keeping CMC a special place.

Pam Gann, simply put, fails those standards. For that dinner honoring Gann, the administration tried to film a series of students being asked questions about Pam Gann’s life and what they thought about her. According to Dean Huang, they had to scrap the project, however, because apparently not enough students said nice things. To me, that’s pretty damning. Out of a school of 1200+ students, we couldn’t cobble together enough pro-Gann students to make a two-minute video. Perhaps, I’m going a bit overboard, though, and you feel that Pam Gann actually does a decent job as president. But shouldn’t CMC, as our government department would say, strive for excellence?

Caption: This graph shows the total amount of alumni giving that went into the operating budget in a given year. It notably excludes large donations that go to things like a new buildings or a new Robert A. Day Master of Finance program. Those large gifts often take multiple years to negotiate and structure and thus are affected differently by factors like the economy, alumni aging, or a new president. The purpose of this graph is not to prove that President Gann fails as a fundraiser. Rather I am merely trying to show that under this basic fundraising metric she does not surpass the trend. Following her inauguration in late 1990s, support from alumni giving has mostly kept with its rising trajectory set by earlier presidents. Thus, deciding whether President Gann is doing an exceptional job fundraising depends on the degree to which she impacted recent large donations. But to answer that, we’d need to look inside Robert Day’s head, which I, unfortunately, do not have the ability to do.

[i] This year, though, the event was canceled because of the fires.  Incidentally, football practice was not.