Almost a century ago, Pomona College President James A. Blaisdell wrestled with his own size problem, trying to decide if bigger is actually better.
The aftermath of that decision is why Pomona and the other Claremont Colleges today teach and prepare only relatively small numbers of students on their tree-shaded campuses.
On Sunday, Pomona College marks its 125-year anniversary. It opened its doors Oct. 14, 1887, in Pomona before moving to a permanent site in Claremont a year later.
There was little worry in those very early days about getting too big - the most daunting task was just keeping the doors open.
To this struggle in 1910 arrived the 43-year-old Blaisdell, a minister and professor at Beloit College in his native Wisconsin.
"Who could have thought forty years ago that a college without money to pay its debts, unable to borrow any money to meet salary" would become a successful institution? Blaisdell asked in a Nov. 9, 1953, talk in Los Angeles to the board of the Claremont Colleges.
Long retired from his presidential duties, Blaisdell said he appreciated the support he had received then "to what seemed to be a very doubtful cause."
"I was a great land speculator. I knew I was either going to be a fool or prophet.
The energetic Blaisdell was hardly a fool, plunging into whatever was necessary to ensure the college's future success by raising money and building its reputation.
It was not long before payrolls were made and prospects brightened. But then came the pivotal question: Was a bigger college a good thing?
There was the belief that Pomona College's intimate setting, small classes and frequent interactions between student and professor were assets that should not change. The board agreed and limited the college to no more than 750 undergraduates.
But there were other pressures.
"Here were children of trustees, children of faculty, children of benefactors, clamoring at the door. What should we do?" he told the board in 1953.
The option was to increase endowment to become bigger, "or open the way to new institutions, which in the eagerness of beginning would have new courage, new exhilaration, new gathering power. It was the latter we chose."
From that early 1920s decision has grown the Claremont College Plan of small classes, expansive curriculum and shared resources. In 1924, Ellen Browning Scripps made it possible for more colleges to be added - including her namesake - when she made a gift of land, 250 acres where the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and most of the present colleges are today.
In 1925, the "Claremont Colleges" was organized to provide joint support, including library services, for the then-future colleges. This was under the direction of Blaisdell and his associate Robert J. Bernard, who for several decades served as a facilitator in the formation of most of the future colleges in Claremont.
Claremont Graduate University was the first new addition, in 1925, followed a year later by Scripps. Later came Claremont Men's (now McKenna) College in 1946; Harvey Mudd College in 1955; Pitzer College in 1963; and the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in 1997.
As more, though still small, colleges grew, Blaisdell worked tirelessly in improving the learning environment in Claremont.
He retired as president in 1936, but stayed in the area and spent the rest of his life participating in efforts aimed at benefiting the colleges.
Blaisdell also played a role in the development of Pilgrim Place, the Claremont retirement center for clergy and church workers.
In his honor, Claremont named a new park Blaisdell Park in 1956. Following his death in January 1957, the Claremont Courier called Blaisdell "Claremont's number one citizen."
His legacy, the Claremont Colleges Plan, often is said to resemble England's Oxford University, which also concentrates small colleges in a collective area.
Blaisdell admitted he wasn't very pleased that Claremont's system was often called "the Oxford of the West."
"I could point out many points which characterize Oxford definitely which we could not and would not take," he said in his 1953 speech.
Instead, he said, "we were patterned on the United States of America. We were individual colleges as individual states, united together in a government which could do certain things in common. The various colleges ... were Claremont Colleges, precisely as the states of this country are the United States."
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Valley history. He can be reached at 909-483-9382, email at email@example.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock.