2012 Founders Day
Good evening! We are here to celebrate the founding of Occidental College.
One hundred and twenty-five years is a very long time. Few institutions can claim that kind of longevity. Who, after all, remembers Maclay College of Theology, Freeman College of Applied Sciences, or Monrovia College for Young Ladies? Like Occidental, they too started with high hopes. But Occidental survived. Our longevity begs the question, however, of what we are celebrating. Dumb luck? Stubborn persistence? Sheer refusal to go away?
If you had asked me in 1887 to judge the chances of this small, Presbyterian college located on the dusty outskirts of Los Angeles, I'm afraid I might have bet against it. Soon after Occidental was founded, the real estate boom of the 1880s collapsed. The College was left with a worthless subdivision of land that was to be its endowment. At one point, President Weller was forced to pawn the furniture in order to keep the doors open. "If help does not come soon," his successor wrote ominously, "we are stopped." It didn't take long before Occidental acquired something of a reputation among its creditors: In his excellent history of Occidental, Andrew Rolle tells us that "Merchants who dealt with the College were repeatedly offered settlement of outstanding bills for 'fifty cents on the dollar.'" Fifty cents on the dollar!
Within a decade of its founding, Occidental went through four successive presidents. (Sound familiar?) This turbulent early history culminated in a fire that destroyed the Boyle Heights campus. The remaining contents of the institution were carried away in a wheelbarrow. Occidental was homeless for two years, during which time enrollment declined from 52 students to just seven. No one would have raised an eyebrow if the College had thrown in the towel 10 years after its founding and gone the way of the Monrovia College for Young Ladies. But the trustees--Cathie Selleck's grandfather among them--were made of sterner stuff. They scraped together enough money--accepting gifts as low as a nickel--to buy a plot of land in Highland Park. When a reporter asked if the College had any endowment, the answer came back: "Endowment? Bless you, our one building is not yet paid for! Nevertheless hope and good courage beam from every eye." Clearly, persistence is no mean feat.
But sheer persistence isn't enough. For institutions to matter, they must inspire loyalty and affection; they must come to symbolize something higher, better, of longer duration than our own lives, something worthy of sacrifice. "It is, Sir, but a small college. And yet there are those of us who love it," Daniel Webster famously observed about his own alma mater. All of us gathered here today feel the same way about our beloved Occidental.
How else can we account for the devotion of people who have given their lives and wealth to the institution? People like John Willis Baer, Myron Hunt, William Stewart Young, Alphonzo Bell, Remsen Bird, Mary Clapp, Beatrix Farrand, Robert Glass Cleland, Arthur Coons, Jean Paule, Ben Culley, Glenn Dumke, Howard Swan, Payton Jordan, Richard Gilman, Clancy Morrison, Omar Paxson, Bob Ryf, John Slaughter, Robert Winter. And that devotion lives on today through the stunning commitment of people too numerous to name, many of whom are with us here tonight. To be worthy of that kind of devotion--a life-consuming devotion--is a rare thing. And it is to be treasured, husbanded, and never, ever taken for granted.
If Occidental inspires loyalty, it also elicits memories. And not just any memories. Aside from our families, one would be hard pressed to think of a single place where so much of what matters to us is clarified and defined. Occidental is the place where many of us made life-long friends, established foundations for a career, developed the interests and passions that bring joy to our lives, and (if we were lucky), it is also the place where we met our spouses and partners!
Listen to some of the stories that have been told to me since I arrived at Occidental College three years ago:
"I met him for the first time at a party that the junior men put on for first-year women. He asked me to dance and then changed his mind right in the middle of the dance floor. Needless to say, I wasn't very impressed. . . ." She married him anyway. That was Ann Hinchliffe.
"I would run from football practice to the Glee Club. I didn't have time to shower or eat. It didn't matter. I couldn't wait to get to Bird Studio. Howard Swan would be up on the stage, waiting impatiently for us to arrive . . . . The sounds he elicited from us were breathtaking. Ethereal. I have never been able to sing like that before or since." (Dudley Frank)
"We were playing poker in Swan Hall. It was midnight. And who should walk in but the dean, Ben Culley. . . . Everyone froze. Culley didn't say a word. He just walked around the table very slowly. We didn't know what to do. So we resumed playing. . . . After the hand was finished, Culley leaned over my shoulder and whispered, "Never bluff when there are more than two players at the table. It is easier to convince one person to fold than it is to convince three or four. That's a fool's game." (Anonymous)
"Every year we would get engraved invitations from the dean of women asking us to come for a formal tea. The discussion was devoted to burning questions like whether or not women should wear their tennis clothes off the court and whether they should wear jewelry on the court. . . . Five year's later, my sister was at Occidental. I asked her if she had met the dean. 'Met the dean?' she said. 'We just staged a sit-in in her office!'" (Cathy Pepe '64)
"It was around that time that I got involved in the divestment campaign. It had started as something of a lark, I suppose, part of the radical pose my friends and I sought to maintain. . . . But as the months passed and I found myself drawn into a larger role--contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to the faculty, printing up flyers, arguing strategy--I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind, but words that could carry a message, support an idea." (Barack Obama '83)
"I was a Persian immigrant. My parents had emigrated--escaped really--from Iran. I didn't know much about higher education in the United States. Someone told me about a college named Occidental. I looked it up on an AAA map and drove there the same day. I walked into the admissions office and met Charlene Liebau, the dean of admissions. She told me that the deadline for fall enrollment was long past. I told her my predicament. She invited me into her office and interviewed me on the spot. The next thing I knew, I was admitted."( Saroosh Shambiyati '86)
And finally, this from Eric Homlin '93: "Occidental believed in me, before I believed in myself."
So there it is: Love discovered, intellectual passions awakened, the wideness of the world revealed, gambling skills sharpened. One could go on and on with stories like these. They sustain us. Warm us. They remind us that our lives, our intellectual passions, and the people that matter most to us were all bound together here--in this very special place. And when those memories fade--as they surely will--Occidental will be sustained by countless other stories of discovery, accomplishment, love and pleasure. All of it enacted again and again within the confines of this very precious campus. That is an extraordinary thing. And it helps explain the devotion I alluded to earlier.
But that's not all. If Oxy were only a repository of memory it would be little more than a scrapbook. It lives on in our imaginations in part because it stands for something important in the world, far in excess of its size. By that I do not mean that we have received the attention of the world--although we have hosted visits from two presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft), and very much hope for a visit from a third!--as well as great civic leaders (like Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu), and great artists (like Robert Frost, Ansel Adams and recently, Christo).
One might measure our importance by the great alumni we have produced: In addition to the many distinguished alumni who are with us here tonight, Occidental educated one of America's greatest poets (Robinson Jeffers 1905); one of the principal authors of the Bretton Woods Accords, which created the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and set the terms for international cooperation after World War II (John Parke Young '17); the author of the California Master Plan, which created the Cal State University system to provide access to higher education for California's burgeoning population (Arthur Coons '20); one of California's leading labor organizers, who brought dignity and a living wage to the state's agricultural workers (Ernesto Galarza '27); and one of the country's most distinguished printers, a book designer, bibliophile and author of dozens of books (Ward Ritchie '28). Since I have a captive audience, I'd like to read one of them to you now. Don't worry. It is very short--just 39 words. Ritchie wrote it for his 7-year-old daughter, and it goes like this: "Once upon a time, a pig named Snoot got tired of life in a pen, so he decided to run away. But where would the little pig run to? So he thought he would stay at home. The End." . . . But I digress. . . . I could name dozens of other accomplished alumni: Sammy Lee '43, winner of two Olympic gold medals, who is here with us tonight; Robert Finch '47, Richard Nixon's secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare; Jack Kemp '57; and Barack Obama, president of the United States. But even this list of accomplished alumni fails to capture just why Occidental matters, why it elicits such devotion and loyalty.
If Occidental matters, it matters because of the transformational impact it has had on the lives of its graduates: 20,000 living alumni and many more that preceded them. It matters because it is a place where generations of young people develop their intellectual capacities and passions, and prepare the foundation for their accomplishments and careers. 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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson described it this way: "The intellect is vagabond and our system of education fosters restlessness." Restlessness? That's an odd word. What could he possibly mean? By restlessness Emerson is pointing us not just to the essence of a liberal arts education, but to what it means to be alive: open to the world, questioning received opinion, making choices that define who we are as human beings. Restlessness. . . If Occidental's system of education fosters restlessness, it has done so not just for one or two exceptional people, but for everyone who has had the good fortune to attend. . . . And so I salute you, Occidental alumni, vagabonds all!
The 125th anniversary of Occidental College has provided us not just with an opportunity to look back over where we have been, but it has given us a memorable occasion to come together in discussion over a shared vision of our future. I said in my inaugural speech that what Occidental most needed was "a grounded sense of vision." Well, here it is:
Simply put: Occidental College will be recognized as the most distinctive urban liberal arts college in the country. By that I do not mean we are a liberal arts college that happens to be located in a city; rather, I mean that our location in Los Angeles provides us with unmatched cultural and natural resources. This city is one of the most dynamic metropolitan environments in the world. 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 must take advantage of our location by turning the city into an "open-air laboratory" and an object of study; as well as by providing our students with internships that lead to successful careers; and access to the leading artists, activists, scientists, politicians and business leaders who work here.
Los Angeles is the starting point for our aspirations, but it is by no means the end point. 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 will begin by creating a cosmopolitan environment on campus inspired by the city in which we live; a campus where diverse backgrounds, interests and ideas are welcome; acquaintance with other cultures is the norm; where international students are actively recruited and opportunities for study abroad, international internships and exchanges are readily available. Every student who graduates from Occidental will be prepared to take on their responsibilities as "citizens of the world," skilled at negotiating its complexities, eclectic in their interests and tastes.
We have big ambitions, but we believe that our small size gives us a distinct advantage in our efforts to achieve our goals. We are a school of roughly 2,000 students, and we intend to remain that way. As one of Occidental's great presidents--Remsen Bird--once observed, "we are small by choice, not by chance." Our size allows us to create an intimate community of dedicated faculty, staff and students, which provides a distinct counterpoint to the vastness and complexity of the urban landscape and the global concerns we seek to address. Toward that end, we believe in the value of residential education. That means we care about what happens outside the classroom almost as much as we care about what happens inside it. We do not warehouse our students in dormitories as many universities do; instead, we create a purposeful environment in which we help our students negotiate the challenging transformation from late adolescence into adulthood. Or to put it more strongly, we seek no less than to help them on the path to maturity as ethical human beings alive to their responsibilities to themselves and others. In order to do this, Occidental must set the standard as one of the best residential colleges in the country.
Occidental's small community is also distinguished by its remarkable inclusivity. We are a school that has embraced families over several generations. It is not uncommon for students to follow in the footsteps of cousins, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who attended Occidental. At least two families boast over 50 graduates; there are dozens more in the double digits. At the same time, we are a school where many students are the very first in their families to go to College. As such, Occidental remains what it has always been: one of those precious few institutions in American life that serves each rising generation of citizens as the primary vehicle for upward mobility--a mobility that is at the heart of the American Dream. Few schools can match our commitment to talented students with modest means; and those handful that do, have done so with endowments four times the size of our own. Competing at this level has required Occidental to make some sacrifices. Less than a third of our scholarship dollars come from endowment; the rest comes from the operating budget. That's money we did not spend on faculty salaries or shiny new facilities. But we have made those sacrifices willingly and even joyfully, because we are committed to making the fruits of a first-class education available not just to the privileged few, but to the talented many. In order to sustain this commitment, we must make scholarships the absolute highest priority of our fundraising efforts.
Finally and most importantly, 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 must reinvigorate our curriculum; make the case for the importance of the liberal arts to prospective parents and the public at large; define the skills and qualities of mind that we want our students to possess when they graduate. It is easy to say that we want to cultivate students who can think critically, write and communicate effectively; students who are curious, open to new ideas, quantitatively literate, with a broad exposure to the arts and the experimental method in the sciences. Every college makes some version of that claim. We need to demonstrate that this is the "value added" of an Occidental education. And where we cannot demonstrate that, we need to rethink the way in which we are educating our students. Our goal is to produce graduates who are sought after for their ability to analyze and synthesize complex material, their tolerance for ambiguity, their capacity to assess and choose among compelling arguments. These habits of mind comprise the essence of a liberal arts education, and they are the foundation not only for successful careers, but for successful lives.
That kind of 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.
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, I believe we have a historic opportunity to make Occidental one of the most distinctive colleges in the United States. But that requires the help of everyone: faculty, alumni, trustees, parents, staff, students, and the people gathered here tonight. I welcome your help and advice as we rededicate ourselves to lifting up this great institution--which means so much to all of us--on the occasion of our 125th anniversary.
- Phone: (323) 259-2691
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