Most of all, Occidental matters because it has engaged us in the highest calling of a liberal arts education: the provision of a life lived in reflection on the questions we must ask ourselves and the choices we must make in order to flourish as human beings.
Over the past two years, an integrated planning process brought together faculty, senior administrators, trustees, staff, students and alumni to reflect on the future of the College. The initial work, which included wide-ranging discussions, led to the identification of a set of shared commitments:
- Academic Commons
- The Arts
- Civic Engagement
- Core Curriculum-Interdisciplinary
- Diversity-Equity and Excellence
- Environmental Stewardship, Policy and Science
- Global Citizenship
- The Residential College and Developing the Whole Student
- Undergraduate Research
A Planning Steering Committee composed of administrators, faculty, staff and a student identified 11 task forces with charges that addressed key questions emerging from those shared commitments. The Steering Committee worked with Faculty Council, the Associated Students of Occidental College and senior administrators to appoint a mix of faculty, staff, students and alumni to the taskforces. Throughout the year, the task forces held community meetings and shared their work in progress and in final reports with the campus. Those planning efforts were supplemented with a trustee committee that focused on the landscape of higher education, financial sustainability, and other contextual pressures that might limit, enhance or alter Occidental’s options in the future. Each planning group held a town hall meeting to share its findings with the broader community.
From the beginning, the majority of those involved found consensus on the fundamental priorities identified in this document. To some extent that is not surprising, particularly considering the “DNA” of the institution: i.e. a longstanding commitment to diversity, historic strengths in the arts and sciences, our location in the distinctly urban and international setting of Los Angeles, engaged alumni and involvement in the lives and activities of the community. While this plan reflects that broad institutional consensus, it is not intended as an exhaustive or static document. Planning efforts often focus on those areas where a broad constituency of advocates already exists. Beyond what is included here, it is expected that educational domains and interests will continue to emerge as ongoing input is solicited from scholars, alumni and experts in fields not currently represented in Occidental’s focus.
This plan provides a set of parameters that will guide priority-setting and decision-making—not only for large decisions, but for the hundreds of incremental decisions, which—without such structure—accumulate over time and add up to a considerable investment of resources. An operational plan will be developed that leads to the reallocation of current and future resources to align with the key priorities in this plan. The operational plan will also include a timeline for implementing the strategic priorities, as well as a realistic overall financial model in light of external forces. Ongoing success for Occidental demands making difficult decisions about which programs are essential to achieving the aspirations reflected in this plan and which programs may not be. This prioritization task will begin in 2012-13.
Appropriately, the plan begins with the mission of Occidental College. Building from this foundational statement, the vision provides a glimpse of the future for the College, a map marked with destinations. Those destinations are captured in a single goal that reflects the essential core of Occidental as a liberal arts and sciences College. The six clusters of objectives give shape to the primary paths the College will travel in achieving that goal over the next five years.
The mission of Occidental College is to provide a gifted and diverse group of students with a total educational experience of the highest quality—one that prepares them for leadership in an increasingly complex, interdependent and pluralistic world. The distinctive interdisciplinary and multicultural focus of the College’s academic program seeks to foster both the fulfillment of individual aspirations and a deeply rooted commitment to the public good.
The mission is anchored by four cornerstones: excellence, equity, community and service. These building blocks, in one form or another, have long been the basis for the College’s commitment to providing responsible leaders and citizens for our democratic society. Choosing them to support the future helps to ensure that the College remains true to its mission while adapting to a changing world.
Occidental College will be recognized as the most distinctive urban liberal arts college in the country. The bedrock of our success depends on our capacity to reinterpret the great tradition of the liberal arts and sciences for a new generation of students. In order to do that, we will reinvigorate our curriculum, make the case for the importance and relevance of the liberal arts, and define the skills and qualities of mind that we want our students to possess when they graduate. We will be known as a place that produces students who can analyze and synthesize complex material, develop and communicate new knowledge, take risks, tolerate ambiguity, and embrace difference. These habits of mind comprise the essence of an Occidental education, and they are the foundation not only for successful careers, but also for successful lives. This transformative and interdisciplinary education can only be accomplished in an intimate, residential college where teaching matters, and where faculty develop close working relationships with their students. The dyad between teacher and student is at the heart of everything we do. We will dedicate ourselves to strengthening that bond as the centerpiece of an Occidental education.
Our location in Southern California provides Occidental College with unmatched cultural and natural resources. The city of Los Angeles is one of the most dynamic metropolitan environments in the world and is an unparalleled place to study the intersection of the natural and cultural spheres. A nexus of immense creativity, diversity, and complexity, Los Angeles is also a place where the world's opportunities and problems are played out on a daily basis. We will significantly increase the advantage of our location by creating additional partnerships and connections with various Los Angeles institutions and organizations, as well as by providing our students with internships that lead to successful careers, and by providing access to leading artists, activists, scientists, and political and business leaders who live and work here.
Los Angeles is by no means the end point of our aspirations. As one of the world’s truly global cities, Los Angeles is the springboard for the transformation of Occidental College into a vibrant international campus. We begin by creating a much more cosmopolitan environment on campus inspired by the city in which we live: a campus where diverse backgrounds, interests and ideas are welcome, where acquaintance with other cultures is the norm, where international students are actively recruited, and where opportunities for study abroad, international internships, and exchanges are readily available. Each Occidental graduate will be prepared to take on responsibility as a "citizen of the world," skilled at negotiating its complexities and eclectic in interests and tastes.
This is the vision for Occidental. It is ambitious. But so was the notion of creating a college on the outskirts of a ramshackle city in 1887. With this vision, we have an historic opportunity to make Occidental one of the most distinctive colleges in the United States: a place where access and excellence are deeply intertwined.
Goal: 21st Century Liberal Arts and Sciences
Launch a reinvigoration of the Occidental liberal arts and sciences educational experience that builds upon traditional strengths, incorporates changes in teaching, learning and research practices, and embraces new areas of emphasis critical for student success in the 21st century.
1. Curricular and Scholarly Transformations
Foster innovation in the core and disciplinary curricula that engages students in integrated intellectual inquiry including new and emerging areas of study.
1.1 Encourage innovation and experimentation in teaching, mentored research, and learning.
1.2 Enhance the ratio of tenure-track faculty to students which exemplifies the college's recognition of the unique bond between students and faculty, a cornerstone of the liberal arts experience.
1.3 Enhance opportunities for all students to engage in high-impact activities including research, international study, internships, special curricular offerings, learning communities and community engagement.
1.4 Institute a broader focus on scholarly activities that provides students with opportunities to work closely with faculty on primary research and creative expression in all fields of study with a variety of technologies and resources.
1.5 Strengthen support for faculty and student scholarly work including greater provision for undergraduate and sponsored research.
1.6 Develop a comprehensive program that moves students from career discernment through purposeful experiential opportunities that prepare them for life after graduation.
1.7 Advance the Academic Commons as the campus intellectual center bringing together students, faculty and staff with access to extensive technology, innovative programming and services, flexible learning and teaching spaces, peer tutoring, research support, academic materials, software and databases.
1.8 Develop and implement a comprehensive set of institutional and programmatic learning outcomes and assessment measures.
2. Los Angeles
Expand the depth and breadth of opportunities for students to engage in experiential and academic activities that are directly connected with the environment, cultural, economic, political, scientific and social institutions, issues and programs in Los Angeles.
2.1 Make experiential learning in and about Los Angeles a distinguishing characteristic of the educational program.
2.2 Create a top-tier internship program that takes full advantage of the opportunities in the Los Angeles area.
2.3 Build deep collaborative partnerships with major political, social, economic, educational, scientific and cultural institutions in Los Angeles, following the model of existing relationships with Caltech, the Huntington, the Autry, Art Center College of Design and partnerships already fostered by OxyARTS.
2.4 Develop a set of transportation options and flexible academic program scheduling to enable students with access across Los Angeles and the time necessary to engage in off-campus activities.
2.5 Coordinate existing and new community engagement programs to enable strategic planning and resource allocation, efficient support, greater impact and visibility, enriched links with the curriculum and a single source of information for students and partners.
2.6 Enhance curricular and co-curricular innovation for the analysis of issues and phenomena essential to urban life.
2.7 Expand the incorporation of accomplished activists, journalists, politicians, business leaders, and scientists and noteworthy musicians, novelists, choreographers, filmmakers, actors, painters, and poets into campus life.
2.8 Capitalize on the unique environmental features of the Southern California basin to enhance the curriculum, programs and activities of the College.
3. Global culture
Foster a cosmopolitan campus culture in which students, faculty and staff are actively engaged with and at ease in many different countries and cultures through academic programs, community engagement, admissions, research and service.
3.1 Create a center for Global Affairs that will house programs in Politics, Foreign Languages and Diplomacy and World Affairs.
3.2 Develop additional programs, engagement activities and technological capacity across disciplines that connect students and faculty to globalization and transnational issues and ideas.
3.3 Foster innovative curricular and programmatic offerings on Mexico, the Americas and Asia Pacific.
3.4 Increase admission of international students, especially from Mexico, the Americas and Asia Pacific.
3.5 Expand opportunities for international experiences for students and faculty (eg. the residential United Nations program, study abroad, international exchanges, and faculty-led academic and research programs and faculty development programs).
3.6 Develop additional programming to bring international scholars to campus to enrich the curriculum and campus life.
3.7 Create multiple opportunities for students to engage with the many nationalities, languages, ethnicities and cultures active across Los Angeles.
4. Inclusive excellence
Advance a commitment of inclusive excellence that will continue to attract and develop accomplished students, faculty and staff who evidence diversity in thought, socio-economic status, gender, race, ethnicity and nationality.
4.1 Integrate the commitment to inclusive excellence into the curriculum, educational programming, and student life in such a way that students, faculty, and administration may respond creatively to a changing world while maintaining Occidental’s core values.
4.2 Foster a community in which all its members bear a special responsibility to challenge personal and institutional forms of discrimination and exclusion.
4.3 Enlarge our community’s capacity for mutual respect across social differences, in categories including but not limited to race and ethnicity, national and economic background, age and ability, sexual and gender orientation, spiritual and religious affiliation and political inclination.
4.4 Promote a climate of open discourse, civil engagement, tolerance, and respect in a community that is committed to the intellectual stimulation that occurs when diversity is present on a campus.
4.5 Increase funds for scholarships to ensure that talented students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to attend and thrive at Occidental.
4.6 Enhance access to high impact activities such as research, study abroad and internships for all students through increased financial resources.
5. Connected community
Engage alumni, parents, neighbors and friends through stronger connections to the campus, expand participation and support.
5.1 Build and sustain a robust community of alumni and parent volunteers.
5.2 Take advantage of the new alumni center to increase programming and activities that involve alumni, neighbors, students and faculty including bringing alumni to campus to serve as speakers and student mentors.
5.3 Develop enhanced communication and community-building systems that connect alumni and parents to each other as well as to the College.
5.4 Engage alumni and parents in developing mentorships and internships for students in particular regions.
5.5 Provide support and networking opportunities for Occidental graduates in fields with active alumni, such as entertainment, finance, journalism, health professions, law, business, the arts, science, government and public service, technology and non-profits.
5.6 Engage with parents beginning with their student’s matriculation for support and long-term connections with the college community.
5.7 Increase professional development and opportunities for staff.
6. Living and learning
Advance the learning and living environment of the College with efforts that address the development of students and the enhancement, renovation and renewal efforts necessary to protect and enrich the physical campus.
6.1 Foster ways to integrate academics and co-curricular activities involving faculty and staff with the residential life of students.
6.2 Sustain a residential experience that fosters students’ personal growth and behavior consistent with their social, emotional and cognitive development.
6.3 Develop comprehensive plans to outfit and maintain learning spaces with appropriate furnishings and technology and create compelling outdoor spaces including patios, gardens, and outdoor classrooms.
6.4 Develop a comprehensive facilities and space plan to renovate existing science buildings to enable students and faculty to keep pace with innovations in science education and research.
6.5 Develop space plans for all academic buildings that include collaborative spaces, ample technology and appropriate teaching and research spaces.
6.6 Develop a plan for the improvement of athletic facilities to increase competitiveness for prospective students.
6.7 Implement a campus environmental stewardship and sustainability plan that addresses how to engage the campus community in environmentally sound practices, increases permeable surfaces and the use of native and other water-conserving plants, enhances the entrance to the campus, and extends a commitment to the use of solar power and other innovative technologies.
6.8 Develop a strategic approach to the relationship of the College with the neighborhood and community.
Occidental College faces an array of challenges and opportunities that are qualitatively different in kind from those of earlier eras. The landscape of higher education has changed dramatically over the past twenty-five years. Tuition increases have outpaced family income, creating a cascading effect in which it becomes increasingly difficult for families from all income levels to send their children to private institutions; that in turn puts more pressure on additional scholarship support, which in turn makes it difficult to provide the level of services and sustain the budgetary models used in the past. A global economic crisis exacerbated this problem, but the financial pressures will continue to affect higher education into the near future.
An extremely competitive environment exists for students and for external funding. At one end of the spectrum are the very best selective liberal arts colleges in the country. Fueled by large endowments, they make significant investments in their own programs and physical plant creating not just an “amenities war,” but also a scenario in which only a select number of colleges will be able to sustain an individualized, residential liberal arts and sciences education. At the other end of the spectrum are emerging a real set of challenges from for-profit institutions, new forms of distance education and alternative credentials that have increased the array of choices for prospective students, especially first generation to college. While it is unlikely that these institutions will compete directly for all students, their presence in the marketplace is likely to erode further the public perception of the “value-added” of a more traditional, residential liberal arts and sciences college.
Economic downturn-impact on family incomes and philanthropy
The global economic situation which began with the financial meltdown of 2008, continues to have an impact on three major activities of the College- the ability of families to afford tuition, the capacity of donors to contribute through philanthropy and the overall value and growth of the endowment. Many students and their families, especially in the middle class, evidence an increased need for financial assistance. Lowered equity value of homes, tightened credit markets and reduced employment stability affects the amount of need experienced by current as well as prospective students.
An increasing number of non-profit institutions, including state-supported colleges and universities, are engaging in fund raising activities, creating greater competition for philanthropy, including grants. Funding agencies, most of whom saw significant reductions in the value of their endowments, have in many cases reduced the number and amounts of awards. The sharp decline in the value of endowments also affected colleges and universities, reducing the amount available to supplement operating budgets and putting increased pressure on the operating budget. While it is impossible to predict the direction that the U.S. economy and the financial markets will take during the next five years, it is difficult to build a credible scenario that includes rapid growth in economic activity and family incomes. The constraints imposed by the weak fiscal condition of the government and the highly leveraged private sector represent difficult headwinds for robust economic growth in the near future.
Reduced state funding for public higher education and the cost of an undergraduate degree
Almost all states continue to reduce funding for higher education. In California, the reductions have been coupled with steep increases in tuition and fees. The result has been a significant reduction in the gap between the cost of an undergraduate degree at public and private institutions. The higher cost at public institutions has been accompanied in many cases by reduced availability of classes requiring students to take additional time to complete their degrees. This situation is making the previously perceived high cost of an undergraduate degree at a private liberal arts and sciences college more attractive in comparison for some families. All higher education institutions, however, are increasingly price conscious and generally agree that tuition and fees cannot continue to increase on an annual basis at previous rates. Since the cost of education has always exceeded the price, greater constraints on price will demand a greater emphasis on cost containment and fund raising. Increased government and media attention to student loan debt, and concern that it could become a potential for defaults and thus a serious drag on the economy, is another significant factor constraining increases in tuition and the overall cost of an undergraduate education.
Increasing emphasis on assessment
While efforts to measure student learning have been a part of K-12 education for decades (state exit exams, No Child Left Behind, etc.), several factors have emerged to bring similar efforts to higher education. Increased competing demands for public funding for health care, social programs and criminal justice have concomitantly increased demands for accountability on the impact of those funds. In a similar fashion, the continued growth in tuition and fees by private institutions and the competition for funds from granting agencies have prompted calls for assessing the impact of the dollars on student learning. The national accreditation organizations, both those looking at institutions and the many others who accredit specific academic programs, are in the forefront of these efforts in higher education. Establishing specific intuitional and programmatic learning outcomes, assessing how students achieve those outcomes, and using that information to shape the curriculum and academic programs will become increasingly significant for all colleges and universities.
Value of liberal arts education in the US and abroad
The number of students going to college has steadily increased over the past 50 years, however, the percentage of those students pursuing a liberal arts degree in the United States has just as steadily declined. Currently, private, residential liberal arts colleges account for only 2% of the college-attending population. While a strong case can be made for the value of a liberal arts and sciences education in preparing students for success in a world that is increasingly global, highly complex, and less predictable, the prevailing US public discourse emphasizes a more focused, almost vocationally oriented, approach to higher education. At the same time, interest in an undergraduate liberal arts and sciences education, evidenced by the emergence of institutions in several countries, is growing across Europe and in Asia.
Occidental is an institution that has achieved great—perhaps even surprising things—on relatively modest resources. Many people comment on Oxy’s continued delivery of a first-rate liberal arts and sciences education despite a smaller endowment than many of its comparison institutions. Maintaining this record of achievement, however, could be seriously impacted by further financial erosion. A candid assessment of the strengths and challenges is presented with the hope that it will not dispirit readers, but rather impart confidence from an honest assessment of Oxy’s circumstances and create energy for the work ahead.
Strong admitted class profile
Application rates continue to stay above historic benchmarks of 6,000, while retention rates—an indication of student satisfaction—remain at an all-time high. Additionally, the academic profile of each admitted class continues to trend upwards indicating a growing perception of Occidental as a top choice for students seeking academic rigor. Graduation rates continue to climb. However, the high cost of tuition is making it increasingly difficult for all but the wealthiest families to afford to send their sons and daughters to private institutions. Occidental has a strong market position as a nationally recognized liberal arts institution located in Los Angeles and this is reflected by the College’s strong selectivity rate. However, Occidental is in a highly competitive student market as reflected by our yield rate and faces growing competition for students in need of financial aid by schools with larger endowments.
Continued commitment to diversity
The diversity of our students, staff and faculty creates a rich environment of background and points-of- view, within a strong community of mutual respect and support. First rate faculty and dedicated staff have been attracted to the college because of this commitment. However, to sustain socioeconomic diversity in the student body, nearly 78% of our students receive some form of financial aid, a precariously high level that is difficult to sustain given the size of the endowment.
Sustaining meaningful student-faculty interaction
The heart of the Occidental educational experience is the transformative relational experience students have through their interactions with outstanding faculty. The size of the student body should reflect an intentional decision to structure Occidental and the curriculum in ways that secure the intense scholarly engagement of those students with the faculty. Maintaining high levels of educational quality and satisfaction, as well as sustaining rewarding experiences for students and faculty will require enhancing the ratio of tenure-track faculty to students.
Supporting excellence in faculty
Occidental’s historic strengths in the liberal arts and sciences, with its proximity to some of the world’s great research laboratories and cultural institutions, attract excellent active scholars as faculty. These faculty members are deeply engaged in their scholarly communities and thus able to bring up-to-date knowledge and engagement to the classroom, as well as mentor student research that produces exceptional outcomes. A growing institution-wide emphasis on scholarship by faculty and with students increases the need for enhanced support for the resources that make that intensive academic work possible.
Shifts in the curriculum
Within the next 5-7 years nearly a third of Oxy’s faculty will be on the cusp of retirement. While this poses challenges of transmitting the same culture of dedication to scholarship, mentorship and excellent teaching to younger faculty, it also offers the opportunity to rethink the outlines of a liberal arts and sciences education. The current curriculum generally reflects the perspectives and structures of the 20th century, but also includes innovative programs such as the California Environment Semester and Campaign Semester. As the College prepares students for an increasingly complex, interdependent and pluralistic world in the 21st century, intentional discussions about the shape and focus of the curriculum, different pedagogies, digital scholarship, career discernment and new fields of study may lead to significant changes in Oxy’s educational environment.
Occidental is fortunate to have a large alumni contingent with strong ties to the College. Their involvement in the life of the College has played a key role in Oxy’s history, and that relationship is expected to continue. Connecting alumni more directly with students not only builds a sustaining community, but may also enable more meaningful transitions for those students as they leave Oxy for the next steps in their lives. The College will also need to increase the level of financial support from alumni if we hope to maintain the same quality of education they received as Occidental students.
Increasing connections with Los Angeles
Occidental is the principal liberal arts and sciences college in Los Angeles, a city that is a global hub for people from all nationalities, the arts, sciences, technology and trade. Throughout its history, Oxy has benefited from and contributed to this unique environmental, social and cultural center. The opportunities afforded students and faculty through being situated in Los Angeles greatly enrich the academic program and the overall experience of an Oxy education. With such an outstanding array of possibilities, some amount of involvement in LA should reflect intentional efforts to create and sustain meaningful partnerships such as the 3-2 degree at Caltech, cross-registration with the Pasadena Art Center, the Billington Professorship with the Huntington Library, and coursework based on the collections of the Autry National Museum of the American West. Oxy’s strong commitment to community engagement will also continue to connect students and faculty to grass-roots efforts, civic and cultural activities, and community partners.
As a residential arts and sciences college, Occidental offers students an opportunity to extend their educational experience beyond the classroom and to explore the often-complex world of increasing independence. The beauty of the campus itself is one of Occidental’s great strengths. It is a source of continued satisfaction to each generation of students providing them with tranquility and renewal and a quiet place to study. Buildings, grounds, laboratories, classrooms and other facilities, however, are aging and some are in need of significant transformation to provide an academic environment that supports the quality of the educational experience that Occidental delivers. The attractiveness of the physical campus is also a significant factor in Oxy’s competiveness with other institutions in the ongoing efforts to attract and retain students of exceptional quality.
Occidental’s endowment at the start of calendar year 2012 was just over $300 million that places the College at the low end of the scale of the schools with which we compete. The College is highly dependent on tuition and auxiliary revenue from students. A large percentage of Oxy’s operating budget is spent on financially supporting students, thereby reducing the resources available to invest in faculty, facilities and programming. This financial model limits flexibility and increases risk. Continuing to compete effectively for students and faculty and supporting excellence in academic programs will require diversifying our revenue base through significant growth in philanthropic support, especially for the endowment, and reallocating current resources. An initial round of 5% cuts enables the College to encumber money in a Fund for Strategic Priorities that will be used to help realize some of the activities emerging from this Strategic Plan. Over the coming months, the College will undertake a systematic evaluation of all existing programs and services to assess their value and centrality to our core commitments and the Strategic Plan.
Athletics and the student-athlete
A classical ideal was expressed as Mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a healthy body. Occidental has approximately 411 student-athletes whose achievements in the classroom and as athletes are shaped by their faculty and by their coaches as they acquire the virtues of discipline, patience, hard-work, and grace in victory as well as defeat. Some of the most dedicated alumni were athletes while in college and many students choose to attend Oxy because of the opportunity to achieve both academically and athletically.
Communication and visibility
While the continued improvements in the academic quality of admitted students and the hiring of excellent faculty and staff might be seen as evidence that Occidental is no longer a “hidden gem”, the College remains less well-known that its quality and achievements should warrant. In an increasingly media and information-saturated world, communicating a message effectively to a myriad of audiences is a complex undertaking that requires sustained effort and creative approaches. Using appropriate technologies and focusing on key messages will be essential to being competitive for prospective students and for increased philanthropic support.