The State of CMC: An Interview with President Gann
Most Claremont McKenna College students interact with their administration primarily in a formal setting. Whether it's a school-wide "DL"-style email to the student body or contacting an Resident Assistant as a first line of defense, a student's interactions with the CMC administration can feel limited. With this in mind, I decided to sit down with President Gann and ask her what she and her administration have been doing, and how successful they feel they’ve been in those recent endeavors.
Nathan Falk: Thank you for meeting with me President Gann, I hope it’s all right if I start with some general questions about the “State of CMC.” What are the most important projects that you personally have been working on recently?
President Gann: Ok, yes of course. Obviously the biggest project that I’ve been dealing with for the last few months was finishing the Kravis Center and getting it ready for the beginning of school and its grand opening. It’s continuing to be a great success story, and we’ve probably gotten 95% there, but we still have some loose ends here and there that need to be dealt with.
Otherwise, to continue in the realm of buildings and grounds, our next big project is the renovation of the North Mall, which stretches from the Kravis Center all the way to Bauer. We have been working with student focus groups and ASCMC to figure out how best to preserve the aspects we love about the fountain, whether it is dropping students in on their birthdays, celebrating senior thesis accomplishments, or just having fun and hanging out on a really hot day. Student input was extremely important, and I think we have a design that would do that very well. Also, we want to enhance the seating areas and outdoor spaces along the North side of the Athenaeum to make that more of a useable daytime terrace, and also improve the South side of Emett Student Center, where the Hub is. Then, we’re moving forward with further planning for the section from Heggblade all the way to Bauer Center. Although there are no formal designs yet, one idea I like is putting a water feature where the four North Quad dorms meet. The first part of the renovation will be completed this coming summer, while the second piece has no detailed timeline right now.
The third buildings and grounds related project we’ve been working on, is the new Fitness and Athletic Center. This new space would house all our athletic facilities, but would also serve as a large events center where we could seat all students, faculty, and staff under one roof. Currently, we have no place on our campus that can house our 2000+ member community. We are beginning to review the programming for this project, and will start having fundraising conversations now that the Kravis Center is open and functional. We’ve already discussed how athletics will work during the 18-month transition period during construction, so we are ready to proceed with raising the necessary funds.
Transitioning to the Student Affairs and Academic arenas, our biggest project this year was to launch the Center for Civic Engagement, which brings together a lot of existing projects such as the community service internship programs, some community service projects that students have demonstrated interest for in past years, etc. But, the center is meant to pull all of those things together to make the programs more cohesive, robust, and garner broader student interest in the realm of volunteerism and service. We’re focusing on what I call “social capital,” which our country has always depended on. Whether that takes the form of voting, running for local or national office, working on campaigns, community volunteer projects, and environmental or sustainability projects, we want to be able to support students’ ventures in these areas, both domestically or abroad.
Another Student Affairs issue is library hours and study spaces. We are currently working with students on this, and although I don’t have any policy updates, Dean Hess and Dean Huang’s office are working with a student group to come up with a better solution.
Career Services and student needs are also a big focus for me. I think that currently the quality of services is excellent, but we need to increase the scale. Frankly, we’re trying to figure out how to best broaden the scale of our career services.
As for the purely academic side, in addition to conducting extensive faculty searches, our biggest single project is launching the Silicon Valley Program for next fall. Also, last year we ran several experimental models where we had students pursue international work for-credit. This is different than summer-internship credit, and much more similar to our program with Yonsei, where students study economics in South Korea, or the Jordan program, which we think is more likely to be a biennial opportunity.
This year, we’re taking a very serious look at India. We have a faculty working group and student focus groups so that we can try to begin programs there in the areas of Technology, Business, Finance, Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, not to mention culture and religious studies.
NF: Perfect, that’s quite a lot to deal with at once. Next, I’m curious, what shortcomings have you or your administration encountered in the last few months?
PG: You know, I get asked that question a lot. Just the other day at Forum for the Future, the young alumni asked, “what are your big problems,” and my answer was this: If you look at the college internally, and the things that we can affect, CMC is in a very good spot right now. The biggest single challenge is one thing you can’t control, and that’s the economy. The economy affects our financial model because our revenue comes from three sources: tuition, gifts, and returns on the endowment. So if the economy is growing very slowly, families have a harder time affording tuition, which results in more financial aid, alumni may feel more pressure about how much they’re willing to give, and then you also have lower returns on investment.
In 2008, we had to hit the “reset” button after what happened to the economy, and the markets are just now, a few years later, about to recover everything we lost. So we haven’t gotten above the point, we’re just getting back to where we were. Still, we’ve had two years of expenditures and modest inflation, so the purchasing power isn’t back to where it was, and, since July 1, we’re looking at negative investment returns. That’s not an environment where we can take on lots of new initiatives, etc. That’s an environment where you just try to hold on to everything. So when people ask me what my biggest challenge is, it’s managing the college in such a way that we remain with forward momentum, but not in a way that makes new financial commitments that, at this point, would put financial pressure on CMC. Basically, how do we run the college, keep it moving forward, but not start anything bold or expensive, because we can’t do that in this environment.
NF: How do you want to see CMC change in the next 5 years? In the next 10 years? In the next 50?
PG: Actually, I don’t want to change CMC in the most fundamental ways. We have an incredible mission to educate leaders through the liberal arts, and I think we are accomplishing that mission. I think our students and alumni like our mission, that’s why they’re here. You had lots of choices, and why did you come to this college? I think it’s because this is the right place to be for what you wanted to accomplish while in college.
Secondly, because we’re in the consortium, we have the luxury of not having to do everything at CMC. Let’s say these are the 13 things we do really well, and there’s another 50 in Claremont. I think that’s a luxury, because we don’t have to make trade-off decisions with lots of small departments, small programs, this organization or that organization. I think this is something special to Claremont, and I wouldn’t change that. I think that we should do as much as we can to use the consortium affirmatively to make it work for us and make sure we’re a strong partner with the rest of the consortium. You were asking what we need to be doing 10 years or 50 years out, and I think we have to pay a lot of attention to the consortium. So how do we keep building those bridges and making them more and more significant and more and more distinctive in higher education?
So I think the biggest things are making sure we stay the course, and just continue to work on quality and alignment of everything we do, while building the financial resources to give us the capacity to ride out economic challenges from time to time. I personally love CMC the way it is, and just want to be able to qualitatively improve and deepen the programs we offer. For example, we fund 125-150 summer internships each year. I’d like for us to have the means to fund internships for every CMC student. I’d also like to see every CMC student provided with the opportunity to have one international experience while they are here. It could be for two weeks, it could be in January, in the summer, or for a semester.
I think we are a very innovative place and we keep testing and trying out things, and then when they work, I work to try to figure out how to scale them financially.
Me: Ok, last question. What elements of your job do you most look forward to?
President Gann: My favorite part of my job is the ability to make a difference in people’s lives every day, and I really mean this. I want every student to come here and have a life-changing experience. If I’m a young faculty member, I want him or her to find this as a very satisfactory professional home for teaching and research and identify with CMC as an institution. I feel that my primary job is to come into work every day and try to make this the best possible institution for all of the people who have chosen to be here, and I also care that our staff feels great pride in their identification with this college. What I like to do is to come into work and think somehow I’m going to make this a richer and better and more successful experience for the members of this community.