President Veitch announces the formation of a Fall 2020 Working Group to help Occidental College determine the path forward.

Dear Friends:

The entire Oxy community—faculty, students and staff—has risen to the challenge of the current crisis in an extraordinary manner. I’m deeply grateful for everything you are doing in these unprecedented circumstances. I’m humbled by your devotion to Occidental and inspired by it.

We have successfully met the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic, but there is much more that needs to be done as we look toward the future. Now is the time to formalize a shift that has already engaged senior leadership over the past few weeks. Toward that end, we must transition from meeting the needs of the existing crisis to planning for what may lie ahead in the fall. While we hope for the best, the truth is we don’t yet know when and how we will return to in-person teaching, learning and working. We need to be ready for a variety of possible public health scenarios. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s unlikely that we will be able to return to business as usual this fall. At minimum, we will be required to rethink our operations so they incorporate the necessary social distancing to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff.

That’s why today I am announcing the formation of a formal Fall 2020 Working Group to help us determine the path forward. The group will be tasked with assessing essential changes in Oxy's academic programs and other College operations that will be necessary during the 2020-21 academic year. I am asking for recommendations and a report by Friday, May 22 so that we will be prepared to make important decisions as updated guidance from state and county health officials emerges. Most colleges and universities have announced that they plan to make key decisions about the fall in the month of June and we will need to be ready to do the same in order to give Occidental families the clarity they are looking for.

Dr. Harry Elam will be a full partner throughout this process. We have conceptualized and drafted the Working Group’s scope of work together. We both plan to attend meetings of the group’s steering committee as our schedules permit. All final decisions regarding this upcoming year will only be made with his consultation and approval, as well as that of the Board of Trustees.

The Working Group will be responsible for developing a range of options for modifying College practices and procedures under scenarios ranging from a complete return of students, faculty and staff with appropriate safety measures, a delayed or staggered return, to a continued reliance on remote teaching and learning. The Group will be consulting with outside experts and reviewing best practices to ensure that its recommendations are informed by the most up-to-date thinking about a situation that continues to evolve on a daily basis.

Because of the breadth of institutional knowledge required to address the challenges in front of us, I’ve asked three senior leaders at the College to co-chair the Working Group: Dean of the College and Vice President of Academic Affairs Wendy Sternberg; Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein; and Vice President of Communications and Institutional Initiatives Marty Sharkey.

The question of how we deliver our academic program is critical and Wendy and the academic affairs team will be working closely with faculty in assessing how we can best accomplish this.  Amos will help us address the equally complex issue of how to sustain the academic program in a time of great financial uncertainty. Marty has chaired the College’s COVID-19 Coordinating Task Force and I’ve asked him to deploy his exemplary organizational skills and strategic acumen to help the Working Group address a multi-variable and highly fluid situation.

Wendy, Amos and Marty will head a steering committee that will also include Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot; Vice President for Information Technology Services and Chief Information Officer James Uhrich;  Associate Vice President of Institutional Planning Kristi Allen; Associate Dean for Student Affairs Caro Brighouse; Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs Ron Buckmire; Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs Salvador Fernandez; Senior Director of Student Wellness Sara Semal; and four faculty membersFaculty Council President John Lang, Brian Kim, Brandon Lehr, and Carmel Levitan.

The steering committee will direct a number of focused subgroups which will include a representative selection of experts and key stakeholders from across the community, including students where appropriate. Steering committee members will be participants (and in some cases leading) relevant subgroups which will be formed in the days to come. The groups include:

  • Academic Program & Calendar
  • Technology & Remote Operations 
  • Student Life, Support, and Operations
  • Health, Safety & Hygiene
  • Financial Planning 
  • Student Yield & Retention
  • Special Initiatives

The first meeting of the steering committee will be this Wednesday, April 29. We will provide a summary of the working group findings once the work is finished.

We need to be realistic as we take on this task. We face a short deadline, high stakes, and hence we will need to move quickly and decisively.  Even in the best case scenario, we will encounter some very difficult circumstances. But I believe there are good reasons for optimism. We will get through this without compromising our academic excellence, our responsibility to future generations or the values of our community.

President Veitch