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An Open Letter from the Ath Fellows

November 29, 2011

Clare Riva and Jake Petzold
An Open Letter from the Ath Fellows

In response to potential unplanned protestors, the talk by Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled for Wednesday, November 30 has been moved from its original venue at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum to Ducey Gymnasium. Current Athenaeum Fellows Jake Petzold '12 and Clare Riva '13 along with former Fellows Jeremy Merrill '12 and Pyper Scharer '13 have composed a letter to the CMC student body, faculty, and staff. The letter was submitted to the Forum and the Port Side.

To the CMC community:

As current and former Athenaeum Woolley Fellows, the Athenaeum holds a special place in our hearts – as it does for so many of you.  According to its mission statement, the “Athenaeum was conceived as a place where students and faculty could gather for intellectual discourse in an intimate and relaxed setting and integrate their academic and social lives.”  What sets the Athenaeum – and CMC – apart from other schools’ speaker series is not the caliber of the speakers alone, but a special setting that enables students, faculty, and guests to engage in a positive and productive exchange of ideas.

Unfortunately, Condoleezza Rice’s appearance on campus Wednesday night does not meet this goal.  We feel that Secretary Rice’s lecture, staged in Ducey gym, without a reception or dinner and with an auditorium-style arrangement, can no longer be considered an Athenaeum event.

The changes to the program undermine the spirit of the Athenaeum and intellectual discourse.  While we embrace the opportunity for more students to see Secretary Rice, the goal of a true learning experience would be better served by a live stream of an event that features meaningful dialogue.  The goal of the Ath is not to get the most people in the room.  An audience of 200 students who can engage in meaningful dialogue is preferable to an audience of 400 with no dialogue.  For students who won’t have a chance to engage Secretary Rice, what’s the difference between watching her lecture in person or on YouTube?  At least through a live stream, students can observe a valuable exchange.

A lot has been made of the fact that Secretary Rice is on a book tour and will likely deliver the same remarks here as she has at every other stop.  We don’t mean to dismiss the potential educational value of her talk.  However, a one-size-fits-all lecture elevates the importance of the unmediated interactions between students and guests that a reception and dinner offer – in short, the stuff that makes the Ath the Ath.  When Donald McKenna and CMC’s early leaders envisioned the Ath, they weren’t hoping that students could get their pictures taken with celebrities.  To herald that opportunity as a consolation is a mockery of the Athenaeum’s mission.

We are also extremely troubled by the precedent this change in format and location sets.  Dean Huang’s school-wide email cites the “possibility that people who have nothing to do with the Claremont Colleges will attend this rally and/or try to disrupt the program” as the primary security concern behind the move.  He adds, “Those individuals, whose numbers we cannot accurately estimate and whose intentions are unclear, may not care to abide by CMC’s rules or the rally organizers’ plans for a peaceful event.”  By enabling undefined, unknown, and only possible threats to dictate such a change, the school is caving to a threat that exists for every Ath dinner.

Even if the administration claims the change is a unique reaction to a one-time security challenge, their logic would still apply to any speaker that might inspire vocal opposition.  We cannot endorse this potential path toward sterilizing future Ath events. What makes the Ath worthwhile is thought-provoking and important topics and ideas, even when controversial.

We understand the security and logistical challenges the CMC administration faces in staging an event of this scale.  However, we feel that the school’s chosen course represents a drastic overreaction to a hypothetical threat – and a dangerous precedent for the Athenaeum and for academic discourse at CMC.  Are we done with having prominent or controversial speakers at the Athenaeum?  If the administration does not allow us to fairly address meaningful and fundamental issues in this setting, the Athenaeum serves little purpose.

Students can see big-name speakers in large gymnasia at any institution in the country – in fact, probably in much nicer facilities than ours.  The Athenaeum is unique to CMC and a vital part of our identity.  We think the school’s decisions in this matter threaten that identity.  We hope you will join us in discussing the role of the Athenaeum on our campus and how to preserve it in the face of controversy.


Jake Petzold ‘12

Clare Riva ‘13

Jeremy B. Merrill ‘12

Pyper Scharer ‘13

Paige Costello '12

David Nahmias '10

Brian Davidson '08

Sara Roberson '09

Aaron Champagne '10

Luke Johnson '09

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