State of the College Address


On April 8, President Harry J. Elam, Jr. reflected on the institutional challenges and achievements of the current year while providing an outlook toward the future.

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Thank you, Kitty, for that lovely introduction. At the outset, I must say what a pleasure it has been for me and the senior administrative staff to work with Kitty in her role as president of ASOC. She has simply been a superb partner and leader; always capable of expressing student concerns and advocating for their needs. So, thank you Kitty for all you have done for Occidental, especially during this uniquely challenging year.

And thank you all for joining us. It's a pleasure to welcome students, faculty and staff, and we’re so pleased that alumni and parents can also join us today. I do wish we could all be sitting together in Thorne Hall right now. Eight months into my presidency, and there are so many people that I have only ever seen on Zoom! The other day, I was walking across the campus and a student hailed me and ran up to greet me. “You are President Elam?” she asked, muffled through her mask. “Yes, I am,” I said through mine. “Wow,” she exclaimed, “I thought you only existed on my computer screen. Great to see you in 3D!” So, in case anyone has begun to doubt, I can hereby verify that I am a fully dimensional human being not a virtual bot. I look forward to the time when we are all together in 3D.

The idea for this “State of the College” address emerged early last fall at the senior staff retreat. We imagined an event that made space for reflection on all that has transpired this current academic year; a chance to take stock of where we are; and a moment to state our intentions for who and what–as a college–we aspire to be. We could not have imagined at the time just how un-business-as-usual that act of reflection, taking stock, and stating intention would be. Together we’ve been through a devastating worldwide pandemic, a highly contested, highly emotional presidential election, widespread economic pressures requiring sharp college budget cuts, and a campus with hardly any students. There is nothing more poignant than a gorgeous but empty campus yearning for its young people. We will not be returning anytime soon to our pre-2020 economic, educational or social realities, nor will we find immediately ahead a stable or predictable “new normal.” That said, all these trials have let me tell a different story of where we have been and are going, especially when I think of all the ingenuity and adaptability, the determination and grit, the care and compassion that this community has demonstrated in these trying times, I am so very encouraged.

Let me briefly recap the particular challenges we faced this year at Occidental. Going remote because of the pandemic, resulting in a sudden and steep drop in enrollment, had a substantial impact on our revenue streams and we, like so many colleges and universities, had to take definitive action to cover our shortfall. Confronting that significant and unexpected deficit, we had to make extremely difficult choices to secure the future of the College. As a result, all of our staff and faculty have endured financial sacrifices during this past fiscal year. And, with great sadness, we furloughed over 120 employees, most of whom had jobs that revolved around the presence of students on campus. We purposefully furloughed these employees rather than laying them off because we had, and have, every intention of bringing these essential community members back. We continued to contribute to their health care and provided each furloughed worker and their families with additional funding,  meals and supplies during the holidays. Additionally, staff, faculty and students set up an Employee Relief Fund to aid our furloughed employees and has raised over $150,000. So thank you for assisting our fellow community members through this generosity.

One of the hardest and most agonizing decisions we made was to discontinue football. We did so only after much deliberation. We did so with the support of the trustees, because of the acute economic pressures we endured; because the pandemic made us think deeply about priorities; and because the fiscal urgency required us to revisit the earlier review of the program. The fact that the decision was part of a much longer conversation that preceded my arrival did not make it any easier. I know the decision for some was quite painful and so I talked with and listened to hard-hit current and former players and their families. As a result of these now countless conversations, I am all the more determined to keep the storied legacy of Occidental football alive. In partnership with former players and alumni, we will enrich the Occidental Football Hall of Fame. We will invite former players back each Homecoming to celebrate together--and so we can celebrate them as well. In addition, with the collaboration of the football alumni, we hope to  build a living oral archive documenting the rich history of the sport at Occidental.

All this has also been an occasion to reaffirm our commitment to the student-athlete and to our 20 other intercollegiate sports. Athletics is a crucial part of an Oxy liberal arts tradition: a full  25% of our students play an intercollegiate sport and we aim to nourish and enhance that participation. To that end, I have charged a new Commission on Athletics, co-chaired by Athletic Director Shanda Ness and Kinesiology Professor and former Oxy athlete Marci Raney, who will work alongside current students, staff, coaches and alumni. Examining competitiveness and diversity, this commission will file its report and recommendations with Vice President of Student Affairs Rob Flot and me by the end of the spring semester.

Our student athletes are anxiously awaiting their return of athletic fields that have been restricted by the pandemic. Related to that have been the challenges of compulsory remote education, which as all of you know,  have exacerbated socio-economic inequalities. The upside, if there is one, is that the evolving difficulties of teaching and learning remotely have only reconfirmed the value of our immersive residential educational system. And I must say, Oxy students have shown remarkable adaptability and made touching sacrifices. I don’t mean to suggest it’s all rosy-resilience: people are struggling and it’s important to acknowledge that. It can be excruciating as a first-year student trying to cultivate relationships online with new classmates you’ve never met, or a senior trying to stay as connected with old friends before graduation farewells. But our students have been creative and committed, keeping campus groups and organizations active, relevant, and responsive. Across digital, emotional and social distances, they have found ways to study, to play, to create together.

Through the dedication of faculty, staff and students, Oxy’s intellectual life has continued to buzz:  For instance, students in the Campaign Semester course, while remote, still participated meaningfully in their candidate’s campaign as well as in their on campus seminar. With perseverance and ingenuity, the director and staff along with our students, made the Kahane U.N. program a great success this fall, even though they could not be physically present in New York.  For first-year students, the faculty offered a new series of Oxy Immersives that were both interdisciplinary and experiential, such as the Arts Immersive which concluded with an arts internship in L.A. The students enrolled in these experiences testified to how effectively these courses deepened the Oxy intellectual community and comradery, whatever the physical distance. These signature Oxy courses amplify traditional classroom teaching with hands-on opportunities to apply their knowledge towards real-world outcomes.  To that end, with the assistance of the Obama Advisory Council,  we are revamping the Obama Scholars Program. These modifications, we feel, will better reflect the legacy of President Obama at Occidental, enable larger cohorts of scholars and ultimately increase the prestige and visibility of the program.

Crises can breed creativity, and I must say our faculty have found new tools and new ways to deliver interactive learning. In economics and many other disciplines, professors have used hybrid or flipped classes in which video lectures are augmented by small group discussion. In the sciences as well, videos have figured prominently, as have lab kits that the faculty have mailed to students so that they could carry out the lab experiments on their own. In philosophy, the professors have constructed an online tutorial format that enables students to have one-on-one active interactions with their professors. To be sure, some of these inventive teaching formats will have staying power and will be employed even as we return to the classroom.

While it’s important in this moment to honor Oxy's intellectual inventiveness, flexibility and perseverance, the simple fact remains that we are a residential school and the ultimate goal is to be back in the classroom, back on campus, back on the fields and back in the Quad. Top of mind is strategizing in order to come together in health and safety. We recognize that even with the vaccine, the virus and its variants will still require the precaution of masks and social distancing for the foreseeable future. Following county guidelines, we have reopened athletic facilities, including the track, pool and tennis courts to our on-campus community of staff, faculty and students. Recently, we reopened the library for studying–of course following the necessary safety regulations. (I have never in my life seen a group of students so positively JOYFUL about going into a library!) I am also thrilled--yes, that’s the word, thrilled—that we will be able to host a live Commencement ceremony  for all graduating seniors and two of their family members on May 16th!

We can do this because we have been extremely diligent  in campus testing, quarantining and contact tracing. Special Assistant to the President on Health Sara Semal, along with her great team and with assistance from Dr. Kim Shriner–Oxy Class of ’80 and world renowned epidemiologist at Huntington Hospital–have done a superb job. In the fall, they established a robust testing procedure for those frontline workers and the small number of students who needed to be on campus. This spring with a few more students on campus and the rapid proliferation and relative ease of COVID testing, we have implemented a bi-weekly testing protocol for all those on campus. We will continue to test the campus community regularly as students, staff and faculty gradually return this summer and fall.

We have also become a vaccination site. We are indeed fortunate that state regulations identify anyone who works at the College as an educator and eligible early for vaccination. As eligibility expands this spring and summer, we hope to be able to extend vaccinations not only to our student body but to the surrounding communities as well. 

And as for our own far-flung alumni community? Well, in addition to memories of your own four years at Occidental, we have asked you to appreciate the living, breathing Oxy of today. We want you to still feel involved with and relevant to the institution. Driven by these desires as well as by the dangerous spread of the virus, Institutional Advancement and Alumni Affairs have purposefully shifted their approach. Virtual contact has replaced a dependence on travel. While nothing can supplant actual personal contacts, IA has found that tuning in remotely from across the country can work! Alumni still want to know about their alma mater. Accordingly, IA  organized a December traveling webinar for alumni and parents, featuring virtual stops in East, West, North and South. And you came! We reached more than 650 households! Similarly, the Board of Governors meeting this fall had one of its largest turnouts with alumni officers attending on Zoom from around the country. Other virtual campus events have drawn equally large and geographically diverse audiences: The Obama Scholars Speaker Series event in February featured an interview with President Obama's top advisor, Valerie Jarrett, and some 600 Oxy households tuned in. A new event this fall, Oxy Reads, brought the community together around a common book and 500 participants watched author (and now MacArthur award-winner) Jacqueline Woodson discussing her newest book.

Coupled with the economic downturn, this remote formula has complicated our work on The Oxy Campaign for Good and compelled us to adjust our strategies. However, most recently these efforts have started to pick up and we are nearing our annual fundraising goal. And, thanks to the generosity of so many on this webinar, we are moving ever closer to our ambitious Campaign goal of $225 million with two years left. Thank you all for your support. And now we are  eagerly anticipating the turnout for the second annual Day for Oxy on April 20th. On that day we hope to raise some two thousand and twenty one gifts and pledges to meet and hopefully surpass our previous year’s total. I know this will be an exhilarating day for the College. And so I hope you can participate!

So: as to that future I mentioned. You all are an absolutely necessary part of it. This summer initiates a process of integrated strategic planning, which hinges upon the collaboration and input from the entire Occidental community. And while this planning will operate within budgetary realities, it will be bold and brave. One of the overarching objectives is to increase the visibility and reputation of Occidental by vividly articulating and showcasing what exactly makes Oxy so uniquely special as a college and as a community--capturing the Oxy Difference.

Here are three critical questions that will shape that vision and the strategic planning process: One - How do we rethink liberal education in ways that will serve Occidental now and in the future? Given the changing demographics and charged social contexts in which higher education operates, our faculty and others elsewhere have begun considerations of how we might rethink liberal arts education—not merely as a defensive response to social or political “problems,” but in the service of a higher vision about who and how we educate. Critical now more than ever is reimagining the conventional scope of liberal arts to include practical learning and applied knowledge. Thus, rethinking liberal arts education may require fresh juxtapositions of ideas, remixing current thinking and initiatives. Such new harmonies, as I am calling this new interdisciplinarity, may call for a reinvention of relationships and interconnections across fields of inquiry, signaling not an end to disciplinary expertise but the cross-fertilization that both students and faculty seek. 

My second guiding question is: How can we expand upon Occidental’s relationship with Los Angeles? As you all know, one of things that makes Occidental unique is its location. Since coming to Occidental, I have learned of the myriad of academic, social and cultural engagements that we have going on in the city, ranging from the arts and government to the environment and the sciences. There are such dynamic possibilities for the future. But these College interactions with the city need to be honestly reciprocal not unidirectional. We want to keep asking and ultimately address, not only what can the city of Los Angeles do for Oxy but what can Occidental offer the city? How do we establish enduring and mutually beneficial relationships between the College and Los Angeles?

A third question framing our strategic planning is: How do we support the health and well-being of students today? To be sure, buffeted by the social, cultural, technological, and racial strife of this moment, students have encountered new levels of anxiety and stress. Mental health is a major concern, accentuated by the pandemic and its isolation. Most certainly, we will need to think more holistically, with increasing focus on the integration of residential and curricular experiences, recognizing that so much learning happens outside of the classroom. We know that our students, regardless of whatever field they enter, want to make an impact in the world but we also want them to take care of themselves in order to do the work they want to do. We must continue to look for ways to support and encourage this worthwhile quest, which is really a yoking of both personal and professional aspirations.

This third question--well-being of self and others--is also key to the Equity and Justice Agenda, which all of you recently received. We envision a College where equity and justice are intertwined with academic excellence and recognized as core institutional tenets that inform how we actualize the mission of the College. The College’s pursuit of equity and justice is not defined by a fixed outcome or destination, but is a continuous process involving the whole community. This is no idle, abstract or political aim: we will move expeditiously to enhance and maintain an Occidental campus community where every student, staff and faculty member recognizes that they are seen, that their interests are valued, and that they know they belong.

Knowing that our students will be coming back in the fall, we have good reason to celebrate. With the development of our integrated strategic plan, we have good reason to dream. And with your partnership and support, we have good reason to envision.  Let us embrace this critical time, and seize the opportunity contained in this profound moment in our history.

I want to close by reading you part of an uplifting letter I just received, days ago, from four graduating seniors. I was so moved by this note and so proud of their Oxy spirit, which is all the more touching because of the trials they had faced as seniors this year:

“Oxy is at its best when students are on the Quad fundraising for causes of their interest, studying for a big test together in the library, and convening in common rooms getting to know one another. Part of what makes Oxy so special is that the 'Oxy-ness' that we often speak of is not quantifiable or easily described. It’s a feeling that only comes from engaging with the community. This year has posed tremendous challenges for us all, but this feeling has never left us, because once you have felt it, it becomes like a second skin, following you from Johnson to Fowler to Newcomb to even perhaps the infamous tunnels (though we ourselves would not know!). Perhaps you’ve already begun to get this feeling but if not, we hope that once students return to campus and you can see the community engage to its full potential that you will feel just as comfortable in the blanket of 'Oxy-ness' that we have grown accustomed to over the past four years.”

I won’t try and follow that except to say may we all be embraced by that blanket of Oxy-ness!  

Thank you.