Big things from a small town

by John Pixley

John Wise. I wondered. Could it be that this guy, an environmental biologist for the state of Maine being interviewed during a segment about water purity on the PBS NewsHour earlier this year, was the same John Wise who was a student and assisted me while I spent a quarter and the summer term at UCLA in 1984?

Was this the same John Wise who also accompanied me on a trip to Vienna after I graduated from UC Riverside the following year?

He had come from the East Coast, and he did return back east after graduating from UCLA Also, he was majoring in the sciences when I met him and went on to earn higher degrees in the field. And he did look familiar. More or less. But, after all, it has been nearly 30 years since I last saw him.

I had not heard from John for a number of years, but I did have an old e-mail address, and I was able to find out pretty quickly that, yes, he was the same John Wise that I had seen on television.

Wow! But perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised. These days, I am not so surprised at who shows up on the PBS NewsHour and other current affairs programs. No, I don’t see many old friends being interviewed on the tube, but I do see more and more professors from the Claremont Colleges.

It’s not that I don’t exclaim, “Oh, look, it’s someone from Claremont!” I do. But it’s now not unusual to see a black studies professor at Pomona College talking about race relations in America or an anthropology professor at Pomona College being queried on, say, how AIDS is viewed in rural societies. There was Philip Clayton, then the dean of Lincoln University when it opened last year at the School of Theology, talking about the new venture to bring together ministerial students from different faith communities.

TV isn’t the only place where I see Claremont professors popping up. Last week, there was an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times on Vladimir Putin by Ilai Saltzman, a visiting assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Then there’s Jack Pitney, the political science professor at CMC, who must be on speed-dial at the Los Angeles Times. Whenever there’s a big political move, especially in Republican circles, the former Republican official who has been teaching for some years at CMC is quoted, giving a line or 2 of analysis, in the paper.

Who knew that this go-to guy for political commentary would be in Claremont? Who knew that this small, quiet town, called “a retirement community” by a graduating Pomona College student a couple years ago, was a hotbed of experts who are on call, in demand, if not renowned?

Yes, the Claremont Colleges have been prestigious for a long time. The 5 under-graduate colleges in Claremont have consistently ranked high among American institutes of higher education. This year was no exception, with Pomona College coming in fourth place, CMC in ninth place, Harvey Mudd College 16th, Scripps College 25th and Pitzer College 35th among national liberal arts colleges in US News & World Report’s closely-watched rankings out this month.

There is more and more of an argument that such rankings are not only irrelevant and meaningless but even harmful. Indeed, seeing the professors and the work done at The Colleges in the news is what, to me, makes The Colleges relevant and meaningful. It is a more real, more tangible and true measure, among others, of their prestige.

Not that all the exposure that the colleges have had in the media has been something in which to take pride. In an example of the harmful effects of college rankings, a former admissions official at CMC confessed last year to exaggerating statistics about admitted students. (It turned out that the manipulation didn’t make much difference.) There was also, several years ago, the bizarre case of the CMC professor who staged the vandalism done to her car.

There was plenty to be proud of, though, a few weeks ago when a documentary by Pomona College’s Professor Betty Bernhard had its US premier. I have admired Ms. Bernhard’s work as a director in the theater department at Pomona College for many years, but I didn’t know that she is a documentary film maker, and it was a treat to see this side of her.

Called Out! Loud!, the 48-minute film follows a group of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Pune, India, as they devise and put on a play called “He, She, It” (“Toh/Ti/Te”) about their lives. Through scenes from the production and interviews with the participants, the film explores what it is like to be an LGBT person in India, where Penal Code 377, a legacy of the British, makes homosexual activity a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison even as homosexuality, bi-sexuality and transgenderism are clearly evident and legitimized in ancient and sacred Indian stories.

In the same way as the Indian stage production, the film is eye-opening and brave. Ms. Bernhard, who has made documentaries and directed plays in India since 1990, reveals this world in a frank, non-judgmental—some may say provocative or controversial—way, as when one young man spoke of his father burning his lips with a cigarette when he spoke in a feminine way and another said he discovered that he liked having sex with men after being forced to do so.

With this film, Ms. Bernhard opens our eyes to another world, a world that has been literally hidden. That its showing a few weeks ago at the School of Theology’s Mudd Theater was more or less the first public event of the school year was most appropriate. It was a great kick-off to another year, a reminder of what a tremendous, widely respected presence The Colleges have become in quiet, small Claremont.


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