My night at the Ath with Pam Gann
I know, I know. This post isn’t about China. Heck, it’s not even about being abroad or the reentry process or academic life or whatever. That said:
The week before spring break, I had the privilege of attending a talk by Anne-Marie Slaughter, noted International Relations scholar and frequent guest on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, at the Athenaeum (the Ath) at Claremont McKenna College, one Pitzer’s sister schools in Claremont.
The talk itself was fantastic and I left the building feeling enlightened. However, on this evening, it was not just Slaughter’s talk that left me with greater understanding of politics.
Before I get into it, a quick rundown of how talks at the Athenaeum work: the Ath is a unique speaking environment because it mixes all of the auspices of a private dinner party with a regular campus speaking gig. Each night starts with a reception at 5:30, a formal dinner at 6:00, and the talk itself at 6:45. The talk, often presented by noted political and business leaders, is generally open to all members of the Claremont community (students, faculty, staff and the public, space permitting). The dinner and reception, however, require reservations. Because the Ath is based at and funded by Claremont McKenna College, these reservations are often limited to CMC students alone.
On this particular night, I managed to secure a reservation for myself.
Being possibly the only non-CMC student at the reception meant a lot of mingling and awkwardly standing around checking my phone, but eventually I got into a good conversation with a CMC student who had just returned from study abroad. When the time for dinner came, the two of us took seats at one of the empty tables near the podium. The tables in the dining room are large and round, holding maybe 6 to 8 people each. For a while, the two of us remained the only people at the table.
Two older women then joined us at the table: it only took a moment for me to notice that one of them was Pam Gann.
Pamela Gann is the President of Claremont McKenna College and a former Dean of Duke Law School. She also brings with her a good amount of commentary and controversary, most recently in relation to her handling of McKenna’s SAT score scandal and her metrics-based push towards higher rankings, as reported by the Port Side here. Beyond scandal, Gann has also been criticized for being out of touch with CMC’s student-body, most notably in this piece published by the ASCMC Forum.
As she sat down, I thought it would be interesting to share a meal with the CMC president, maybe even learn a few things. However, this didn’t happen.
She never acknowledged us.
Now, this point may seem trite, but it struck me as odd that in a forum designed for discourse, with only four people at a table that could seat six to eight, the two students elicited no response.
It wasn’t just a lack of conversation: considering that Gann had a dining companion, I would have understood that. It was complete lack of recognition. There was no introducing ourselves, no eye contact, nothing. For the entire 45 minute dinner, hour-long presentation, and after, there was no interaction between Gann and the students at the table.
Now, if it had just been I, a Pitzer student, I might have understood more fully. I am not technically within Gann’s constituency. But the student next to me was a CMCer, and if I were a college president who had recently come under fire for being more focused on rankings than student satisfaction, I would probably take every opportunity to build rapport. But importantly, how could Gann even know that I wasn’t one of the students in her institution without asking in the first place.
Perhaps I am overblowing the situation, but that night struck me as particularly odd. I don’t think any less of Pamela Gann, as I still haven’t formally met her, but I do think that this situation illustrates why students sometimes say they feel that Gann is out of touch.
Being a college president, beyond running the institution, is about making connections: with donors, faculty, students (future alumni), staff, and people who can support the College’s future. I understand that one cannot be “on” in their role as President 24/7. I respect this: being in a small college environment, I understand that administrators deserve and need their privacy.
However, when choosing to attend an event that is specifically designed for student discourse, it might serve well to at least say hello.