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TNDY 4010 Inductive Inquiry / IS366a Qualitative Methods : Final Project > 3 CGU History > James Blaisdell-The Visionary

James Blaisdell and the Claremont Colleges

by Seth Anderson


James Blaisdell is credited with being “the principal architect” of the model of the Claremont Colleges—the man, “who, more than any other one person, built The Claremont Colleges.”[1] His quotes and aphorisms can be found on Claremont Graduate University campus, the gates of Pomona College, and websites of CGU and the Libraries of the Claremont Colleges.  But other than this, I would venture to guess that few of the students or faculty at the Claremont Colleges know much about the man who first dreamed of building an Oxford model of small colleges in the desert chaparral of Southern California.


In looking at the nature of scholarly inquiry at CGU—what we have been calling the “Claremont Conversation”—it is useful to look in more detail at the life of the man who first started that conversation.


James Blaisdell was born in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1867, the son of a philosophy professor at Beloit College.[2]  Beloit was a town that was settled mostly by New England transplants.  The town’s New England heritage could be seen in its architecture, its elm-lined streets, and the college, which was founded by the Presbyterian and Congregationalist denominations in 1845.  James Blaisdell grew up in a strict Calvinist home.  At Beloit College, he received a classical education, which emphasized Greek and Latin, the Bible, U. S. constitutional history, English literature, the natural sciences, and rhetoric.[3]


After graduating from Beloit College in 1889, Blaisdell decided to enter the Christian ministry and went to Hartford Theological Seminar for further study.  He decided upon Hartford because of its conservative reputation and the preferences of his father.  But it was there that Blaisdell first because interested in the higher criticism that was sweeping Biblical studies in the late nineteenth century.[4]


Blaisdell accepted the call to be a minister at a Congregational church in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and later one in Michigan, before finally returning to Beloit College in 1903 as the Chair of the new Bible department and director of the library.  Though he had had no real teaching experience, Blaisdell soon became a respected and well-liked member of the college community.  It was only with some reservations that he accepted the position of president of Pomona College in 1909.[5]   


James Blaisdell was 43 years old when he came to Claremont.  The town that he found was, in his words, “in a rudimentary condition”: streets were unpaved and the few sidewalks were nothing more than paths of crushed granite.[6]  The college campus consisted of seven buildings.  North of the college was an “almost unbroken stretch of sage-brush.”[7] 


Pomona College was in the midst of a financial crisis at the time Blaisdell came.  The two previous presidents had quit after only rather short tenures.  In his first few years as president, Blaisdell undertook a major fundraising campaign and was able to turn the college around.   As one biographer has stated, “The nation reputation of Pomona [was] enhanced by the growing stature of Blaisdell himself.”[8]  Blaisdell’s skill in public speaking, honed by ten years as a minister and seven as a professor, served him well in the capacity of a college president.  In 1917 Blaisdell gave the keynote address at the American Association of Colleges.  A year later he was able to negotiate a professor exchange program with Harvard. This was followed by large grants from the Carnegie Foundation and Rockefeller’s General Education Board. [9]


As president of Pomona College, Blaisdell showed a particular talent for what we might term strategic planning.  He had the foresight to buy up land around the college at a time when there was still plenty of open space.  He sought out collaborations with other academic institutions.  After a meeting with several local college presidents, he got the idea of starting the Western College Association (today known as the Western Association of Colleges and Schools—the organization responsible for accrediting colleges and universities on the West Coast).[10]  Moreover, Blaisdell excelled at fundraising.  The college grew quickly as Blaisdell embarked upon a bold, expansive program.  Pomona College assets quadrupled between 1910 and 1921.  During Blaisdell’s presidency four new building were constructed on the campus and three more were either expanded or significantly remodeled.  The number of volumes in the library tripled, and number of students and faculty grew as well. [11] 


Southern California during the 1920s was in the midst of an economic boom and a period of unprecedented population growth.  Pomona College was faced with overcrowding and a strain on college resources as it began to admit more students.  At some point the institution would have to decide whether it would continue to grow into a large university or cap admissions in order to preserve the ideal of a small college, on which it had been founded.  When placed in these terms, the choice for Blaisdell was an easy one:


I had come to Pomona because I believed in the small college.  Such abilities as I had and such administrative attitudes as I had established were not suited to the typical large university even if I had believed in one.[12]


Beginning in 1921, Pomona College decided to limit the number of students.  At that time two hundred incoming freshmen were admitted—less than a quarter of the total number of applicants.[13]  Still, the problem of how to deal with future growth continued to haunt Blaisdell. 


On a trip to the University of Toronto in 1922, he first found inspiration.[14]  Blaisdell envisioned a group of small college (no more than 150 to 300 students each) organized around the library and other common facilities—“somewhat on the Oxford type,” as he described it.[15]  “In this way,” he said, “I should hope to preserve the inestimable personal values of the small college while securing the facilities of the great university.”[16]  Blaisdell proposed a central college administration which would oversee graduate work, issue all diplomas, hold college property in a common trust, and serve as a clearing house for the interests of the colleges.

Blaisdell was able to get a number of significant donors on board with his plan.  Ellen Browning Scripps, a elderly woman from La Jolla, whose brother had left her millions of dollars from his newspaper empire, agreed to donate one-quarter of her stock option in The Evening New Association of Detroit for the founding of a women’s college in her name.[17]  

But Blaisdell’s ambitious plan was not universally accepted.  For the first time in his tenure as a college president Blaisdell faced resistance from faculty and alumni of Pomona College, who felt that his plan would take funds and support away from Pomona College and split the constituency.  Critics felt that the plan was being pushed through without adequate consultation, or a clear definition of organizational functions.[18] 


During the 1925-26 school year, Blaisdell went to Europe to study college organizations there.  He came back with fresh inspiration and in 1927 resigned as president of Pomona College in order to become the new “Head Fellow” of the Claremont Colleges.  From the beginning, the Claremont Colleges was incorporated as a voluntary association.  The relationship between colleges, the purpose and scope of the central administration, and the form of overall governance were still left to be decided.  Blaisdell hoped to start a Claremont men’s college shortly, but the onset of the Great Depression in the United States after 1929 put a damper on plans for further expansion.[19] 


During the Depression years as funds dried up, authority tended to devolve to the individual colleges.  Internal tensions began to develop and the future of Blaisdell’s vision looked uncertain.  In 1935, Blaisdell retired from the Claremont Colleges and moved to La Jolla.  He told close friends at the time that he felt a sense of failure that he was unable to complete what he had started.[20]


But the Claremont Colleges continued without Blaisdell.  In 1940, after the death of his wife, he moved back to Claremont.  For the next seventeen years he would be something of an elder statesman in the community.  By the time of his death in 1957 at age 90, the Claremont Colleges included five institutions.  Late in life Blaisdell began to think about his legacy at Claremont.  There were things he didn’t like about the way that the Claremont Colleges developed, but the essence of model that he first proposed in the 1920s was still there.  As he wrote shortly before his death, “Institutions change and pass; the spirit lives.”[21]

[1] Joseph B. Platt in the foreword to An Unfinished Dream: A Chronicle of the Group Plan of The Claremont Colleges by Robert J. Bernard (Pasadena, CA: Castle Press for the Claremont University Center, 1982), xiii.
[2] James Arnold Blaisdell, The Story of a Life: An Autobiography (Cerritos, CA: Penn Lithographics for the Claremont University Center, 1984), 6.
[3] Natalie Joy Stromberg Ward, James A. Blaisdell: Creator of the Claremont Family of Colleges (Claremont, CA: privately printed for the Claremont University Center, 1997), 3-7, 15, 17-19, 22.

[4] Blaisdell, 57; Ward, 27.

[5] Ward, 37-40, 44.

[6] Blaisdell, 89.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ward, 73.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 89.

[11] Ibid., 51, 57, 63-7.

[12] Blaisdell, 139.

[13] Ward, 85.

[14] Frances Bernard Drake, Two Men and an Idea: Robert Bernard with James Blaisdell, Partners in Pioneering the Group Plan of the Claremont College (San Bernadino, CA: Franklin Press for the Claremont University Center, 1996), 18.

[15] Quoted in Drake, 20.

[16] Quoted in Drake 20, 21.

[17] Ward, 104.

[18] Ibid., 102, 107.

[19] Ibid., 105-7.

[20] Ibid., 115-6, 121.

[21] Blaisdell, 89.

yes, 12/14/06 02:58 (GMT)

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