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A think tank for creativity

Winter 2015


Four years ago, in 2010, entrepreneur Peter Thiel started his infamous Thiel Fellowship Program. The fellowship annually provides 20 young people under the age of 20 with $100,000 to develop their innovative entrepreneurial ideas. Why is it “infamous”? Because there’s a catch.

Nicholas Warner

To receive the grant, each recipient must drop out of college.

What is behind this fellowship—also known as a “dropout grant”—is a simple argument against higher education: You learn more in the real world than you do on any college campus.

With The Student Imperative, Claremont McKenna College has staked out a strong defense against adversarial positions like Peter Thiel’s. One doesn’t have to go to extremes to gain real-world experience: It can be fully integrated in colleges like our own.

The second prong of The Student Imperative, which is committed to generating academic and programmatic value, embraces this perspective with a multitude of new and forthcoming features and offerings (some of which are given in the list that accompanies this article).

Specifically, here, I want to address something crucial to every academic environment, something I’ve witnessed during my 30 years as a member of this extraordinary community. The key to sustaining and maintaining CMC’s rich educational environment, in spite of critics like Thiel, requires exploration of teaching and learning methodologies and strategies.

To give our faculty the resources for such an exploration as part of the Imperative, this fall the College was selected for a Mellon Foundation New President’s Grant, a three-year $100,000 grant to permit our premier faculty to examine new ways to challenge our students and expand their learning capabilities.

What core learning objectives do we want our students to carry with them into the world, in their careers and chosen disciplines? The answer is found in three words—creativity, empathy, and courage—which President Hiram Chodosh first outlined during his 2013 inauguration and has since elaborated on his blog, from the kitchen table, and which form the focus of our work with the Mellon grant.

We are currently considering how best to reinforce these three values both in our curriculum and in the fuller range of student experiences, including athletics, clubs, and other engagements in and with the community. This approach emphasizes the dynamic relationship between learning and experience: a virtuous cycle of learning to do and doing to learn so that students gain both theoretical and applied expertise in a particular field and an ingrained capacity for creativity, empathy, and courage that will enable them to lead, in the words of CMC’s mission statement, “thoughtful and productive lives.”

The Mellon grant propels us on this path by supporting course development in three faculty thematic working groups. Each group focuses on one of these core competencies identified above over the course of the three-year grant. Each working group consists of roughly ten faculty members who are examining the ways in which our current pedagogy reinforces or can be developed to reinforce these capacities.

We want our faculty to collaborate on strategies, develop tools for measuring the three learning objectives, and investigate connections between these core performance capacities. Faculty participants are expected to articulate their current and proposed activities around at least one selected core competency, and also to develop a methodology and measurement designed to cultivate and grow them. In a sense, these roundtables serve as think tanks for enhancing our curriculum.

Too often, whether in higher education or in corporate America, various offices either operate in a vacuum or act in competition with each other. In contrast, what the Mellon Grant at CMC fosters is more cross-department interaction, and more collegial engagement.

At CMC, our faculty is committed to a forceful response to the view promoted by people like Mr. Thiel that the best learning experiences can’t be found on a liberal arts college campus.

The Mellon Grant is a vigorous and invigorating response to that proposition, as are the multitude of additional new programs now being implemented as part of The Student Imperative.

Nicholas Warner is Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs, Interim Dean of the Faculty, and Professor of Literature at CMC.


Enhancing academic value: a selection of highlights

Presidential Scholars Roundtable: Eight roundtables have already been held, encouraging more collegiality by bringing together faculty across departments on topics and themes of mutual interest, including: the fate of the mind in the age of the brain, social change, changing landscapes of inequality, nationalism and transnationalism, and more.

Strategies for Educational Technology: An internal summit was held in 2014 on innovative uses of technology and several working groups resulted from the summit. The College also has participated in a conference on educational technology at liberal arts colleges that involved Pomona, Amherst, Williams, Carlton, Haverford, Swarthmore, and Vassar.

Dreier Roundtable on Public Policy: The College’s new forum for public policy discussion launched in the fall with a conference on immigration. The DRt is led by former Congressman David Dreier ’75 and faculty Eric Helland, Andrew Busch, and Ken Miller. Students will have opportunities for fellowships and engagement with policy makers on real-world research and problem-solving.

Career Services: The College’s Office of Career Services has initiated discussions into adding capacity and value to create even greater post-graduation opportunities for students. This includes more outreach to new and diverse networks of alumni, parents, and friends, coordinating academic advisory programs, and more enrichment of internal counseling programs.

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program: Though the College said farewell in the spring to founding member Professor Ward Elliott, who retired, PPE also welcomed the arrival of Adrienne Martin from the University of Pennsylvania this fall. She serves as the Akshata Murty ’02 and Rishi Sunak Professor in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and George R. Roberts Fellow and is helping to facilitate the expansion of the PPE program.

Change-Making and Social Impact: The College celebrated its designation this fall as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, which recognizes our coordinated efforts on programming and methodology devoted to social impact.

Roberts Pavilion: The ideal of the scholar-athlete and a harmonious balance between excellence in the classroom and competition on the playing field is embodied by the new recreational and athletic facility, Roberts Pavilion, which is rising on the former location of Ducey Gymnasium.