Collaboration is Key: Behind A $25 Million Gift To This College Consortium Out West

Rick and Susan Sontag recently gave a $25 million gift to establish the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity at the Claremont Colleges. The center will offer a variety of programs including "drop-in and unstructured brainstorming sessions, workshops, and other activities."

In case you didn't know, the Claremont Colleges is a consortium of five high-ranking liberal arts schools about 35 miles outside of Los Angeles in Claremont, California. One of these schools, Pomona College, was recently named the No. 1 college in the nation by Forbes, beating out Harvard, Princeton, and others. Another Claremont College, Harvey Mudd, is a top-ranking engineering and mathematics school.

Rick and Susan Sontag graduated from Harvey Mudd and Pomona respectively in 1964 and went on to found Unison Industries, which designs and manufactures airplane electrical systems. In 2002, they sold Unison to General Electric. That same year, the Sontags also started the Sontag Foundation. The family's philanthropy has focused on brain cancer research. Susan was diagnosed with brain cancer and given 18 months to live. Other philanthropy has involved Northeast Florida, where they reside.

Alumni loyalty is certainly an element in this gift, and despite the Sontags being pulled away from sunny Southern California, the Claremont Colleges have often been in the orbit of the couple. Their giving to Claremont includes naming gifts to residence halls on both the Pomona and Harvey Mudd campuses, as well as large gifts to expand undergraduate research. Sontag is also an emeritus trustee at Harvey Mudd College and Sontag's uncle taught philosophy at Pomona for some five decades.

But apart from alumni loyalty, I also want to talk about another element here: collaboration. It makes sense that the Sontags' gift to the Claremont Colleges might emphasize collaboration. We talk at IP a lot about how gifts sometimes come together in a way that is a perfect fit for the school. This definitely seems to be the case, here. While each Claremont school is small, collectively there are nearly 8,000 students between the five colleges and two graduate schools. This diversity and proximity is a big selling point of the schools and as a graduate of Pomona College, by the way, I know it's what tipped the scales for me.

Additionally, collaboration has become a buzzword for everything from solving the latest medical problem to social entrepreneurship. It makes sense, then, that some of this education might take place at the undergraduate level.

The Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity is described as an "innovative setting where students from the five liberal arts colleges—known collectively as the 5Cs—can work in creative teams, be intellectually daring, mix things up and think with their hands (or feet)." As a hint of what's to come, during a preview session last spring, a group of students created a social media app allowing students and faculty the opportunity to get or give help on any 5C student project. This sounds like a gift tailor-made for the schools.