The Founding: An Idea, Long Before a College

The Analyst Papers,” named in honor of CMC’s first student newspaper, the Analyst, is a five-part series published by the Forum, the official student publication of Claremont McKenna College.

For the first time, the history of Claremont McKenna has been brought online. The Analyst Papers has been published in the form of five accessible articles, with the aim of navigating through years of characters, monuments, and obstacles. CMC's history is a short one, but a good one, and few know much of it. To learn it is to better understand what CMC stands for, its challenges and its future.

In 1996, the Trustees of CMC commissioned California historian Kevin Starr to write a book commemorating the College’s first fifty years. His remarkable work, “Commerce and Civilization: Claremont McKenna College, 1946-1996”, has been a key source for this series.

Additionally, CMC’s Development Office has opened the College’s archives to Forum staff for this project. We thank them, as well as the CMC Alumni Association, for access to primary sources and first-hand interviews.

Highlights in Part I:

· There were three major attempts to start the school, the first two cut abruptly by the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor.

· Pomona, whose leadership gave up on the Group Plan by the 1940s, actively opposed CMC’s founding.

· CMC was nearly named Pitzer, after a key donor. Other possible names included Clarke College or Bauer College.

Part II: CMC’s Conservative Heart

Part III: The Challenge of the Campus

Part IV: Claremont Men’s College, with Women

Part V: Our Place in the Liberal Arts


Part I

The Founding: an Idea, Long Before a College

Who was McKenna, anyway?

“An individual,” writes Kevin Starr in Commerce and Civilization, “who had typed a multipage, single-spaced letter on a transcontinental train trip in 1945 outlining the postwar possibilities of a third college.”

Your average loyal and loving CMC student is expected to know at least the basic history of the Claremont Colleges. The brochures usually cover it as if it were a fairytale. Pomona was the founding member, molded in the New England type; its third president, James Blaisdell, had the wise and bold idea of creating a consortium on the Oxford model, so as to preserve the integrity of the small liberal arts college while acquiring the resources of the large university; and CMC, at first Claremont Men’s College, was ultimately founded with some strong momentum built by America’s victory in the Second World War.

All of this is truth, though truth that mystifies and simplifies a wonderful story of characters with familiar names– Story, Benson, Bernard, Mudd, Pitzer, and of course, McKenna. All were idealistic men tested by trying times. The great idea of a men’s college in Claremont was actually born in the 1920s– when the business of America was business, when capital was flowing fast into Southern California, and when the town of Claremont was still desert brush in the shadows of mountains.

· The American ‘Oxford’ Model ·

Before Claremont McKenna’s founding, its fathers had the college envisioned for more than twenty years. Claremont may be the academic product of the post-World War II era, but the idea of Claremont long preceded the war.

Pomona President Blaisdell’s “Group Plan”, as the Claremont Colleges plan was called, first became his brainchild after Pomona’s trustees voted in 1920 to limit the student body to a mere 750 men and women– half of what it is today. It was then that the president realized an opportunity to build something greater than Pomona could ever be standalone: a new type of academic federation, in a brand new place.

The key was finding the funds, and at first, they were readily available. Blaisdell’s biggest achievement was the solicitation of Ellen Browning Scripps, a self-made woman living in La Jolla who, with her brothers, had built the largest newspaper chain west of the Mississippi. In a letter to Scripps, Blaisdell wrote this oft-circulated quote:

“My own very deep hope is that instead of one great, undifferentiated university, we might have a group of institutions divided into small colleges– somewhat on the Oxford type– around a library and other utilities which they would use in common. In this way I should hope to preserve the inestimable personal values of the small college while securing the facilities of the great universities. Such a development would be a new and wonderful contribution to American education."

Enticed by the idea, Scripps gave a large donation to buy 250 acres of land surrounding Pomona’s campus for future colleges. Based on the purchase, the Articles of Incorporation of Claremont Colleges were approved in Sacramento in 1925, with Blaisdell, Seeley Mudd (Harvey’s father) and Scripps’ lawyer as trustees. And within a year, Scripps completed her commitment to the plan by funding the founding of the first full-fledged consortium child, Scripps College for Women, in 1926.

It all seemed so easy. Within just a few years, the vast wealth of the 1920s had produced a great new project in the Pomona Valley, where the sun beat down on rolling citrus groves and untold academic promise. Blaisdell became convinced his plan would be realized in full, and quickly began sketching a third head of the Group: a men’s college that would, with no stitch of humility, serve to sharpen the fundamental tools of modern democratic society. In Claremont, men would learn commerce as a liberal art.

But shortly after CMC was first dreamed up in 1927, crisis hit Claremont and the nation. Black Friday quickly buried the hopes of the college’s founding, and in a sad twist of irony, ugly economics brought the project to a halt.

· Keeping the Plan Afloat ·

The hopes of most, at least; but not Blaisdell. Announcing his retirement in 1935, Pomona’s most visionary president made a passionate plea for CMC’s founding his last words on campus. “Blaisdell’s report not only endorsed the concept of the third college but argued additionally that it was crucial to the survival of the Group Plan,” wrote Kevin Starr in his account. “Only by achieving a three-college synergy, Blaisdell stated, could the Group Plan demonstrate its true capacity for further federalization.”

The men that held that dream together are now considered the true founders of the Claremont Colleges. Harvey Mudd, a man of serious money and influence on the coast, insisted the plan could come together with incremental gifts over several years. Russell Story, a succeeding president of the Claremont enterprise, focused on giving the vision more organization by making public relations pamphlets for possible donors and commissioning a detailed curriculum draft. The drafter, Arthur Coons, spent much of his time in Oxford at Nuffield College – the university’s twenty-second, also founded to prepare students for professions in public service and business.

In a very real way, the fate of the college rested on the motivation of less than a dozen men.

Story began looking early on to George Charles Sumner Benson, his former student of politics at Pomona and a senior tutor at Harvard’s Lowell House, to fill a position of leadership that had long remained void. Benson showed great interest in leading the third college, but showed an equal amount of reservation; the plan had failed once before, and moving out West was a great commitment to a college that didn’t yet exist.

And in a telegram the Forum obtained written to Richard Bernard, a passionate Claremont board member and the name behind Bernard Field Station, Story detailed another serious, seemingly endless concern: fundraising.

"The foundation chase is about over. With Rockefeller and Carnegie it is a closed chapter so far as general education is concerned," he wrote. "The Men's College will have to go on its own. Everyone admits to its excellence and appeal, but no money. So be it... my convictions have been deepened, but the plan will have to carry itself."

Despite all of Story’s momentum, another catastrophic event hit at the heart of America, and this time the world as well. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, attention was invariably drawn away from the Claremont Plan by the war effort.

“The venture,” Story wrote to a friend at Johns Hopkins, “which was so close to being established in 1929, is now the victim of another set of circumstances equally catastrophic, if not more so. Certainly the idea will find embodiment some place, somewhere, some time.”

Shortly after the war began, Story died of a heart attack.

· Pomona Turns as McKenna, Mudd & Pitzer Run ·

Donald McKenna is Claremont’s very own entrepreneur and Harvard dropout. Born into a steel family that became key to the war effort, McKenna, second cousin of Andrew Carnegie, tried going his own way in the turbine business before rejoining the family project. McKenna steel had high percentages of tungsten, making it a tougher alloy produced at the perfect time.

The family became wealthy right when McKenna found a passion. He became involved in the third college project– by 1942, synonymous with the very experiment of collegiate federation in America– once he moved back to Claremont in the 1940s. Originally he, like most other Claremont founders, had gone to Pomona for undergrad.

Slowly but surely, McKenna committed himself as the third college’s largest financial contributor. He eventually promised up to half what was necessary for the college to open. Harvey Mudd, now chairman of Claremont’s board, approved of the college’s founding if they secured the final funding needed. But they needed double McKenna’s gift, and there were very few donors in sight.

McKenna and Bob Bernard went on a scurried hunt for the final donor needed. They found one in Russell Pitzer, one of the largest citrus growers in the region (yes, that’s what the Pitzer orange tree icon is all about).

Claremont College Undergraduate School for Men – the first official name of the institution, contrary to popular belief – was finally set for its founding in 1946. The school would open without an endowment, riding on the gifts of McKenna, Pitzer and the saving grace of the GI Bill.

Not soon after its founding, Pitzer would offer another major gift to put his name on the college. CMC’s leadership turned him down, not quite ready for a namesake, much less one with little substantive significance. Instead, Pitzer gave half the donation he originally offered for the construction of Claremont College’s first academic building. Pitzer Hall was completed in 1950, and was torn down sixty years later to make room for the Kravis Center.

Other names for the college, mulled throughout its history before settling on Claremont McKenna, include Clarke College, after a key figure who donated a large sum but had no interest in taking the school’s name; and Bauer College, after Modestus Bauer gave the college its largest gift to date in the ‘70s for the construction of Bauer Center.

Another milestone gift came from Lawrence Green, solicited by Benson in the winter of 1947.

"It involves many headaches and anxieties, but it is a real pleasure to watch a vital educational institution grow," Benson wrote, in a letter kept in the College's archives, "especially one with a program as significant to American higher education as is ours."

But while Mudd, Pitzer and McKenna ran with the mantle of collegiate federalism taken from Blaisdell and Story, they found one final, surprising obstacle in their way that would threaten the entire enterprise: Pomona College.

Pomona’s longest-serving president to date, Elijah Lyon, led an active and cunning campaign to block the founding of CMC. Lyon and the faculty feared, as Starr wrote, what might become a “competitive enterprise” in Claremont: an in-grown alternative to what was supposed to be the East Coast college of the West.

Lyon’s first move was to attempt a seizure of the third college property, which he said was needed for additional faculty housing. Scripps’ faculty strongly objected; after all, their girls had been promised a male-college counterpart for over twenty years. And Lyon managed to infuriate Harvey Mudd, who went ahead and purchased the land for its safekeeping.

At a meeting between Pomona Dean Edward Sanders and Bernard, even the very subject of CMC’s founding began to frustrate the administration.

“Oh, isn’t it about time that we wrote that off?” Pomona’s dean howled.

When Lyon failed to confiscate CMC’s promised land, he targeted its leadership. The Pomona administration made Benson an offer he couldn’t refuse: the college would create an entirely new department based on the curriculum and philosophy of Claremont Men’s, and would pay Benson big bucks to run it. Benson would avoid risking his career on a shaky venture, and by incorporating CMC into Pomona, the need for a third college would be eliminated.

To such a threat, McKenna and Bernard made a final counteroffer. While focusing on directing CMC to its founding, Benson would be given a five-year position as head of Claremont’s graduate programs. Benson accepted, and the third college had its leader and, later, first president.

Bernard would later reflect on that moment in an oral history, now buried in the College's archives.

"The people that entered into the plan did so knowing full well that this was a new undertaking, that it was a pioneer undertaking, that it was a struggle," he said.

He added: "There was more than Pomona at stake in Claremont."

There was great irony in Pomona’s betrayal of the Group Plan: after all, the very idea had originated at Pomona, and virtually all of its advocates had studied there. But the founders did differ from the Pomona norm in one key respect. While its faculty had remained liberal throughout the great traumas of the early 21st Century, CMC’s founders had become entrenched in a hardened, ambitious conservatism – a trait that would define their budding college in the years to come.

Read Part II: CMC’s Conservative Heart.