Pomona’s discussion of the Iraq War was the impetus for the founding of the Pomona Student Union in 2003. Opponents of the war dominated debates in classes, forums, and everywhere else on campus. Supporters of the war were reluctant to speak publicly and privately, and there was a need for frank dialogue.
Benjamin Waterman and Andrew Tyler, junior philosophy and public policy analysis majors, had recently returned from study abroad in Oxford. At Oxford, Ben and Andrew attended meetings of the Oxford Union, a club dedicated to dialogue. Even as students challenged one another, they remained respectful. Moreover, issues were debated in a substantive and engaging way. Ben and Andrew wanted to bring that kind of environment back to Pomona. Together with a small group of friends, Ben and Andrew formed the Pomona Student Union, an organization with the mission of promoting the same quality of dialogue they witnessed at Oxford.
The PSU’s first event, a debate between two Claremont McKenna professors on President Bush’s plan to democratize the Middle East, became a model for PSU events to come. Instead of pushing one agenda, the debate presented multiple sides of this complex issue, forcing students to think for themselves. Over 200 students packed Frank Blue Room, proving the appeal of this new approach.
Based on the success of this first debate, the administration, with the strong support of Dean of Students Ann Quinley, provisionally funded the organization while Ben recruited a board. Our first year, defined by Ben Waterman’s leadership, was intense and intellectual as the organization was settling on an organizational structure and an understanding of its role on campus. Despite the challenges of starting a new organization, the PSU established its unique brand of discussion-based events on campus. Highlights from our first year included American Enterprise Institute scholar Danielle Pletka’s discussion of post-war Iraq, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s description of the military’s control over diplomacy, and Jonathan Rauch and Maggie Gallagher’s debate on gay marriage. The gay marriage debate was particularly successful, thanks to an appealing and relevant topic and excellent marketing which generated strong attendance and a buzz on campus that lasted over a week.
The PSU’s second year under the leadership of Scott Coleman included a new organizational structure that expanded the size of the board and the scope of our programming. We established five committees: Foreign Policy, Domestic Policy, Debate, Campus Discourse and Social. The number of events tripled, and the PSU hosted new and intriguing discussions about topics such as religion at Pomona, general education requirements, and free speech at the 5-Cs. Yet these gains came at the expense of organizational morale and event quality. Each committee met individually, and only the executive board met weekly.
During the 2005-2006 year, guided by James Solomon and David Levine, the PSU kept what worked and discarded what didn’t. We retained a committee structure, combining Debate, Social and Campus Discourse into Campus Events, but ensured that the board operated as a cohesive unit by scheduling weekly full board meetings. Individual committee meetings followed the general board meetings as necessary. Our event quality rose, as illustrated by successful debates on stem cell research and Guantanamo Bay (attended by 400 students). The PSU, in further pursuit of its mission to increase student discourse, established four new discussion based forums: book clubs, student-faculty dinners, rapid response discussions, and fireside chats. The PSU also received a two-year commitment from Pomona alumnus David Holton and wife Marilyn to fund a prominent debate, which spurred creation of our Great Debate, one of our capstone events each year.
The 2006-2007 school year marked the maturation of the PSU as an organization. With Carey McDonald as President and Nick Eubank as Vice President, the PSU hosted its first Great Debate as well as debates on Islam and Democracy and Civil Liberties. The PSU extended its mandate to promote dialogue through small, discussion-based events, in the dorms, in social debates, and through student/faculty discussion. Looking forward as the college developed its Strategic Plan, the PSU also began to craft its long-term vision.
The 2007-2008 school year began with unexpected changes as incoming Vice President Hal Jakle assumed the presidency a few weeks into the semester after the resignation of Jacob Ziemann. With the help of Jenn Wilcox, who stepped in as Vice President, the PSU executed two of the most successful events it had ever hosted. The Great Debate, between Sam Harris and Michael Sandel, was attended by over 500 people and garnered strong positive feedback from students and faculty. This was soon followed by a well-attended speech from Tim Flannery, author of the first year book “The Weathermakers”.
However, the Immigration Debate between Marvin Stewart (president of the Minuteman Project) and Jacob Hornberger soon overshadowed these well-executed events. Many students and faculty objected to the event, and the question and answer session was stopped by a student protest. This became the defining experience of the 2007-2008 school year and resulted in sustained organizational reflection.
Out of this experience, the PSU reformed its structure and created a separate Vice President of Outreach position to better serve and interact with the campus community. The controversy and the organization’s response resulted in over 60 applications for the 2008-2009 board, solidifying the PSU as a major organization and its mission as an important part of the college’s intellectual life.
The 2008-2009 school year began, under the leadership of Rhett Dornbach-Bender, with a heavy focus on the presidential election and saw massive attendance at debate watch parties and discussions with professors about the economic crisis and the candidates’ media strategies. The two events that provided the climax for the election season were an election results party, which saw students filling every classroom in Carnegie, and a speech by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham just two days after the election that drew over 300 people into Bridges Hall of Music. Our spring semester saw the implementation of our first theme, which looked at issues of development from a variety of perspectives, ranging from the efficacy of non-profit vs. for-profit microfinance to a dinner with Pomona alumni discussing the development of Pomona College in its history. The spring also saw the third iteration of the Great Debate and a discussion of presidential war powers between legal scholars Ken Starr and Erwin Chemerinsky.
That event sparked controversy on campus because of Mr. Starr’s involvement with the “Yes on Proposition 8” legal defense team that defended the redefinition of marriage passed in November 2008 in a case in front of the California Supreme Court. Proving both the importance of the organization to the campus and the relevance of our outreach efforts started after the Immigration Debate, the debate drew over 350 students and occurred without a disruptive protest. Instead, students staged a mock gay wedding outside the event, an expression of disagreement with Mr. Starr that encouraged more discussion about the issues at play, indicating that the PSU’s mission has slowly gained traction on campus.
In seven years the PSU has grown into a well-known and respected organization, and though it has encountered serious challenges and growing pains, its commitment to balanced and open dialogue remains. The PSU is poised for future success as it continues to establish its permanent role in the Pomona community. Each new group of PSU members will be tasked with same challenge faced by the founding group: how to create an environment of balanced and thoughtful dialogue on campus.