Ideas Into Action: Fulfilling Oxy’s Mission

Occidental President Harry J. Elam, Jr.

President Elam reflects on Oxy’s commitment to social justice and the actions that reinforce those words

When I first encountered the racist text messages sent by an Oxy student that were posted on social media in February, like everyone else, I was sickened and saddened. Seeing one of our own express such vile opinions is deeply troubling. As an administration, we have repeatedly and will continue to speak out against racial hatred and bigotry. We remain focused on supporting the community members most directly impacted by these words and continue to work to make Oxy an educational environment where all can feel safe, seen, supported, and able to thrive.

The response of our students and the faculty to this incident has been powerful. Members of the Oxy faculty have used class time to critically examine and address with their students the text messages and the administrative response. Our students have equally demonstrated resilience, community, and commitment. With determination, they have proclaimed the values we hold dear at Oxy and have expressed the need for us to keep working together to become an anti-racist institution.

As we undertake the fundamental work of confronting inequity and injustice, we can look to our mission. To me, this statement of social commitment is so much more than rhetoric and I thank you for joining with me in working to put this mission into action. In a recent opinion piece, Judy Lam ’87 writes, “The sun still shines brightly on the Oxy that I know and still believe endures as a haven for education, differing ideas, and respect.”

With the return to in-person education, our students have enjoyed some particularly notable achievements. This semester senior comps have put student excellence on display—comps that range from a studio art show in the Oxy Arts gallery and a series of solo, self-scripted theater performances to presentations such as Nanki Sandhu’s “Questions of Monstrosity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” and Haleigh Hoffman’s “CO2 and CH4 Gas Flux in Different Urban, Oil, and Agricultural Development Areas of Los Angeles.” Drawn from an extremely strong pool of candidates, this year’s five Oxy Science Scholars will be working with faculty mentors in the fields of geology, physics, biochemistry, biology, and chemistry. Significantly, for the 17th consecutive year, Oxy was recognized this spring as one of the country’s top producers of student Fulbright recipients.

The arts have reemerged on campus with full force. After two years of virtual performances, Dance Production packed Thorne Hall for three performances in mid-March. Up the hill in Keck Theater, sets are being built and rehearsals are underway for the Theater Department’s April production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The Occidental, Oxy’s student newspaper, recently picked up seven prizes at the recent California College Media Association awards ceremony, including “Best Newspaper” (for California colleges with fewer than 15,000 students) and top honors for writing and photography.

Excited by the prospect of finally being able to compete after two seasons lost to the pandemic, Oxy’s student-athletes have also stepped up. The men’s golf team outshot eight other teams to win the Cal Lutheran Invitational. Inside Oxy’s superlative De Mandel Aquatics Center, women’s water polo hosted its first-ever tournament with four teams from across the country. And both the men’s and women’s track and field teams beat Pomona-Pitzer handily in their annual dual meet.

Faculty have been equally busy—and productive. We applaud Kristi Upson-Saia in religious studies and Alexandra Puerto in history for securing a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund our new Humanities for Just Communities program, a three-year initiative that will introduce incoming and first-year students to the problem-solving power of the humanities. Two Southern California galleries are currently featuring the work of faculty artists Linda Besemer and Mary Beth Heffernan. Associate Professor of History Jane Hong is serving a yearlong appointment as a Public Fellow in the Public Religion Research Institute’s Religion and Renewing Democracy Initiative. And faculty in all disciplines continue to publish their research in prestigious academic journals and books, and share their expertise with NPR, The Washington Post, CBS News, and The New York Times.

Looking ahead, our ongoing integrated strategic planning process will keep at the fore our central institutional values, which include excellence and equity—and I would like to emphasize that merit and equity never were, and are not, at odds. Moreover, the College’s pursuit of these higher goals cannot be defined simply by a fixed outcome or point of destination, even as we put in place metrics for success. It is important to note that this will always be an ongoing process involving the whole community, a striving in which our community members truly feel enfranchised and know they belong.