Occidental's liberal arts mission has been shaped by presidents, professors, protests, and progress. We look back at a dozen milestone movements
"Liberal arts institutions like Oxy face the perpetual challenge of having to reconcile tradition and change," President Jonathan Veitch says. "On the one hand, we need to preserve what Matthew Arnold famously described as 'the best which has been thought and said' in the world. At the same time, we have to make sure that we have courses that equip our students to be successful in a dynamic and changing society." Such has been the case throughout Occidental's 125-year history. The College has continuously adapted the curriculum to the demands of a changing world. While we don't pretend to highlight every milestone, in the pages ahead we offer up a dozen turning points that have broadened and strengthened the Oxy educational experience.
Latin American Studies
When Latino/a and Latin American studies joins the Occidental curriculum as the College's 31st major this fall, older alumni may feel a sense of déjà vu. From 1946 to 1964, the College offered a curriculum in Latin American affairs—an interdepartmental alliance between the history, English, languages, political science, and music departments. The major reflected "the intention and desire of the College to develop as a collegiate center of teaching, study, and related research in the culture and social history of the region in which it is located," the 1951 College catalog said.
Oxy's focus on Latin America first took shape in 1923 when a $100,000 gift from Dr. Norman Bridge, Estelle Doheny (wife of oilman Edward Doheny, who made his fortune in Mexico), and trustee Herbert Wylie made historian Robert Cleland 1907 the Norman Bridge Professor of Hispanic American History. Joining the faculty that same year was Osgood Hardy, a historian of Latin America who eventually succeeded Cleland as Bridge Professor. When a standalone Latin American curriculum introduced under President Arthur G. Coons '20 after World War II disappeared in 1964, it was folded into an expanded diplomacy and world affairs program as a regional emphasis.
But two years ago, a new critical mass of faculty from 11 departments emerged with a proposal for an interdisciplinary program that focuses not only on Latin America but on the Latino experience in the United States. Once again, the intent was to take advantage of Occidental's location and the strengths of its faculty. "We believe we have put together an exciting and visionary new program that addresses a wide range of issues that exist outside our front door here in Los Angeles," says Dolores Trevizo, professor of sociology and a leader in the effort. Adds Dean Jorge Gonzalez: "When studying Latin America, it is imperative to include the millions of Latinos living inside the United States. You can't understand one without the other."—JIM TRANQUADA
Sociology was added as a department at Occidental in the 1923-24 academic year, concurrent with the arrival of George M. Day as professor of economics and sociology. Day—who worked in Russia for the YMCA from 1909 to 1917 and studied at the University of St. Petersburg in 1910—had a reputation as a liberal professor at conservative Oxy, and the first course he introduced into the curriculum was in keeping with his reputation.
Sociology 156, Race Problems, was described in the College catalog as "a study of the problems arising from racial antipathies. Questions relating to the immigration, assimilation of race, anti-alien legislation, and to Oriental problems of the Pacific Coast are treated in an effort to approach a just and helpful solution."
By the end of the 1920s, Race Problems had evolved into an analysis "of the role of race as a factor in civilization, together with a study of the problems arising from racial antipathies." The curriculum had expanded to study what was then called "the American Negro problem and the Mexican and Oriental problems in California."
A decade later, Race Problems had disappeared from the catalog, but as race relations evolved in the United States in the decades to follow, the sociology curriculum reflected those changes: Race and Minorities (introduced during the 1947-48 school year); Intercultural Relations (1953); Racism and Prejudice (1974); and courses addressing ethnic relations, gender roles, and "The Color Game" by the 1987-88 academic year. Undeterred by those wary of his "communist" agenda, Day retired in 1950 and died in 1958, comfortable that his heart was in the right place—and that Oxy was moving in the same direction.—DICK ANDERSON
In 1900, under the direction of instructor in elocution Ida Leonard, the curtain went up on the first play at Occidental. Leonard appeared alongside her students in A Box of Monkeys—a parlor farce in two acts written in 1890 by New York playwright Grace Livingston Furniss—which was embraced by theatergoers for box office receipts totaling $16.
The next couple of decades of theatrical milestones included the first junior class play (She Stoops to Conquer, 1906), the first of many Shakespearean productions (Taming of the Shrew, 1908), and the first original Oxy musical comedy (1912's The Sawdust Hero, by Ethel Ward and Alonzo Ray Petty 1914). The College formalized its dramatic curriculum in 1923 by hiring Charles F. Lindsley and establishing a speech education department. Three years later, Lindsley oversaw the formation of the Occidental Players, which staged productions at the College for 60 years.
"Drama is the stuff of life, the very age and body of the time, the channel of ideas, the mirror of man's struggle with himself and his environment," Lindsley wrote in the 1928 La Encina. "Therefore, to teach an appreciation of drama as an art form, and to reveal to the playgoer something of the deep and significant values of life, is the function of dramatic study and effort."
Omar Paxson '48 knew how to make an entrance. His role in The Hill Between—his stage debut at Occidental, in December 1946—required him to carry a 100-pound sack of potatoes onto the Thorne Hall stage at the start of the second act. Paxson prepared for the scene by carrying that same heavy sack around backstage, a Method approach that John Ingle '50 teases him about to this day.
In the 27 years since his retirement, Paxson has taken great lengths to preserve the College's stage history. He is especially proud that such a small Oxy department has produced more than its share of headliners not only on stage (Joanna Hall Gleason '72, Tom Flynn '80) but also in set design (Ming Cho Lee '53, Heidi Ettinger '73, and Charlotte Sheffield '83) and the classroom (Alan Freeman '66 M'67 and Lucy Lee '78). And while Oxy's much-loved Summer Theater program may be just a memory now—a great learning experience masquerading as fun—he's as optimistic about the future as he was carrying that potato sack 66 years ago: "The theater," Paxson declares, "is never going to die."—DICK ANDERSON
History of Civilization
At the time of their required enrollment in the course, not all students were enthusiastic about History of Civilization, due primarily to the heavy reading load and the not inconsiderable class hours. As alumni, many—if not most—consider "Civ" their greatest undergraduate experience.
Former economics professor Arthur Coons, who returned to Occidental after a five-year absence as dean of the faculty in July 1943, was tasked by the Board of Trustees with reviewing the entire academic program. His first recommendation was to reconsider the entire lower division program of required and elective study. He wanted Occidental students "to recover some of the inspiration of liberal education and of general education in the postwar period, in seeking to lay a firmer basis in knowledge and understanding of the great heritage in Western culture which is theirs."
It took five years—but in 1948, with Coons now president of Occidental, and philosophy professor Robert E. Fitch his successor as dean, the faculty voted to combine the existing lower division courses in the social sciences and humanities into one required two-year course: History of Civilization.
Programs at Columbia and Harvard universities served as guides in Oxy's planning. Harvard's 1945 report General Studies in a Free Society detailed a philosophy "to fortify the heritage of Western civilization and the need to provide a 'common learning' for all Americans as a foundation of national unity."
A key element of History of Civilization was the integration of faculty drawn from a cross-section of departments, including art, economics, English, history, music, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology at the outset. As originally structured, there were five hours of lectures a week plus an hour's discussion period in which the class was broken into small groups of approximately 15.
The success of the program depended on the "cooperative, loyal, interested professional spirit of the faculty participants," Coons said in 1950. "They have listened to and frankly criticized each other." Its impact was recognized in 1955 when the Carnegie Corp. of New York responded to Oxy's proposal for support over a five-year period to strengthen the program with a $60,000 grant.
For the better part of 20 years, History of Civilization was regarded as an invaluable part of the Oxy curriculum. But with the social upheaval of the 1960s, students began to express their displeasure with what they perceived as insufficient emphasis in the coursework on the non-Western world. Student unrest with the academic status quo prompted professor Bob Winter, department chair from 1964 to 1970, to propose the abolition of departmental majors "and instead rely on the student's judgment, carefully guided by the faculty, to determine the kind of curriculum that is appropriate to his needs." Winter made the case for continuing History of Civilization as well as the required science and religion courses, while adding a laboratory science class to the mix.
While the departmental major structure ultimately survived, History of Civ did not. Winter himself saw the virtue in giving students more academic freedom through a program of general studies, but the historian in him added: "Anyone who does not know his past is in danger of being imprisoned by it." And as generations of Civ alumni will attest, it comes in really handy after retirement.—DICK ANDERSON, JEAN PAULE
"Religion in its most mature form allows for no-holds-barred questioning," says Dale Wright, the David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor in Religion. "Liberal Protestant denominations are the place where that first happened, more thoroughly than anywhere else in the history of religion."
Among the "Occidental Ideals" listed in the College's July 1927 Bulletin is "No Confusion of Piety and Scholarship"—tersely put, an early attempt to reconcile often sharply differing views over how best to address religion in the Oxy curriculum. The profound questions posed by a faculty committee a generation later, in 1952, still resonate today: "What is the relation between 'the unfettered pursuit of truth' (liberal arts) and 'teaching revealed truths' (religion)? How can the two attitudes toward truth be reconciled? How does guidance differ from indoctrination?"
The turning point for Occidental came in 1968, when faculty voted to end an 81-year-old policy and make religion courses voluntary. The following year, the philosophy and religion department was divided into two separate departments. Previously, the religion major had been described as designed for students who planned to work as directors or assistants in Christian education or attend seminary; now the major was presented as "particularly suitable for students whose academic objective is a firm grounding in the liberal arts." Occidental reflected a national trend in making the change. "In the 1960s, religious studies was being accepted as a regular academic field—not to encourage religiosity, but to study the role of it in people's lives," Wright says.
Years of incremental change had set the stage for the 1968 vote. Even in 1927, when chapel attendance was mandatory and religion classes focused exclusively on Christianity, Oxy offered such courses as The Bible as a Book and The Psychology of Religion. Professor Frank Josselyn, who voted for making religion courses voluntary, was an ordained minister hired in 1955 to serve as chaplain and associate professor of religion. He stepped down as chaplain in 1962 to focus exclusively on teaching, and became one of the first Oxy professors to teach about non-Western religions—a mainstay of the modern religious studies curriculum.
"At a period in their lives when students are being encouraged to question the meaning of everything that is presented to them … it is good that they apply this same depth of inquiry to their spiritual beliefs," Josselyn said in 1962. "A faith founded on blind acceptance is less firm than one that is based on conviction through investigation."—JIM TRANQUADA
Diplomacy and World Affairs
Established with a $300,000 gift by Pasadena writer and trustee Elizabeth Chevalier in memory of her husband—a longtime trustee of Oxy, lawyer, and international scholar—the Stuart Chevalier Program in Diplomacy and World Affairs was created in 1957 to prepare students for the Foreign Service or international careers in business or government. Second only to economics among the College's most popular majors, DWA has made Occidental a destination for students interested in international relations, global citizenship, and geopolitics.
In its first five years, the number of DWA majors rocketed from 16 to 95. Hundreds of high school students flocked to campus each year for Diplomacy and World Affairs Day to participate in faculty-led discussion groups, hear presentations, and dine with dignitaries and diplomatic experts such as U. Alexis Johnson '31, ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Thailand, and Japan.
By 1964, DWA was given its own standing as an interdepartmental major. Oxy consistently ranked in the top two or three among participants in the annual Model United Nations of the West, and the College hosted diplomats from 94 colleges and universities taking part in the Model U.N. in 1971. In 1976-77, Oxy boasted a bonafide diplomat in residence: Jean M. Wilkowski, the first female U.S. ambassador to an African country (Zambia).
First-generation college student Linda Vu '05, a communications specialist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, credits DWA with improving her communication and people skills and expanding her world perspective. Through Richter-ASP grants, Vu traveled to Cuba and interned at the United Kingdom's House of Commons for a summer, where she worked for Edward Davey, Liberal Democrat Shadow of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Such opportunities, she says, have made her a more savvy, knowledgeable, and thoughtful citizen: "That's the beauty of a humanities degree."—RHEA R. BORJA
In 1973, at the height of the women's rights movement, politics professor Jane Jaquette was called into President Richard Gilman's office. He demanded to know if she had said "blood would run in the streets" during the feminist revolution. In the wake of Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment, a number of female faculty had decided it was time to bring women's rights into the academic sphere. "I was part of the ferment," says Jaquette, who assured Gilman that her words had been taken out of context.
So many students signed up for The Ideology of Feminism when it was first offered in spring 1973 that the class was held in Johnson 200 and Jaquette was given a teaching assistant. That same year, Anne Howells (English) offered Literature and the Lives of Women. In 1974, Maryanne Horowitz (history) taught Woman and Man in Western Thought. Marcia Homiak (philosophy) jumped on board, teaching Feminism.
"We were just creating courses and giving them. There was a sense of freedom about it," recalls ECLS professor Jean Wyatt, another early women's studies proponent. In 1980-81—when women's studies was formally listed as an interdepartmental minor consisting of five courses taken in three departments—"We got a secretary and a file cabinet," Wyatt remembers.
In 1991, women's studies was finally offered as a major, requiring 11 courses, field study, and an independent research project. (Behind the push was religious studies professor Karen King, who with Wyatt ran the department for several years.) Classes spanned 14 departments, and the curriculum swelled to 38 courses by 1996-97.
A big shift occurred the following year. After much faculty debate, the major was renamed women's studies/gender studies, and only seven classes were offered. From the late 1990s on, there was more of an emphasis on gender/queer studies, and the major shifted to encompass broader social justice issues including race and class. By 2008-09, what women's studies courses that were still being taught had been absorbed by the Critical Theory and Social Justice department, and it was no longer offered as a major or minor.
Although interest in women's studies as a separate field has apparently faded at Oxy, Jaquette's commitment has not. The politics professor emerita still teaches her iconic Women, Politics, and Power class every other spring, as well as Body Politics. And young professors Lisa Wade (sociology) and Caroline Heldman (politics) "are carrying on the tradition," she says. Outside the classroom, there's a student-run group that has not so quietly become a campus institution since its introduction in 2004: The Vagina Monologues.—SAMANTHA B. BONAR '90
Hybrid sciences was a new idea in the late 1960s, when University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Aaron John Inde published "An Inquiry into the Origins of Hybrid Sciences: Astrophysics and Biochemistry" in the Journal of Chemical Education. In the decade that followed, Occidental acknowledged the academic evolution, adding biochemistry (which explores the chemistry of living organisms and the molecular basis for why cells change through chemistry, physiology, and biology) as a major in 1975.
Biology professor Laura L. Mays Hoopes taught the initial course, and two students majored in biochemistry that first year. Now, it's one of the College's most successful science programs. Pressing needs, such as feeding an ever-growing global population in a world with fewer natural resources, and cleaning up widespread oil spills such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, can be answered in part by biochemistry, says chemistry professor Chris Craney, co-chair of the biochemistry program. "Many of the emerging areas of interest are at the boundaries of traditional science disciplines," he adds. "That's where the most exciting questions are asked and answered."
A second hybrid science, psychobiology (which applies biology and neurobiology to the physiological, genetic, and developmental study of human and animal behavior) was introduced at Oxy in 1981. It became a standalone major in 1987 under the leadership of psychology professor Dennis VanderWeele. In 2010, the major morphed into psychology with a neuroscience emphasis, which requires coursework over a broader spectrum in psychology. "It's a psychology major with a biological twist," says professor Nancy Dess.
Updating the major reflects the changing nature of research. Scientists increasingly employ biological, psychological, and sociocultural lenses to get a more comprehensive look at complex phenomena such as mental and physical health. Vocationally speaking, "Integration is the way of the future," Dess notes. "It's about having a full picture, one that draws from the best thinking and tools available in diverse disciplines."
Psychobiology major Mitzi Gonzales '06 learned about brain-mapping tools and techniques such as neuroimaging at Oxy, knowledge that motivated her to work toward a Ph.D in clinical psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. "I was always interested in the connection between the brain and behavior," she says, "so psychobiology was perfect for me."—RHEA BORJA
Independent Pattern of Study
Occidental's do-it-yourself major, Independent Pattern of Study, is designed for students who want to delve deeply into interdisciplinary study in areas where the College doesn't have a defined program. While Oxy has offered independent study since 1931—an option allowing students to take one self-directed course of their own design each year—Independent Pattern of Study wasn't added to the catalog until 1971.
This major is not for the faint of heart, or anyone with ergophobia. Students seeking to major in IPS must first have a 3.25 grade point average or better. Then they must craft an academically rigorous program (more than three-quarters of which must be upper-division work), complete a comprehensive project, and work intensively with a committee of three professors from different academic departments. "You have to be intellectually motivated, curious, and organized," says biology professor Elizabeth Braker. "IPS helps students map their intellectual interests and apply them to the world."
While at Oxy, IPS major Christina Allen '93 studied the effect of pesticide accumulation in Sierra Nevada songbirds. She later received a master's in Latin American studies, tropical conservation, and development from the University of Florida, and now directs Science Adventure, a Boulder, Colo.-based K-5 environment education program.
Jason Barabba '92's IPS blended anthropology, Latin American studies, religious studies, and Spanish. After Oxy, he got an MFA in composition and music technology at UC Irvine. Barabba now composes chamber and orchestral music and is general director of Synchromy, a Los Angeles-based composers collective. IPS appealed to his sensibilities, he says, because "I tend to do much better when I can control what I do."—RHEA BORJA
United Nations/New Orleans/Campaign Semester
While the study abroad semester for selected juniors has long been a staple of the curriculum, students looking to stretch their wings beyond Los Angeles increasingly have been offered opportunities to do so domestically.
Oxy's semester-long internship at the United Nations—founded by the late George Sherry in 1986 and offered each fall—has introduced hundreds of DWA majors to the workings of international politics. Eight to 12 students accepted into the program intern in a U.N.-related office, take advanced level classes in the areas of peace, security, and development, and produce an original independent research project.
The program has laid the groundwork for many future careers. After graduation, Heather O'Brien '91 worked at the core of the former Yugoslav conflict in Vukovar, Croatia, facilitating demilitarization, mediation, and elections as a U.N. worker. Many graduates go on to governmental positions.
John Gardner, former United Nations Development Programme deputy assistant administrator, was recently appointed as the third director of the U.N. program, succeeding Ambassador John Hirsch, who retired this spring. (He's also the father of Natalie Gardner, who was accepted early decision to Oxy with the Class of 2016.)
While their classmates are relaxing over the winter break, many Oxy students head to New Orleans in January to help residents rebuild the area ravaged in 2005. The trips are the community-based learning component of Disaster Politics: New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, taught by associate politics professor Caroline Heldman and assistant politics professor Thalia Gonzalez.
Over the last six years, students have gutted more than 100 homes in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, helped to rebuild 20 more, built community gardens, and planted 12,000 seedlings to help restore wetlands. Students also played a major role in opening the New Orleans Women's Shelter and tutoring children in after-school programs. Since Heldman began organizing the trips in 2005, 300 students have participated. Most express a newfound desire to pursue social justice in some form, she says.
Coordinated by professors Peter Dreier (politics and UEP) and Regina Freer (politics), the Campaign Semester gives Occidental students the opportunity to learn about political campaigns and elections through firsthand experience. It offers a full semester of credit for working on a campaign for any party. Participants volunteer for a presidential, Senate, House, or gubernatorial campaign for 10 weeks during the fall semester, working long hours in a key "battleground" state before returning to campus for a five-week seminar and independent study course.
The program got started in fall 2008 because so many students wanted to participate in the presidential campaign. "During the last two weeks, we were lucky if a 20-hour day was the norm," recalls Katie DeMocker '10, who was stationed in Arizona. But "I have never been more proud to be a part of anything in my entire life."—SAMANTHA BONAR