This Equity and Justice Agenda, sent by President Elam to the campus community on March 29, outlines a series of initiatives to support the College’s goal to develop and maintain an educational environment in which all students, staff and faculty are welcomed and valued, where they can belong, thrive and excel.
With the worldwide reactions and protests set off by the tragic death of George Floyd last year, the subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has only further exacerbated the racial divide, the country, as a whole, has been called to reassess its racial practices and historic struggles with anti-blackness. In addition, the rise in anti-Asian violence in Atlanta and across the country, the anti-Semitism and white nationalism on display in the attempted January 6 coup at the capitol building, all have demonstrated the deep fissures present within American society today. As a result, there has perhaps never been a more critical time for Occidental to examine issues of justice and equity and to address the injustices that can exist in our own community and beyond. Emerging out of the coronavirus crisis and looking toward the future of the College, our ability to achieve and maintain academic excellence will depend on our embracing diversity of all kinds and developing an educational environment conducive to the success of each and every student, regardless of their backgrounds, their beliefs, or how they choose to identify.
To be sure, equity and justice have been central to Oxy's official mission for more than 40 years, and have formed important strands of the College's history for much longer. Still, like so many other American institutions, Occidental’s history with racial justice issues is a complex one, with the College not always on the side of promoting equality. It is important to recognize this history as we strive to make Occidental not only a national leader in liberal arts education, but a more equitable and just place. We want Occidental to be a place that develops students who can, and will, change the world in a myriad of ways; who are committed to functioning as concerned and engaged global citizens; and who can negotiate difference and appreciate diversity in all its dimensions.
Many of you, both on and off campus, have been working diligently to champion equity and justice. Some of our alumni, who as students during the 1960s, urged the College to diversify its student body, faculty and curriculum, rightly feel proud of their pioneering role. Notably, this tradition of advocacy has continued. Recently, through the concerted efforts of many, we have taken some important steps, including departmental status, new faculty positions and an endowed chair for Black Studies. We hope to have our new vice president for equity and justice and chief diversity officer (VPEJ/CDO) on board by this summer. But there remains work to be done if the College is to live and practice its mission.
Given the urgency of the moment and the centrality of equity and justice to Oxy's mission, we have a special responsibility to confront these issues. We do so with the commitment not only to strengthening the College but with the firm belief that this agenda and its implementation can have an even broader impact. By integrating excellence in teaching and learning with a plan for achieving equity and justice, we will serve as an exemplar of a dynamic liberal arts education that productively conjoins empathetic understanding, social practice and critical thinking.
“An Equity & Justice Agenda”
Having the support of the Board of Trustees, the implementation of this Equity and Justice Agenda will be a priority for the College.
Purposefully, this is a living, aspirational document. It is not meant to be proscriptive or final, but evolving. Effective solutions will require the collective efforts of our entire community. Time frames will vary. In some areas, initial plans are already underway. With others, implementation will be more complex or may require more discussion and a broader consensus. To be sure, key elements within this agenda will require additional financial support. Some of this will need to come from our existing budget and by earmarking these projects as budgetary priorities. Others will require fundraising. For this reason, we will create and publicize an Equity and Justice fundraising initiative as part of The Oxy Campaign For Good.
The initial work on this Equity and Justice Agenda will be coordinated through the two Special Assistants to the President on Equity and Justice, Jacob Sargent and Chris Arguedas, who are charged with shepherding this document in its initial phase and taking inventory of Equity and Justice initiatives that are already underway on the campus. Ultimately, we will turn the leadership of this effort over to our VPEJ/CDO. Still, I want to emphasize that this will not be the work of one individual or one group but is the work of the campus community as a whole.
This document will lead to an Equity and Justice Strategic Plan that will be a critical component of the upcoming overall strategic planning effort for the College and will help guide the work of the VPEJ/CDO. Accordingly, this agenda seeks to identify “action items'' on which the College can take definitive, and possibly immediate, steps. We will move strategically and expeditiously to create and maintain the conditions at Occidental where every student, staff and faculty member recognizes that they are seen, that their interests are valued, and that they know they belong.
Why “Equity and Justice”? Toward a Shared Definition
In order to work collectively on this Agenda, we need to share a common language, so that there is common understanding of what we hope to accomplish.
Equity, in this context, fundamentally concerns doctrines of fairness, and also entails recognizing that everyone is not starting at the same point. Effective, tailored strategies must be utilized to support individuals and groups in order for them to succeed and flourish within our academic and social communities.
Accordingly, achieving equity here at Occidental requires more than creating a diverse student body, hiring more faculty of color or ensuring just equal opportunity and access. Rather, realizing equity necessitates active and affirmative consideration of the resources necessary for amelioration of the challenges, pressures and problems that under-represented or under-resourced groups face. It also means purposefully recognizing and empowering the distinct efforts and diverse contributions of all the various members of our community.
Justice results from the practical implementation of equitable principles. Thus, when “doing justice,” we insist that everyone’s ideas are taken seriously, especially from those who are not in the majority. Commitment to justice demands additional effort to duly consider the interests and well-being of all our people. Justice requires creating a system that ensures that our community goes beyond mere access to means, benefits, experiences and academic services. We must conscientiously analyze and, when necessary, potentially change policies and procedures to make sure their application does not have unwarranted or disparate harmful impact.
Clearly, equity and justice are fundamental to a sustainable democracy and to the mission of the College. This conjoining of equity and justice foregrounds our proactive efforts to ensure equitable treatment, to practice a culture of care, to recognize and correct injustices that have historically existed or continue to persist. To that end, Occidental’s commitment to equity and justice acknowledges the College’s history, its current institutional climate, as well as its aspirations for a productive and harmonious future. 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.
An Agenda for Equity & Justice at Occidental College
To develop and maintain an educational environment at Occidental in which all students, staff and faculty are welcomed and valued, where they can belong, thrive and excel.
We envision a College where Equity and Justice are:
- Intertwined with academic excellence.
- Infused into the everyday work and lives of faculty, staff and students.
- Recognized as core institutional tenets that inform how we actualize the mission of the College and impact how we determine a vision for the College’s future.
- Encouraged through mutually beneficial partnerships in and with the city of Los Angeles and surrounding communities.
- Promoted and sustained by the Administration of the College, as its leadership on these issues is vital.
Structure for this Agenda
This Agenda for Equity and Justice consist of three sections, each with a number of objectives that we intend to develop and sustain. They are: Recruitment and Retention, Culture and Community, Teaching and Learning. The Agenda for Equity and Justice will point out areas of concern in each of these. To the extent possible, we will produce dashboards and data in each of these areas so that we can communicate transparently how we are doing, assess what is going well and determine where we clearly need to do better.
Areas of Focus
Recruitment & Retention
Increased representation at every level of the College, from the Board of Trustees down, is essential to our academic goals. Systems of support must be in place to ensure that once here, Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and other underrepresented groups can thrive.
- Increasing the Diversity of the Board of Trustees: This initiative recognizes the key leadership role of the Board and the significance of the Board’s commitment to Equity and Justice as part of the College’s overall mission. The Board now includes a subcommittee of the Nominating and Governance Committee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) that purposefully will consider these issues and their fundamental importance to the future of the institution. This group's recommendations will be incorporated into the on-going recruitment and retention of a diverse and qualified group of Trustees.
- Increasing Faculty Diversity: We will identify and recruit the top faculty in each field and we understand that diversity and excellence go hand-in-hands. Because of the upcoming number of retirements and resultant searches, Occidental will have the great opportunity to add superb, talented and diverse faculty, representing diversity of all kinds including diversity of thought. Multiple strategies will be required across disciplines to recruit additional faculty of color and more underrepresented faculty. This will necessitate new recruitment strategies and continued efforts to reduce bias in search committees.
- Faculty Retention: Improving our ability to retain our excellent faculty, including Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) faculty will necessitate making sure that Oxy is an environment conducive to their scholarship and their cultural life. It also means ensuring that the workload and balance between service, research and teaching is productively maintained.
- Increasing and Maintaining Student Diversity: Oxy has a diverse study body, but we can do even more in terms of recruiting underrepresented students, first generation students and students from middle- and lower-income backgrounds. Efforts in this area include increasing available financial aid by raising additional scholarship endowment (one of the key priorities in The Oxy Campaign For Good), to exploring new tactics to identify, recruit and yield students. This effort will require the involvement of current students, faculty, staff and alumni.
- Enabling Student Retention & Support: Recruiting a diverse student body is only a first step; creating a culture of care that provides effective support for all students throughout their four years at Oxy is essential. And as data indicates, marginalized students may need additional support.
- Recruiting a Diverse Staff: Staff play a critical and sometimes underrecognized role at the College. Taken as a whole, Oxy’s staff is quite diverse. Yet we need to ensure that diversity and representation exist across departments and levels, including supervisory and senior/department leaders.
- Retaining a Diverse Staff: Many staff at Occidental have been here for 10, 20 and even 30 years. Yet we still need efforts to make sure we retain our diverse staff at all levels and that all staff feel that there are opportunities for advancement and professional development. We will undertake a staff survey on climate to better understand the concerns of the staff community.
Culture & Community
Creating a campus climate where all members know that they are welcome and belong. Creating an environment where we openly discuss difficult issues, respect differences, identify and understand privilege and its implications.
- Developing Community Conversations, Documenting History and Creating Brave Spaces: We will develop occasions on campus for students, staff and faculty to discuss difficult issues with respect and appreciation of difference. This includes maintaining our commitment to free speech. We also will encourage projects that archive and build on our history even as we point towards the future. Spaces where groups can gather and celebrate community, where students feel a sense of support are needed. As the most visible of those spaces, the Intercultural Community Center requires additional support to manage its growing reach.
- Campus Safety: Though Occidental’s Campus Safety team is not a sworn police force, the national conversation on policing has only magnified our commitment to examining the interaction between community members and Campus Safety. We will explore opportunities to improve the way in which Campus Safety serves the campus community, as well as ways we can develop and maintain stronger relationships between officers and community members. This will involve a continued, active role of the Campus Safety Advisory Committee.
- Increasing Focus on Mental Health: Ensuring mental health support for all our students is crucial to foster community and belonging. Establishing such programming with attention to a critical lens of equity and justice recognizes and responds to the fact that issues of depression and anxiety have disproportionately impacted students of color and first generation and low-income students.
- Promoting Diversity in Athletics: Athletics is an integral part of the student experience. This semester we launched the Occidental College Commission on Athletics (OCCA) to explore issues of diversity and competitiveness within athletics. In addition, Title IX and gender balance will be critical elements in the Commission’s review.
- Providing Ongoing and Emergency Financial Support Structures: Unfortunately, financial aid is not sufficient to cover every student’s personal financial needs and this can impact a student’s sense of belonging and community. Two donor-supported initiatives are in development and represent a promising start in this area: an Opportunity Aid Fund for students from low-income backgrounds, and the African American and Underrepresented Student Success Fund (AAUSS) led by the Black Alumni Organization. The AAUSS provides funding to support the academic and life success of African American and underrepresented students.
- Fortifying the Residential Experience and Continuing Themed Living Communities: Themed Living Communities (TLCs) are an important component of the residential experience at Occidental. LGBTQ+, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander students and students interested in substance-free living have all benefited from TLCs that promote not separation but belonging and community. TLCs are not closed spaces but open to anyone who wants to participate in the theme. We are currently exploring the creation of a new Black TLC and others.
- Connecting Alumni Affinity Groups with the College and Current Students: Already there is significant energy for, and support from, alumni affinity groups. Alumni have asked, “How can I help?” Correspondingly, students want to connect with alumni for professional networking or for mentorship from members of a similar affinity group who can share guidance and support. The College can nurture and facilitate these connections.
Teaching & Learning
Developing and maintaining classrooms where every student as well as every faculty member feels comfortable and able to their best work. Every student should have access to every major at Oxy.
- Equity & Justice Curricular Review: How does our overall curriculum provide students with a grounding in equity and justice? Departments are already considering, or will consider, not only how they can address racism within their curriculums and major requirements but also how issues of difference and diversity function within their discipline.
- Maintaining Inclusive Classrooms: We must make sure that each classroom is inclusive and open to any student regardless of race, gender identity, sexuality, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, political ideology, immigration status or whether they are differently abled. Faculty, as well as students, need to believe that the classroom is a brave and open intellectual space. The work of the Center for Teaching Excellence will be vital in this area, and we will incorporate learning from the ASOC Diversity and Equity Board's Comprehensive Study and the DEB Equity Checklist.
- Supporting the First Gen Experience: Students who are the first in their family to attend college often need additional support structures. A First Gen Coalition of staff and faculty has been created to advise and work with first gen students. However, we must explore ways to increase attention in this area through staffing and/or additional resources.
- Supporting Equitable Technology Access: Major inequities in technological access affects student learning and skill building in digital fluencies. The long-term solution will involve exploration of open access resources and accounting for other additional support for software and online resources in financial aid.
- Cultivating Science Equity: The introductory science sequence has been a place where BIPOC, first gen and students from under-resourced high schools struggle. There are multiple ongoing initiatives in this area that need support. Currently, a group of students who are STEM majors of color is working with natural science faculty to develop such a program. We need to examine to what extent we can amplify existing efforts and/or invest in additional programs to assist students in pursuing STEM majors.
- Bias Training & Professional Development: There is a need for ongoing professional development and education for faculty, staff, students, and trustees related to equity and justice. The content and focus of such a program, however, would vary depending on the needs of a particular group. This will enable us to be able to negotiate differences, to develop a climate of mutual respect, and to practice empathy.
- Developing an LA Compact: Our location in LA, a city of dynamic diversity, encourages us to develop mutually beneficial relationships with and experiential learning opportunities in the city. This includes further development in our Upward Bound, Neighborhood Partnership and InternLA Programs.