Stay Close—Your Alma Mater Needs You
I’m not sure what I expected my last semester as president of Occidental to be. I know I was looking forward to making the rounds among faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, and friends to thank them for their support; dedicating our gorgeous new pool, along with the Anderson Center for Environmental Sciences; giving my colleagues one last chance to knock their president into the dunk tank on Founders Day; graduating the Class of 2020; saying goodbye to many of our alumni at Reunion Weekend; and then, after 11 years in the saddle, riding off into the sunset on June 30.
It hasn’t been anything like that.
I was in New York City in early March, visiting my daughter Margaret, when I began to hear about colleges and universities sending their students home. Initially, I must confess, I thought it was an overreaction. But as I looked around the increasingly empty streets of Manhattan, I began to experience a sense of foreboding that I hadn’t felt since the aftermath of 9/11. The full magnitude of the situation didn’t hit me until Margaret and I went to a Brooklyn supermarket to help her stock up on food. After standing in line for nearly an hour, we got into the market and the shelves were empty. It was then that I realized I was in the middle of something resembling an apocalypse.
For a while, each new day brought an entirely different universe of demands and concerns. The unthinkable suddenly became not only thinkable but the new reality. My days were spent on the phone and in front of a computer screen, first trying to get nearly 1,800 students safely home; then doing what I could to ensure that we could move the curriculum to a digital platform; updating trustees and reassuring anxious employees; and more recently, working through the various scenarios for what the fall might look like on campus. Through it all, I have relied on an excellent senior leadership team who have done the heavy lifting, working around the clock to address the challenges of an unprecedented situation. They have done so with a level of thoughtfulness, care, and good humor that is exemplary.
But they are not alone. Occidental’s deans and vice presidents have depended heavily on their own staff to implement this ambitious agenda. Many of our employees are working from home, while homeschooling their children and fretting anxiously over elderly parents or grandparents. Others bravely come to work each day to serve food to the handful of students and staff who remain on campus, keep the boilers humming, clean residence halls and offices, and make sure everyone gets paid. Heroism, it turns out, is pitching in, showing up, getting the job done, looking out for each other. This is what a community looks like. It is an inspiring thing to watch.
Through it all, our students and faculty have displayed a remarkable degree of imagination, flexibility, grit, and resilience. They pivoted to remote learning in little more than two weeks. Classes are being taught with very few hiccups, books are read and lively discussions ensue. Papers are still, well … something to agonize over, put off, and then, when the chips are down, pull an all-nighter. Some things never change.
Of course, this wasn’t the semester our students anticipated. They have missed spring sports, dance and theater productions, and parties. And our seniors will miss their graduation (though they will have a chance to walk across the stage next year). But I am confident that they will take strength from their faculty and comfort from their families and friends. As bad as it seems right now, this crisis will have an end. We will get through it and be better for it.
Occidental has been through major crises before. Just eight years after Oxy enrolled its first class, fire destroyed its first—and only—building on the original Boyle Heights campus. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19 shut down classes for seven long weeks. A decade later, the Great Depression caused student enrollments and faculty salaries to shrink and deficits and administrative anxiety to rise. In 1944, during World War II, a polio outbreak on campus killed three students and hospitalized dozens of others. The College survived it all.
It is crises like these that demonstrate how important a liberal arts education truly is in meeting the challenges of the moment. Our students will need to understand the structural transformation of the economy around us and be equipped to address the dramatic social inequities exposed and compounded by the pandemic, even as they are positioned to take advantage of new opportunities opened up by it. And most important, their education at Occidental will give them the opportunity to spend time with the things that make life worth living—with or without a crisis.
For me, the circumstances we face today are reminiscent of the economic downturn in 2008. When I first arrived in July 2009, Occidental found itself at the nadir of the Great Recession, with a shell-shocked economy, a battered College endowment, and the prospect of tough times ahead. Little by little—step by incremental step—Occidental came back stronger than ever before. We did it then, and we can do it now. But we cannot do it without your commitment, support, and, yes, your financial help.
Stay close. Your alma mater needs you.