Introducing Tom Stritikus

By Dick Anderson Photos by Marc Campos

Occidental’s president-elect is a first-generation college graduate and a firm believer in the transformative power of a liberal arts education

On February 24, during a matinee performance of Occidental’s New Works Festival, an unidentified visitor snuck into Keck Theater. “It was really hard for me not to say hi to everybody because I like to say hi to everybody,” Tom Stritikus admits. The play he watched was A Slight Disruption, by Gianna Nguyen ’26, an urban and environmental policy major and interdisciplinary writing minor from Huntington Beach.

“It was simply a great play, a story about immigrants—and it was written by a sophomore,” he marvels during a subsequent visit to campus in April—his first since being named Occidental’s 17th president. “And so many faculty were there in the audience.”

Stritikus, photographed in Cannon Plaza in Match.
Tom Stritikus, photographed in Cannon Plaza following his selection as Oxy's 17th president in March.

Community means a lot to Stritikus, 54, who has spent the last six years at the helm of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. His success at the four-year public college—not only in doubling its endowment but also in working to reconcile the former Native American boarding school’s unsettling past—attracted the notice of Occidental’s Board of Trustees, which unanimously selected him to succeed President Harry J. Elam, Jr.

“Dr. Stritikus’ demonstrated success in creating an inclusive campus environment, bolstering experiential learning, accelerating financial support for the mission and programs at Fort Lewis, and being a consistent advocate for students, faculty, and academic excellence speak well to the alignment of his skills and experience with the needs and opportunities in the Occidental community,” says Board Chair Lisa Link P’18.

“Occidental coined the phrase ‘equity and excellence’ before it became commonplace in higher education,” Stritikus says.  “As I started to look at the tremendous capacity of this faculty and their commitment to teaching and students, it blew me away.

“Another huge draw for me is the idea of connecting with L.A. and creating authentic, collaborative partnerships with community members that showcase the value of a liberal arts education,” he adds. “In meeting with the search committee, it was clear that this community wants to be something distinct. Oxy has the potential to be the nation’s most impactful liberal arts college.”

A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Stritikus is a first-generation college graduate, the son of Greek immigrants. “My mother was a secretary at the University of Nebraska—she worked on the agricultural campus for her whole career—and my dad was a diesel machinist at the Burlington Northern Railroad,” he says. “My dad’s an incredibly smart guy—just so curious and thoughtful. He definitely instilled in us the value of an education.”

Fresh out of college with a degree in English in 1993, Stritikus took a job with Teach For America, which placed him at John Ruhrah, a K-8 “school of many nations” in an under-resourced district in Baltimore.

“I read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991) as an undergraduate and thought about the inequities in the education system,” says Stritikus, who taught elementary school for two years. Given his background, “I saw the value of what school meant for social mobility. The idea of working with immigrant students was an absolute passion of mine.”

Stritikus talked to the students about their interests, then went to a local library to load up on books to fuel them. “I have always been super keen on trying to figure out what students are interested in and letting them drive the conversation,” he says.

Stritikus and wife Debbie Pfeifer greet students in the Academic Quad.
Stritikus and wife Debbie Pfeifer greet students in the Academic Quad.

Although Stritikus and his future wife, Debbie Pfeifer, both attended the University of Nebraska, graduating two years apart, they didn’t meet until 2½ years after Tom graduated—at Duffy’s, a college bar in Lincoln.

“I was living in Manhattan Beach, Tom was in Baltimore, and we were both home for Christmas,” Pfeifer says. “We had mutual friends who were talking to each other at Duffy’s, and so we started to talk. And we got along well and realized that we were going to see each other again at the same party on New Year’s Eve. After that, we kept in touch, and Tom invited me to visit him in Baltimore in February. And I said, ‘That sounds really awful. Why don’t you come to visit me in Manhattan Beach?’” She laughs. “And he did.”

Later that year, Stritikus enrolled in grad school at UC Berkeley, completing a combined M.A./Ph.D. program in 2000. For his doctoral thesis, he did research on the implications of California Proposition 227, which was passed by voters in 1998 and all but eliminated bilingual education in the California public schools. Stritikus studied the negative implications on students’ identity and ability to use their home language in the classroom in California’s Central Valley.

By the time Stritikus graduated, Pfeifer was living and working in Berkeley, where she was director of communications for PowerBar. When he started applying for academic jobs,  Stritikus says, “Debbie and I were not married yet, but she got out a map and said, ‘OK, I’ll live in Washington, California, or Colorado.’ I didn’t want to be pen pals, so these were the places I could apply.” (The couple was married in 2003.)

Stritikus ultimately landed at the University of Wash­ington as an associate professor in curriculum and instruction. As much as he loved teaching and research, he says, “I felt early on that my impact was going to be in institution building and thinking about how to leverage the great work that we do and connect with students in a different way.”

In his fifth year at UW, Stritikus was named associate dean for academic programs at the UW College of Education, and eventually dean of the college. “I was dean at a time when the larger narrative was that ed schools were not only contributing to outcomes for students of color but maybe potentially part of the problem,” he recalls.  “So we tried at UW College of Ed to better connect with our community, and we ended up getting quite a bit of funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for some of the work that we were doing.”

In 2014, Stritikus was recruited to join the Gates Foundation innovation team, a position he held for four years. “It felt like an amazing opportunity to sit on the other side of the table to see what you could do with philanthropic capital,” he says.

As deputy director of education, “We did a lot of work in thinking about how to improve teacher education and how to work with both university partners and alternative certification partners,” he explains. “The greatest thing about working at the Gates Foundation was you’re thinking about how to change student outcomes across the United States; the worst part about it is that you weren’t actually doing the work. I knew I wanted to get back into higher education and to become a college president.”

When Pfeifer learned that Fort Lewis was looking for a president, she quickly told her husband. After visiting the campus for the first round of interviews, Stritikus came away feeling that Fort Lewis was “a place that should be a national story and wasn’t.

It was doing incredible work serving Native American students, but that wasn’t articulated in any kind of meaningful way. Durango [population 20,000] is a great community, and the college is so central to the town.

“Fort Lewis had great potential—it was just underperforming,” he continues. “They needed a leader who was super engaging, could come out and talk to everybody, and move fast—really fast—because they missed a lot of opportunities by moving too slow.”

During Stritikus’ tenure as president, Fort Lewis reversed declines in enrollment, delivered on the promise of free tuition for students with a family income under $70,000,  and reached new fundraising highs. The college scored its largest gift to date in 2023, a $10.4 million pledge from Durango entrepreneurs and philanthropists Marc and Jane Katz to the School of Business Administration.

“That’s a transformational gift for a place our size,” Stritikus says. “We had an incredible advancement team and a great business school dean who led the effort. I think we have just gotten better at telling our story and creating a culture of philanthropy.”

Of all of his achievements at Fort Lewis, two items stand out. “In our strategic plan, the first plank was putting students at the center of everything we do,” he says. “It became an identity for how we thought about things.”

Taking that mantra to heart, the college eliminated all designated parking spaces for all senior administrators—a nod to grousing about parking among the student population. (Consequently, Stritikus often had a 12-minute walk to his office from Stadium Lot 2.) “It’s a trivial example,” he admits, “but we tried to live it top to bottom, making decisions in the best interest of the students.”

Stritikus examines three panels that “whitewash” Fort Lewis College’s history as a federal  Indian boarding school until 1910.
Stritikus examines three panels that “whitewash” Fort Lewis College’s history as a federal Indian boarding school until 1910. The panels were removed from the college's Clocktower in 2021. Photo by Sharon Chischilly/The New York Times

Second was the reconciliation work done over several years to address Fort Lewis’ institutional history of Indigenous oppression and cultural genocide dating back to its origins as a federal Indian boarding school, forcibly removing children from their families and Indian tribes. The work culminated in a ceremony to remove three historically inaccurate panels from the college’s iconic Clocktower on Sept. 6, 2021—an event that was attended by nearly 1,000 members of the Durango community, including tribal elders of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, campus leaders, and Native American students.

“That was the most profound moment in my career,” Stritikus says. Fort Lewis trustee and Ute Tribe member Ernest House Jr., who spoke at the ceremony, “put it best: ‘You start this process and you’re not sure where it’s going to go.’ From a bill that we lobbied with our two tribes to investigate the Old Fort site [in Hesperus, Colorado— the college’s original home] for unmarked graves and not being afraid to address those questions, that was pretty amazing.”

A Durango Post editorial published in April following the news of Stritikus’ decision to leave Fort Lewis celebrated his enduring contributions to the college. “His visions to do right by all students at FLC were comprehensive, his achievements will be long-lasting,” they wrote. Occidental “is fortunate to soon have Stritikus as president.”

For her own part, Pfeifer, a major theater enthusiast, is winding up her tenure as board chair of Durango PlayFest, an annual festival that brings together playwrights, actors, and directors for a week to showcase new works at staged readings in front of local audiences. Festival cofounders Dan Luria (The Wonder Years) and Wendy Malick (Shrinking, Just Shoot Me) are a presence every year, and the sixth annual festival is scheduled to take place June 25-30.

While the couple will miss the proximity to the local ski resort and Durango’s “gigantic dog park,” Stritikus and Pfeifer consider themselves city people at heart. “I’ll miss that easy access to the outdoors, but you have skiing within an hour and a half of Oxy,” Pfeifer says. “And this campus is such an oasis. So it’s not going to be as much of an adjustment.”

Stritikus and Pfeifer are the parents of twin boys, both college sophomores—Leo at Dartmouth College, and Hays at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Both have expressed an interest in government and public policy and are “excited” about the move to Los Angeles, Pfeifer says. The fifth family member—and a frenemy to squirrels who cross his path—is Sky, their rescue dog from South Korea. A 9-year-old Jindo mix, “He’s fast and ferocious,” Stritikus says.

Stritikus and Pfeifer in the College’s Olive Grove.
Stritikus and Pfeifer in the College’s Olive Grove.

Having recently gone through the college search process with their own kids, “We were talking about how so many descriptions of liberal arts colleges on the East Coast sound the same,” Stritikus says. “It’s hard to differentiate what school you’re talking about. There is no other institution quite like Occidental—a liberal arts college in the center of a world-class city.”

And then there are the College’s century-old Mission Olive trees, which the couple swooned over. “I’m not a big ‘woo-woo’ person, but when I saw those olive trees, I thought, ‘This is incredible,’” Pfeifer says.

“My father goes to Greece every fall and harvests olives,” Stritikus adds. “We didn’t even know that Oxy makes olive oil.” (Olives harvested on campus last November were pressed locally into bottles of extra virgin olive oil.) “My dad will come out next fall to help with the harvest,” he promises.

Needless to say, these are interesting times to be a college president. What’s the biggest challenge Stritikus expects to face at the outset? “Getting to know the community and making sure I understand what makes them tick—what’s important to them, what they care about, what their values are,” he says. “I’m going to spend a lot of time doing that at as fast a pace as I can.” And we’ll do our best to keep up with him.