Three weeks into the Fall 2020 semester, President Elam offers an update on the status of the College.

Greetings! With the fall semester underway, I wanted to reach out to you to provide an update as to what is happening at the College. Just over two months ago, I wrote to you during my first week on the job and shared some of my initial hopes and aspirations. Despite the continued impact of COVID-19, I could not be more impressed with Oxy staff, faculty and students. My interactions affirm everything I heard about Oxy before I arrived and leave me very optimistic for our future.

There is much to be impressed with. The collaborative engagement of the greater Occidental community--administration, faculty, staff, students, trustees and alumni--informed our decision-making leading up to our fall opening. This included the expert advice and guidance of Dr. Kimberly Shriner '80, an epidemiologist at nearby Huntington Memorial Hospital. As many of you know, after much careful consideration, on July 15 we made the difficult, but correct, decision to “go remote” for this semester. As a result, not only is all of our instruction online, but our residence halls are now practically empty, with just under 100 students living on campus. As challenging as the decision was at the time, it turned out to be prescient: the following month L.A. County public health officials barred in-person instruction at all colleges and universities in the county. We will continue to watch what is happening across the country--from the campuses that have made sudden, last-minute decisions to abandon in-person instruction to the growing number of positive cases at colleges and universities that have reopened. As we move ahead, the health and safety of our community will always be our top priority.

The timing of our decision to go remote provided faculty added time to prepare their classes and to become all the more familiar with their tools for remote instruction. Dean Wendy Sternberg refers to it as a “remote from Day 1” mentality. Through summer workshops and tutorials, faculty have been able to rethink curriculum and instructional methods so that they can deliver the kind of high-touch, personalized educational experience that you would expect. One of the innovative new programs that emerged this summer is our Oxy Immersive Semester. These are multidisciplinary, team-taught courses for first-year students that combine coursework and community-based/internship components, all focused on a specific topic, including the arts in L.A., California environmental issues and computer science. Staff across the College have also worked hard and found innovative ways to support our students and our academic mission. Information Technology Services, for example, has helped more than 200 students with their computer, software and wireless access needs.

Despite our new virtual reality, Oxy students have demonstrated an impressive resiliency. Faculty members report that their students are well prepared for and engaged in their classes. Student clubs continue to recruit new members, hold events and meet online. ASOC is as busy as ever. Dance Production, the largest club on campus, is organizing a Virtual Arts Week in October to give student artists a platform to showcase their work.

Having moved into the Annenberg President's House over the Labor Day weekend, Michele and I miss the opportunities we would otherwise have to host students and other members of the campus community in our home. We would love to be able to interact with students as we walk across the Quad or grab a bite in the Marketplace. In the meantime, I meet regularly with student government and have started holding virtual open office hours for students, staff and faculty. These kinds of interactions are indicative of one of my major priorities for this coming year: conducting an active listening campaign—virtually and eventually in person--with alumni and other members of the Oxy community to hear your views, your concerns and your aspirations for the College.

While the pandemic has necessarily dominated our agenda, at the same time we are acutely aware that our country is having a long overdue reckoning with structural racism. As president, I need to make sure that we are addressing both of these issues head on as they are critical to how our students interact and learn. The Intercultural Community Center, together with the Division of Student Affairs, is leading an effort to design and implement a Black Action Plan that actively focuses on our Black students and their welfare. A Committee on Equity and Justice that includes faculty, staff, students and alumni met all summer and recently presented its report to me. We are currently discussing a number of recommended actions, one of which is to hire a permanent chief diversity officer. The national urgency around eradicating anti-Blackness and white supremacy, as well as the concerns around diversity and inclusion at the College, all compel us to begin proactively addressing these issues at Occidental this year.

A new academic year also means a new entering class of Oxy students. The Class of 2024 is richly talented, extremely bright and quite diverse, with 46% students of color, 25% underrepresented students of color, 16% first generation, and 27 different countries represented. The decision by many students and families to defer enrollment in a time of remote learning has affected enrollment, although not to the extent that many predicted.

Lower enrollment combined with the loss of most room and board revenue have resulted in a projected deficit in excess of $30 million. Years of prudent financial management enabled us to address some of the deficit through our reserves (one-time endowment) funds. In addition, I and senior staff have all taken voluntary salary cuts, and we have imposed a hiring freeze, a ban on overtime, travel, conferences and new construction, and cut departmental operating budgets. However, that alone was not enough. Most recently we announced a number of staff furloughs, reflecting the fact that there is far less work to be done without students on campus. This decision was not taken lightly. The entire campus community shares the pain of this decision and we all hope that furloughed staff can return to work at the end of the semester. A group of faculty, staff and students has championed an Employee Relief Fund to support those impacted.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is what will happen this spring. Our hope is that we can bring as many students as we safely can back to campus. Needless to say, this depends on a myriad of external conditions, including the spread of the virus, the development of therapeutics and vaccines, and guidance from state and local officials. We are purposefully and strategically planning for the spring, incorporating all that we have learned over the past year. 

Given the multiple challenges we face, your support has never been more important. To advance Occidental’s legacy, we launched The Oxy Campaign For Good, Occidental’s first fundraising campaign in 20 years. Notably, this campaign is not just about a fundraising goal. Rather, it is dedicated to community building and to reaffirming the ideal of working for the public good that is fundamental to the ethos and mission of this institution. More than this, the campaign represents a chance to bring our community together and celebrate shared values as we plot our path forward. Occidental's culture of social and civic engagement, as well as the meaningful participation of our alumni and parents, will be among the keys to Occidental's future. With your help and your partnership, we can make it through this challenging moment all the stronger and reach our fullest potential.

Wishing you the best.

President Elam

Note: For those that received this letter via email on Thursday 9/17, it has been updated to accurately reflect the diversity of the first-year class.

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