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Defending the CMC Model

April 27, 2010

Jesse Blumenthal
Defending the CMC Model

According to Nico Brancolini in his recent piece for the Forum, our government and economics departments are holding us back.  As a devotee of those hindering disciplines, I felt the need to engage with the notions put forth in his article. Needless to say, I disagree— and perhaps more importantly hope to convince you, dear reader, to side with me.

For those of you who have not read the piece, the argument is as follows: Claremont McKenna's focus on government and economics is a detriment to other departments, and it prevents our beloved school from rising into the top ten liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.  Nico goes on to equate our focus on government and economics with the lack of general name recognition.  He offers three main arguments for his position.  First, the best applicants interested in government and economics go to more big-name schools.  Second, name recognition is a factor for attracting prospective freshmen and transfer students.  Third, CMC loses strong faculty in other departments because of our focus.

Let us begin with the supposed link between our name recognition and our focus on government and economics.  I believe that other factors better explain CMC’s lack of name recognition.  We are the only top twenty liberal arts college that is under 100 years old –rather considerably under, given that our 63rd graduating class will receive its diplomas in a few weeks.  This relative youth, coupled with the small size of our graduating classes, means that CMC has relatively few alumni. Indeed, all CMC alumni would not fill the Rose Bowl —we wouldn’t even fill one-fifth of the seats! Youth and the size of our alumni network are far more likely explanations of the lack of name recognition than diversity of academic offerings. Compare our alumni base —likely less than 15,000 —to Harvard, Amherst, or Williams.

Now let us consider Nico's three points.  Applicants that are the best candidates for government and economics majors will go elsewhere.  Fine.  There really is no way to either prove or disprove this point. So, for the sake of argument, let us assume it is true. Dean Vos has stated that CMC’s goal is to enroll 300 freshmen (110 early decision admits + 190 through regular decision).  Relative to the pool of applicants applying to top schools in the United States, this is a tiny number.  We could not hope to attract the top students in any field, even if we put every resource the college had behind that effort.  Students pick schools based on a whole host of factors: size, weather, proximity to home, social atmosphere, city size, and family ties, among others. CMC cannot be all things to all prospective students.  The campus we offer is, I believe, different from a vast variety of other schools.  As such, it will tend to attract particular students.

Is CMC trapped in a cycle of government and economics majors, as Nico alleges?  Well, the majority of CMCers graduate with a dual or double major.  Often, those second majors are something other than government or economics.  Furthermore, those other departments are not as small as Nico portrays them. CMC actually offers more math courses than government courses (55 math compared to 50 government), and has about as many psychology classes (48) as government. The relative parity of those departments is never mentioned in his article.

As an anonymous do-gooder mentions in the comments section of Nico's post, graduate schools and employers often know exactly what CMC is and why it is such a fantastic institution.   This comment, though I agree with it, misses Nico's point.  His friends in Indiana had not heard of CMC, although they have heard of George Washington and USC. Nico was talking about the name identification among peers.  I agree with his analysis of the symptoms, but I disagree with his diagnosis. Age and alumni network are likely to"‘blame."  Indeed, the school most often garners attention when our professors are quoted in newspapers (see Professor Jack Pitney), donors give major gifts to the school (Robert A. Day and Henry Kravis), or when other elements of those two departments which are “holding us back” shine in the public sphere.

Finally, let us address this issue of talent recruitment and retention.  I am not going to speculate as to why Professor Khazeni was denied tenure.  Nico is obviously upset by this fact, and I cannot imagine that the decision thrilled the professor either.  Tenure decisions are made by the Advancement, Promotions, and Tenure committee (APT).  This committee is made up of all tenured professors of the college.  There are a variety of reasons why a professor might be denied tenure, and Nico's assertion without basis that the professor in question was snubbed is both premature and uninformed. Since he admittedly does not know the standards by which tenure is granted, creating his own standards which show that the professor deserved tenure is not sufficient grounds upon which to claim that the APT committee failed in its duty.

Nico’s vision of a brighter CMC future calls for expanded academic offerings by hiring the best talent to other departments. This plan sounds remarkably like what CMC is already doing. Professor Bassam Frangieh did not appear out of midair. He was recruited by CMC from Yale to create an Arabic program. Associate Professor of Philosophy Suzanne Obdrzalek also was previously featured at Yale. Professor Minxin Pei, one of the world's leading experts in Asian affairs, is now the head of the Keck Center and an instructor in international relations. One can also look to the two new professors being hired by the history department. These are just a few of many examples of how CMC invests in other departments and why Nico is simply misinformed.

Claremont McKenna cannot be all things to all students; we follow the consortium model. Nowhere does Nico mention that some students come here for that very reason. The schools divvy up responsibility to cover more ground in depth, instead of wasting resources duplicating efforts. That such a young school can excel in two major areas of study— economics and government— should be celebrated, not chastised. Anyone who does the latter did not do their research as a prospective student, and has ignored the most important characteristic of the college process: fit.

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