Environmental Scan

In the initial phase of the ISP, between October 2021-January 2022, the Steering Committee conducted an environmental scan to better understand the context for planning.

This phase consisted of existing institutional data, external reviews of the higher education landscape and an extensive series of community input sessions.

Community Input sessions were held in person and virtually during the month of November. Participants were also able to submit individual input forms online. In total, the Steering Committee conducted 26 group sessions and heard from over 600 individuals including students (183), staff (171), faculty (41), alumni (171), and parents (37). Dedicated input sessions were also held with the Board of Trustees and the alumni Board of Governors. Questions covered topics such as academics, the student experience, JEID (Justice, Equity, Inclusion and Diversity), working at Oxy, and Los Angeles - as well as open ended opportunities for community members to comment on any topic deemed relevant to college planning. 

Note: The Community Input sessions resulted in hundreds of pages of meeting notes and individually submitted forms. The Steering Committee wishes to publicly thank Jacob Sargent and Allie Gordon for helping to organize and synthesize the raw data from these sessions. 

In December and January, the steering committee reviewed and synthesized information from the various parts of the environmental scan. The team ultimately was able to consolidate the findings from this phase into eleven key conclusions or implications for the plan.

WHAT WE FOUND: KEY FINDINGS & IMPLICATIONS FOR THE PLAN

Key Issues to Address:

  1. Addressing long-term financial health
  2. Ensuring the academic program meets future needs, and maintains innovation and excellence
  3. Fully realizing the Oxy-Los Angeles connections in all ways (career, community, arts, academic, student life)
  4. Enhancing the holistic student experience and sense of belonging
  5. Maintaining (and upgrading) campus infrastructure
  6. Utilizing a JEID (Justice, Equity, Inclusion & Diversity) “lens” to address specific issues and the ISP as a whole
  7. Clarifying Oxy’s value proposition in an increasingly competitive environment
  8. Preparing students for life after Oxy
  9. Assessing the pandemic: short- and long-term impacts
  10. Attracting and retaining excellent faculty & staff
  11. Strengthening Oxy's sustainability commitments

Issues/Implications:

  1. Addressing long term financial health

Issue: While the College is financially on solid footing, the pressures on the financial model over the next decade will only increase.

Implication: The plan must explicitly reflect and address the financial state of the College and explore paths to create increased financial flexibility given our aspirations.  A range of topics could be explored in this area, ranging from new revenue streams, strategies to more rapidly grow the donor pool and increase fundraising, and/or expense reductions. 

  1. Ensuring the academic program meets future needs, and maintains innovation and excellence

Issue: What new harmonies in our academic program can we create and reaffirm to foster dynamic, critical, and relevant teaching and learning?  How do we maintain and deepen academic excellence at Oxy? How do we employ experiential learning? How can we build on our interdisciplinarity and team teaching? What resources are necessary to support our academic programs in a way that is sustainable for faculty and staff? 

Implication: Every liberal arts college aspires to academic excellence, so what distinguishes Occidental’s academic program?  One potential area for development are aspects of the curriculum that all students share in common, such as the first year program. In addition, Oxy’s dynamic faculty have great interest in interdisciplinary teaching, immersive semesters and other collaborative ventures, yet faculty do not always have the capacity in time and resources to create these innovations.  Any attention to the academic program must take account of faculty workload and other resource issues.   

  1. Fully realizing Oxy-Los Angeles connections

Issue: Without question, Los Angeles is one of our most distinct advantages - as virtually no other residential liberal arts college of our caliber can claim to be situated so centrally in a city of this global magnitude. Yet, as with many topics, LA means different things to different people.

Implication: The plan must articulate and deliver on what we want the Oxy’s connection to Los Angeles to mean. The nascent LA center is an important start to centralizing/consolidating/coordinating some of our existing engagements with Los Angeles. Beyond this first important step, the plan should provide clarity about what LA engagement we will prioritize. Possibilities include community engaged learning, internships, career opportunities, capitalizing on LA social and cultural opportunities, engagement with LA institutions in the public, nonprofit, and private sector, etc. (Oxy also needs to explore ways to support students’ ability to easily access the city and the opportunities afforded within.)

  1. Enhancing the holistic student experience and sense of belonging

Issue: Regarding the student experience, students expressed frustration with many areas, but also offered a host of ideas about how to improve their overall experience.

Implication: As an undergraduate institution, Occidental exists for our students. The plan must sort through all of the data and feedback and map out which aspects of the student experience need the most attention. This could cover many areas - from mental health and well being, advising, facilities, programming, and more. What strategies will best enable us to develop a culture of care? How do we become an exemplar on student belonging and community for other schools? What stands out about the Oxy student experience and how do we maintain this? 

  1. Maintaining and upgrading campus infrastucture

Issue: The environmental scan identified numerous gaps in the College’s “infrastructure” in the broadest sense - from aging physical infrastructure to numerous operational and process improvement opportunities in order to better support the way we serve students and work day to day.

Implication: More than just short-term operational needs, it would seem that it will be a challenge to successfully implement long term strategy and vision without having a strong base to work from. In conjunction with ISP efforts, senior leadership may need to initiate additional efforts to address core, short-term needs in order to get community buy-in on new, long-term initiatives. (Examples where this is in progress include the recent initiative to reimagine HR at Oxy, as well as specific operational reviews being led by the President’s office.) The ISP should focus on long-term infrastructure needs and how to fund them.

  1. Using a JEID lens to address specific issues and the ISP as a whole

Issue: Justice, equity, inclusion and diversity (JEID) themes are explicit in Oxy’s mission, and have been further amplified in President Elam’s published E&J agenda. As the agenda points out (and input sessions reaffirmed) we still have work to do to enable all to feel welcome and to thrive.

Implication: The ISP must use an E&J lens throughout, as well as articulate/prioritize specific initiatives to help operationalize and realize the three areas of focus within the E&J agenda: recruitment and retention; culture and community; teaching and learning

  1. Clarifying Oxy’s value proposition in an increasingly competitive environment

Issue:  The cost of a college education is high - and a liberal arts education, and Occidental specifically, is no exception. The cost of attendance at Oxy is well above UC institutions we compete with and essentially on par with Top 10 private schools. And, this is happening at a time nationally, when an increasing portion of the public at large is questioning the value of a college degree.

Implication: The plan must sharpen the definition of our value proposition - that is, how we specifically deliver value to students (during & after their time at Oxy). E.g. What do we do that students can’t get anywhere else? How does that make their life better? How does that give them better prospects for life after college? How do they stay engaged with Oxy as alumni? (With changing demographics over the long-term, the number of college age students is expected to decline, meaning more colleges will be engaging in “market share battles” in order to continue to attract students.)

  1. Preparing students for life after Oxy

Issue: Related to value proposition, are we doing everything we can to prepare students for life after Oxy? This is a big reason why families choose a particular college.

Implication: The ISP should consider the long-term needs and prospects for the Hameetman Career Center and other offices that work with students on postgraduate opportunities. And more broadly, what are all the ways we can help prepare students for “Life after Oxy?”.  To what extent does (or should) every faculty and staff member understand their role in supporting the student journey to this end?

  1. Assessing the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic

The pandemic impact is material and real, and is not going away any time soon. The community input sessions made clear the impact on morale, added workloads, and increased needs for students and employees. In addition to these short-term impacts, the learnings and experiences we’ve had as a result of the pandemic may also shape long-term thinking.  

Because the strategic plan is a long-term plan, it should not simply be a tactical response to a pressing current crisis. Yet, given the strategic importance of ISP (and how pervasive the pandemic impacts have been, there should be a recognition of those issues. The Steering Committee also noted that some, or many, of pandemic related issues impacting staff could be handled directly by human resources outside of the ISP.

  1. Attracting and retaining excellent faculty and staff

Issue: The cost of living in Los Angeles is a concern that came up time and time again in the input sessions.  Clearly, Los Angeles has many advantages for students, staff and faculty - but the rising cost of living in our immediate area is increasingly impacting students and Oxy employees.

Implication: The broader strategic issue this points to is a matter of how we recruit and retain our best faculty and staff. We desire to make Oxy a great place to live and work. Cost of living is one of many topics that came up related to retention. Some of these issues may have long-term solutions to be explored in the plan. There may also be near-term strategies explored by Human Resources  This could cover topics such as ensuring competitive salaries, and exploring innovative housing solutions for faculty, staff and students. 

(We should also note the student housing trend as it relates to cost of living. With Eagle Rock and Highland Park rental housing becoming more expensive, it’s tougher for juniors/seniors to live off campus - thereby putting more pressure on our limited on-campus housing stock). 

  1. Strengthening Oxy’s sustainability commitments

Issue: The desire to prioritize environmental sustainability came up from many constituencies, who voiced the issue as being a pressing priority for our time. Potential strategic questions on sustainability: How can we become carbon neutral? How can we connect what we do outside the classroom with the curriculum in our classroom? How can we connect our work on climate justice and sustainability with other JEID efforts?

Implication:  Should this be one of the key pillars of the plan or a facet of almost every pillar?  Prioritizing sustainability has implications for everything from curriculum (environmental studies that include the humanities), equity and justice (environmental justice), grounds and facilities (energy sources, water use, building climate control) and even Oxy’s investments.  Adapting more sustainable practices cost money but may also serve as a leading attraction to this generation’s applicants. (Note: In April 2022, President Elam named a separate sustainability initiative that will connect with ISP, but also extend beyond, given the importance of the initiative.)