Dear Occidental Community:
My warmest greetings!
It is with much anticipation, excitement, as well as a solemnity of purpose that I begin today as your 16th president. When the Trustees offered me and I accepted the presidency back in early February, we found ourselves in a very different cultural space and time: The spread of the coronavirus had not yet demanded that we shelter in place; the majority of our students were just beginning the spring semester and were housed on campus; and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were still alive. Since then so much has changed. Fear and uncertainty around the pandemic have dislocated daily life. The inequalities in health care, education, and policing have all become more starkly undeniable. Black and Brown people are dying from the virus at alarming rates, at the same time that multiracial and multigenerational protests demanding an end to racial injustice are sweeping this country and the world.
I recognize that I enter this presidency in a time of palpable urgency. Like so many of you, I feel deep outrage as history has repeated itself with another unnecessary black death at the hands of white law enforcement. Still, over the course of my transition to Occidental, I have also felt an increasingly dynamic sense of hope that this time might actually be different, that we can make this time different, and that Oxy can be part of that difference. As I meet with students, staff, faculty and alumni, I find myself deeply affirmed in the belief that Occidental as a college and a community can not only weather this storm, but that we can rise together because of it. Occidental has a particular power in academe and the world to do good and in this effort, we all must hold each other to account.
Accordingly, we must find ways to help stem the tide of systemic racism, including how it impacts our own campus. And so, it was heartening to read the statements made by so many of the departments across the College not only decrying racial violence but also acknowledging their respective disciplines’ complicity in institutional racism. Clearly, the desire for social justice is not tangential to – but rather a key component of – our College’s mission and values.
Now is the time to build on these messages and turn them into action by advocating for and establishing diversity not just as a principle, but as an explicit and intentional Oxy practice. Together, we can collaborate on defining and implementing strategies that will not only increase the number of faculty, staff and students of color, but impact the campus culture, academic life and community engagement. We want all not simply to belong but to thrive. Occidental can and should be a leader in how we understand and achieve access and equity in and through a liberal arts education.
We also must take decisive action in protecting the health and well-being of our community, as students, staff and faculty return in the fall. Importantly, this includes not only our physical but also our emotional and mental well-being. In re-opening this fall, it will be essential for all of us to demonstrate--indeed, nourish--social responsibility to create a “culture of care.” This will mean respecting the need for everyone to wear masks and to partake in the daily temperature and health checks, even while respecting each other’s difference. In addition to these necessary health and safety practices, I wholeheartedly expect that Oxy students will discover creative ways to socialize while maintaining social distance. Coming together as a community will prove crucial to our ability to protect the health and well-being of not only students but also faculty, staff, and all those beyond who will be impacted by our choices and practices on campus. I pledge that, all along the way, we will communicate with you and seek your input in order that you can be informed and engaged, while we continue our vigilance in monitoring the COVID-19 conditions in our region, around the country and the world.
Beyond the immediate demands of health and safety, one of my first efforts this coming year will be to embark on an active listening campaign so I can personally meet with the entire Occidental community in both one-on-one and small-group gatherings to hear your views, your concerns and your aspirations for yourselves and for the College. We will not let the demands of the present limit us; they should inspire us. With your help and your partnership, I am so very eager to get started.
My wife, Michele, and I are very excited to move into the Annenberg President’s House on campus as soon as it is ready, and to become a part of the Oxy community.
All the best,
Harry J. Elam, Jr.