Three Insights From the Last Four Years

By President Harry J. Elam, Jr. Photo by Marc Campos

As he prepares to depart from Occidental, President Harry J. Elam, Jr. shares three insights into leadership that he will carry away with him

Just over four years ago, in February 2020, I received a life-changing phone call: Stephen Rountree ’71, who was then chair of the Board of Trustees, shared that the trustees had just selected me to be Occidental College’s 16th president.

I was so excited to accept. I knew that this was a campus where I wanted to be. I believed my background in academic scholarship and leadership of the undergraduate program at Stanford University had prepared me for guiding this vibrant and distinctive liberal arts college in Los Angeles. And still, since that first year—when I came to a campus nearly silent against the turbulent backdrop of the pandemic—I have so often been amazed, delighted, and captivated by what I have found in this community.

In many ways, being president of Occidental is like being the mayor of a small town. Everyone knows who you are. In addition, there is a genuine investment in leadership here—a desire for dialogue, recognition, and understanding—that is one of the College’s many strengths. Everyone here—students, alumni, faculty, staff—has taken pride of ownership in our progress, and so we move forward together.

And together, we have navigated the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the return to campus. We have completed the largest comprehensive campaign in our history. And we have launched the Occidental Promise, a strategic plan through 2030. I am thrilled at what we have accomplished and believe in the specialness of this place and all that it is and has the potential to be.

We are a small town, yet vast in vision, in the range of ideas we explore, in the diversity of viewpoints. Harnessing the many competing ideas and priorities of this community has been a most rewarding challenge, and has manifested and shaped insights into leadership that I will carry with me long after I depart at the end of this academic year. I share some of them here in hopes that you, too, might find them useful:

First, the importance of transparency. From the very beginning, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I quickly understood that our community needed not only to know the decisions I made on behalf of the College but also their rationale. This commitment to transparency has continued throughout my term, from our return to campus in fall 2021 to current student activism around geopolitical issues. Transparency requires vigilance and consistent effort, a lantern’s flame that must be tended. It can be difficult to maintain, but it is essential for building trust, and should not be taken for granted even in a close-knit community like ours.

Second, the importance of coalition building. As leaders, our first question must always be: Who is at the table? Critical decisions require input from key stakeholders, students, staff, faculty, and senior leadership in order to achieve a collaborative vision. It has been especially important for me to hear students’ voices. Students advocate for change because college is a space where change can actually happen. The opportunity to listen to and work with students is one of the reasons I came to Occidental, and I have found our students’ commitment to a holistic, pluralistic academic experience to be one of the great joys of my time here.

Finally, empathy—a genuine curiosity about others’ experiences coupled with compassion—is an essential and grounding principle for me. It is especially important in the face of disagreement and criticism. Just after my final interview for the presidency four years ago, I asked two students on the search committee what they appreciated most about Occidental. “The activism,” they quickly replied. One of the students congratulated me by telling me, “We like you, but if you mess up, we’ll protest you.”

They remained true to their word, and learning not to take criticism personally has been among my most important and difficult lessons. But as challenging as it is to remain open in the face of sharp critiques, such engagement is vital to understanding where students are coming from. And when students feel that we are actively listening to their requests, when we convey that we care deeply about what matters to them, we can open space for trust to grow, for productive dialogue, for understanding if not agreement, and for realizing shared values that are fundamental to the institution.

Thank you for inviting me into this community. I am greatly appreciative of all your support. It has been a privilege and honor to serve as president of Occidental, and I am grateful for every moment. I know that this institution has a very bright future ahead and will remain with me forever.

Io Triumphe!