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Great Conversations that Matter

Greenland Is Like the Moon is the working title of a forthcoming book by Jeff Davenport.  The book explores analogies, metaphors, and similes. When I saw Jeff recently for the first time in three years, he was curious about my almost two years at Claremont Graduate University.

“What’s it like?” he asked.

What could I say to Mr. Metaphor? Should I compare Claremont to an intellectual candy store? A cornucopia of ideas? A rose?

Let’s back up one step, I thought. What is it that’s special and different about Claremont Graduate University?
 
People at Claremont are remarkably cordial, I told Jeff. They are willing and able to talk across disciplines.  They are interested in the real world. All this contrasts in welcome ways with the academic hostility, insularity, and theoretical narrowness that characterize many universities.

“Why is Claremont that way?” Jeff asked.

I could only hypothesize. Claremont Graduate University shares the liberal-arts-college DNA of the Claremont Colleges. Claremont’s small size enables intimacy. We have a lovely, welcoming campus, a kind of oasis in Southern California. 

The Claremont culture is also intentional. Over the years, professors and students and staff have worked hard to create a humane, adventurous, and relevant educational experience. While other academic institutions are accused of increasing precision on ever more irrelevant issues, a disproportionate number of professors and students at Claremont take on the most important issues of our region and our world with a distinctive Claremont combination of transdisciplinarity, rigor, and flair.

Maybe I was now ready to supply Jeff with a telling phrase about Claremont.

I told him about the plaque on the DesCombes Gate with a quote from our first president, James A. Blaisdell. “The center of a college is in great conversation, and out of the talk of college life springs everything else.” Claremont is graduate education that creates great conversations that matter.

Think of what “great conversations” require. Interlocutors who are passionate and knowledgeable, open to new ideas and diverse viewpoints, and civil. “Great conversations” require people who have learned to express themselves clearly and succinctly. They also require people who have learned to listen, and listen well.

Think of what “great conversations that matter” entails. In the context of graduate education, these are conversations that can advance knowledge, provide new perspectives, even reframe questions. “Great conversations that matter” may even help create research and action that can make the world a better place.

Claremont Graduate University is dedicated to great conversations that matter—in the classroom and at leisure, in research and in social action, within the university and outside it.

Examples of Great Conversations that Matter
Some of the great conversations are in courses. For example, under the leadership of Professor Wendy Martin, CGU has pioneered transdisciplinary doctoral courses, where second-year students from many fields consider how collaborative research can shed new light on fascinating, important issues. The topics of these T-courses range widely, including “New Orleans: Legacy and Promise,” “Death and Dying,” and “The Nature of Inquiry.” A new online, collaborative tool called “the Claremont Conversation,” developed by a team led by Professor Terry Ryan, enables groups of students to work together on research proposals, which can be seen and commented upon by professors and other students.

Many Claremont courses involve conversations across disciplines and professions, as well as with leading practitioners. For example, Professor Jack Schuster’s seminar on public policy and higher education annually visits Sacramento to dialogue with key policymakers. This year’s expedition included students from education, politics and economics, and information systems and technology.

Other great conversations involve students, faculty, and distinguished outsiders. For example, under the leadership of Dean Karen Jo Torjesen, Claremont’s School of Religion recently held the First Annual Conference of Religions in Conversation. Professors and students from six faith communities discussed exclusivity and inclusivity within and across their traditions.  In many religions, sacred texts contain passages that seem exclusive (only people in this particular religion can know God) and other passages that seem inclusive (nonbelievers in the particular faith can still know God). How do individual religions cope with the tensions in interpreting, reconciling, and applying such texts? How, by looking across religions at similar tensions, can we gain a deeper understanding of each faith and of the general problem of exclusivity and inclusivity? 

In May, the commencement forum “Science and the Quality of Life” convened social scientists, activists, and publishers to consider how to know what works in dealing with important social problems. www.cgu.edu/pages/4844.asp

Other convenings this spring convey the flavor of great conversations that matter. 

  • In March a symposium at the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences convened scholars from across the nation to discuss how to improve behavioral health interventions. They focused on organ donation as a quintessential example. www.cgu.edu/pages/1004.asp
  • In April researchers from many fields joined practitioners in “Moral Markets: A Symposium on Values, Economics, and the Brain,” under the leadership of Professor Paul Zak.
  • In May, spearheaded by Professor Samir Chatterjee, the Second International Conference on Design Science Research created a great conversation among researchers and students from diverse backgrounds ranging from computer science, information systems, and software engineering to social ethnography and artistic disciplines.  ncl.cgu.edu/desrist2007/
  • In May, students in the Master of Arts in Art and Cultural Management organized an exhibition called “Moving Past Present,” drawing on art from the Claremont Consortium and beyond.  The exhibition created another kind of conversation, this one based on art, with dialogue across time and genre. www.cgu.edu/pages/4854.asp

Individual artists also create conversations. Yvette Gellis, a first-year MFA student, kindly loaned one of her remarkable paintings for display at the President’s House. “My paintings are meant to draw the viewer into a conversation,” she has written, “an exchange that is both visually satisfying and provocative. I am seeing our everyday world in a new way. I want to give something more to my audience.  The hope is in turn they will have an experience.  It is through that personal experience where the conversation begins, one that is authentic and truthful, and great exchanges begin out of truth.”

Enabling Great Conversations that Matter
If “great conversations that matter” characterize Claremont at its best, how can our university create even more of them?

Transdisciplinary Teaching
We can expand our transdisciplinary offerings. Currently, T-courses are designed for PhD students and focused on research. We can supplement them with distinctively valuable transdisciplinary masters courses, which might contribute to a variety of professions and careers. Claremont will consider courses in such areas as evidence-based decision making, leadership, working across cultures, social entrepreneurship, “good work and good institutions,” and information technology for social and organizational learning.

The Drucker Institute
One of the objectives of the Drucker Institute, created in May 2006, is to convene leaders from business, government, and civil society on major issues facing our region and our world. The idea is not conferences of talking heads, but something more akin to conversations that matter.

The Claremont Conversation Online
We can expand the online Claremont Conversation. The software tool described above could be opened up to a wider audience, including alumni. We are creating a cutting-edge, dynamic website for the new Drucker Institute, which is connecting Drucker Societies and scholars from around the world. 

Encouraging Even More Collaboration
The university will do even more to encourage intellectual adventuring and rigorous thinking on big issues. We are expanding our office of sponsored research, under the leadership of the new Vice Provost for Research, Dean Gerstein. We are exploring how changes in our budgeting system can encourage crosscutting courses and collaboration.  And we are eager to explore with partners outside the university ways to collaborate on intellectual work on major questions facing our region and our world.

A Central Place to Convene Conversations
Our physical setting can do more to encourage great conversations that matter. We have just broken ground on a wonderful graduate housing complex, which will enhance our intellectual community.  In the future, we may want to create a new facility purpose-built to encourage conversations that matter, small and large, with people inside and outside Claremont Graduate University.


  Robert Klitgaard
  President and University Professor


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