As Inauguration Day draws near, President Harry J. Elam, Jr. reflects on the lessons of the pandemic, the evolution of academic excellence, and the necessity of a culture of care

“Inaugurations normally mark the beginning of something,” Harry J. Elam, Jr. says in his office in early March. “I’ve been here for almost two years, so this one will be different. My innocence is long over now.”

In his 22nd month on the job, Elam will be inaugurated as Occidental’s 16th president. Informing Elam’s inauguration speech—titled New Harmonies—will be a sense of how the College is emerging from the pandemic and “where we want to go from here,” he says.

“I believe this Inauguration can be about more than me; that it can be about the hopes and vision and relief that the Oxy community has after the last two years. That would make me happy.” As April 23 draws near, “I’m looking forward to celebrating Oxy.”

Occidental: You spent your first year as president working virtually at a time when you normally would’ve been out meeting the Oxy community. Have you been able to make up for lost time this year?

Elam: Some, but I feel that I’ve got to be more deliberate in trying to meet students and to give them the chance to know me and vice versa. I’ve had lunch at the Marketplace, and we had a series of receptions and meetings with students in their dorms, but I’m looking to do even more.

Have you had any particularly memorable interactions with students on campus?

Homecoming was great fun—judging the car parade and speaking to our athletic teams and rooting them on. There’s such energy there; sharing those moments with students is one of the joys of the job. In planning for Homecoming, we set up tables and umbrellas around the Quad. After I talked to the women’s volleyball team, one of the players ran after me, shouting, “President Elam!” So, I stopped and she asked, “Can the tables and umbrellas stay?” I said, “Yes!” That generated more good feelings than just about anything since I arrived here.

What lessons did the pandemic teach us?

Number one is how much we all value the experience of being a residential campus and all that means to students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Second is the sense of resilience that was on display: faculty doing things differently in terms of how they taught; students in terms of changing how they had to perform and study; staff in coming together as a community while working remotely or dealing with furloughs.

Number three is the socioeconomic differences exacerbated by the remote experience. There were some students who could have a room of their own and reliable internet and all that they needed to study and perform. But others had none of that and encountered very different experiences in what it meant to study away. The unevenness of that educational experience and the emotional nature of returning to campus are hardships that we will continue to confront.

There are some good ideas to be taken away from the pandemic. The resilience I mentioned informed the development of  hybrid classroom teaching that features some remote work as well as in-person discussions. When I asked both students and faculty what they wanted to keep after returning to campus, one of the experiences both groups mentioned was office hours over Zoom. They appreciated the ease of jumping online into a discussion.

Oxy’s operating budget was hit hard by the pandemic, resulting in reduced department budgets, reductions in staff, and extended furloughs. How are things looking now and what do you think the next fiscal year will look like?

We’re trying to build back to where we were in 2019. After the College pivoted to remote learning, we worked with the trustees and senior staff to make the budget cuts that needed to be made and still deliver the Oxy education that our students deserve. We felt as good as you can feel with a $30 million deficit in terms of ensuring the survival of the school. Then the stock market turned around and with the careful stewardship of our Investment Committee, our endowment is now hovering around $600 million—higher than it’s ever been. And there is hope that we can get it to over $1 billion in the not-too-distant future.

On the staff side, the great resignation has hit us, and we’re still figuring out if we want to be or can get to be back to 2019 staffing levels, or if our operating philosophy has changed since the pandemic. We are currently in the middle of integrated strategic planning, and there are some potential costs related to it that must be recognized and anticipated as well.

On the subject of integrated strategic planning, what makes us distinct and how can we further differentiate ourselves from our peers?

The immediate distinction that comes to mind is our location. When I asked a classroom of students how many of them came to Oxy because it was in Los Angeles, every hand went up. We have so many programs and partnerships happening in L.A., and we want to be even more intentional about it. What that means, what we do for L.A., and how we’re conscious of it is something we want to evolve further. For example, Warner Music Group is going to have an internship program that’s only open to Oxy students.

Another characteristic that makes us distinctive is a willingness to experiment—to take intellectual risks and try something different. Campaign Semester, for instance, offers a level of hands-on, experiential learning that is like nothing you’re going to find at other schools. The U.N. program also fits this paradigm, as do the Oxy Immersives that our faculty created during the pandemic as a way of being innovative with first-year learning in that moment.

How do we define and maintain academic excellence?

The definition of academic excellence continues to evolve but it has three main and consistent factors. First, we want to hire and retain the best faculty. Their Oxy experience has to be one that keeps them here so that we have more professors like Woody Studenmund, who has been here for 52 years.

The second factor involves attracting an exceptional and diverse student body and understanding that students may start in different places academically, perhaps even more so because of the pandemic. How can we create a more equitable playing field and help those students who need it?

The third factor requires putting student learning at the center of all our endeavors. How do we develop classes, projects, comps, and experiential learning activities that encourage and enable student learning? How do we structure learning goals and outcomes that help students discover their intellectual passion and to take the lead in determining their education?

You have spoken about the idea of creating a culture of care at Oxy, saying that we must make “the structural, social, and personal changes necessary to ensure equity and justice both on and beyond campus.” Can you elaborate on that thinking?

Many current students and Oxy grads have said that they found their people here. Given that we have an affinity that lends itself to that, how do we make it so everyone feels like they’re valued, that they belong?

How does this relate to the experience of our alumni? I’ve heard from so many alumni who loved it here. How do we keep them connected to the living, breathing Oxy of today? How do we encourage alumni to recognize that a culture of care involves them too?

More than a year since its announcement, how is progress coming on the Black Action Plan, and how does it relate to the Equity and Justice Agenda?

We have folded much of the Black Action Plan into the Equity and Justice Agenda and many of those priorities have been addressed. Others are playing out now. Thanks to Chris Arguedas and the Intercultural Community Center, MLK Lounge has been renovated. Students wanted themed housing and we have provided this both in Pauley [Oxy’s Multicultural Hall] as well as space in Berkus Hall. Thanks to the efforts of our faculty and dean of the College, Black Studies now is a department. That was a priority. One lingering critical agenda item is mental health support. Mental health is a growing concern for all our students but particularly for BIPOC students. We searched last fall for an additional therapist at Emmons and didn’t find anybody; we’ll search again this spring and also create other measures to address this vital issue.

With leadership from the offices of Student Affairs and Equity and Justice, we will also use time during Orientation each fall to educate and initiate discussions with our first-year students about the dynamics of race and racism, belonging and difference. We will examine issues such as anti-Asian hate and antisemitism in ways that see connections but also see what makes them distinct. This will be an ongoing conversation that helps all of our students better negotiate differences and also know that they are valued and belong.

With regards to the anti-Asian texts from a student that surfaced on social media in February: How can the College address not only the safety but also the inclusion of its Asian community?

In a myriad of ways. If anything, this incident shook us into the reality that we have to do better in supporting Asian and Asian American students and in truly practicing equality and inclusion. As administrators, we need to take steps to be effectively proactive and collaborative and not simply reactive. As we think about the curriculum, what courses do we offer that address the Asian American experience? Jane Hong [associate professor of history] will teach a course on Asian American history next year. What related offerings can we create as well?

In terms of specifically responding to bias and hate, I hope that by the start of the fall 2022 semester we will have in place a program called BEST—short for Bias Education Support Team. It’s a way to address bias incidents that may be protected by the First Amendment or California’s Leonard Law that still do harm to the community. BEST will mediate issues through education. I believe we can and will find ways to reaffirm our community values and take a restorative approach to problem-solving. Together, we will continue to become the kind of anti-racist institution we want to be.

Turning to sports: What’s been the impact of the discontinuation of football and the creation of the Commission on Athletics?

One message that became evident to me last year is how invested alumni are in the legacy of Oxy football—there’s a great story there to tell. We need to tell it and celebrate it. Charlie Cardillo [vice president for institutional advancement] and I are working with Vance Mueller ’86 and Jeff Goldstein ’86 and others to create an event on campus for former football players to come together, socialize and remember. We will also build a digital archive dedicated to Oxy football. Regardless of its future, we want to preserve that legacy and will work to do so.

The Commission on Athletics was helpful in giving us a clear sense of what we want to accomplish in intercollegiate athletics. We want to be more robust in all of our sports and to compete in the top three in everything we do in the SCIAC. That’s the goal. We’ve had two strong recruiting classes over the last two years and we’re starting to see some success in terms of diversity in the student-athletes we are recruiting as well. The commission also addressed Oxy’s coaching needs so that we were able to add a number of new assistant coaching positions to help us with both recruiting as well as working with our players on the field.

Roxane Gay—the New York Times bestselling author and social justice commentator—is teaching in the Critical Theory and Social Justice Department this semester as Oxy’s first-ever Presidential Professor. Can you tell me how that came about?

It came about with a desire from the CTSJ Department to bring Dr. Gay to Oxy. Professor Caroline Heldman reached out to her and Dr. Gay was interested in coming here for a number of reasons. In order to bring her to the campus to teach for a finite period, we created a new position, the Presidential Professor. In the future, we will use the position of Presidential Professor, when appropriate, to attract other public intellectuals and renowned figures who bring something different to Oxy.

Dr. Gay is teaching a course called Writing Trauma. Certainly this is a timely subject in our world today, given everything that’s happening in Ukraine as well as what’s been happening in the United States. Having Dr. Gay at Oxy was a great opportunity for us and for her. And it’s gotten us some recognition outside of campus. A couple of alumni have said to me, “Wow, I wish I was there.”

Will the Presidential Professorship be appointed on an ad hoc basis if another opportunity comes along?

Yes, but we need to think strategically about it. We want to build a more prominent national reputation. This is something that could potentially help us. So, when President Obama comes back to teach at Oxy, he will definitely be a Presidential Professor!