Concurrent with President Richard Gilman's retirement and John Slaughter's inauguration, Occidental marked its centennial year with a revitalized mission and unforeseen challenges. Oxy's key decision-makers revisit a momentous quarter-century
Edited by Dick Anderson
"The stories one tells oneself about an institution have a certain predictive power," says President Jonathan Veitch. "We situate ourselves with our understanding of things." And when it comes to Occidental, he adds, "You get this narrative of decline over the last 25 years that comes out of one single story—the diversification of the campus."
But selective memory can be an unreliable narrator. On the occasion of the College's 125th anniversary, Veitch endeavored to sit down with four of his predecessors to strip away the mythology. (Susan Prager, Oxy's 13th president and now executive vice president of the Association of American Law Schools in Washington, D.C., talked to Occidental Magazine in early June.)
In revisiting the highlights, challenges, successes, and failures of the last quarter-century—from multiculturalism and enrollment issues to budget cuts, leadership changes, and the emergence of Barack Obama '83—consider this article an attempt to put Oxy's frequently contentious recent history in perspective. Others will surely follow.
A Century Ends
When Richard C. Gilman interviewed for the position of Occidental's 10th president, trustees wanted to know if he would be willing to stay at Oxy for a stretch. (His two immediate predecessors, Remsen Bird and Arthur G. Coons '20, had notched a collective 45 years.) "I told them that I would commit to 10 years," Gilman recalls, "but beyond that, I just didn't know."
Gilman's tenure lasted 23 years. He persevered through the death of his wife, Lucille, in 1978; raised his four children on campus; and would marry his longtime secretary, Sarah Gale, in 1984. In 1982—around the time their relationship grew serious—Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer (she died in 1986), and the trustees asked Gilman to extend his run at Oxy.
Richard Gilman: At that point, in 1982, I was ready to leave. I talked with the trustees about it, and I agreed to stay through the 100th anniversary. I always said when my step slows down, it's time to go. I knew there were some faculty looking for another face in the president's office. I'd done my time.
Gilman's retirement opened the door for a new generation of leadership at Occidental, and a new set of challenges that would test its institutional fortitude.
Jonathan Veitch: There's probably no more important moment in the College's history than when John Slaughter arrived in 1988.
John Slaughter: Occidental appealed to me because it was an institution that focused on undergraduate education, and I believed very strongly—and continue to do so—that the most important period in a student's life in a college or university is that four-year undergraduate experience, and Occidental afforded that opportunity.
At one point [during my initial interview], one of the trustees on the search committee asked me, "Given that the Board of Trustees is itself not very diverse, do you think that we are appropriately constituted to lead an effort for making Occidental more multicultural?" And my answer was "No." There was quiet after that response.
Later, as I was being driven to the airport by the head of the search firm, he began to laugh and I asked him, "What are you laughing at?" And he said, "That same question has been asked of every candidate that we've had, and each of them has said 'Yes.' You're going to be the next president at Occidental." I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "Because they know the answer to that question is not 'Yes.'"
Of Equity and Excellence
David Axeen, professor emeritus of American studies and former dean of the College: As far as I could ever figure out, Occidental was the first institution to use the term multicultural in academic discussions, but I wouldn't necessarily agree to all of the uses to which that term was put into use at other institutions. Our idea was that students would study the cultures from which population groups came. We would study Latin American history. We would study Asia and Africa and the Middle East, Europe, and so forth. All of those backgrounds would be part of understanding the people of the United States.
I've always thought that we took the lead in emphasizing diversity, and emphasizing being a liberal arts college in a diverse urban setting. We got strong support from the trustees on that point right from the beginning. They were very much connected to the Southern California business community, and they saw what was happening—in some ways sooner than academics.
Slaughter: My very first day on the campus was on a Saturday, and one of the admission officers escorted me down to Weingart Hall, where the opening meeting of the Multicultural Summer Institute was being held. That was my first interaction with anyone on the campus, meeting with this group of students, and I was immediately struck by their quality, their energy, and the kinds of questions that they asked. I met some young people at that meeting that I continue to have contact with, even after all these years. But that really sort of set the tone for me because it was a group that by its name represented the diversity of the institution that was just then unfolding and was an opportunity for me to sense the kind of students that we would be having.
One of the first things that I asked [Board of Trustees chair] Donn Miller was to allow me to begin a strategic planning process because I felt that it would be important to do something significant in the beginning that involved a large number of people. I could have written initially the strategic plan we ended up with by myself, but it would not have had any significance. What we really needed was to build a sense of community on the campus. We had a large number of people including community representatives who were involved in pulling together the recommendations that ultimately ended up in the strategic plan, which we called "Of Equity and Excellence." And that theme was something that guided our activities to the largest possible extent throughout my presidency.
My argument always has been that there is really no excellence without the presence of equity. We have always thought, for example, of Harvard and Yale as excellent institutions. But I argued that Harvard and Yale were not excellent when they banned Jewish people from being students. The University of Texas was not excellent when they banned Latinos or African-Americans. So equity has to be present, in my mind, for any institution to refer to itself as excellent.
Vance Peterson '66, former vice president for institutional advancement: We found ourselves faced with a very significant communications challenge in helping our alumni understand that this was still the Occidental College they knew, in terms of its values; its commitment to quality education, the liberal arts, and interdisciplinary study; and close faculty-student ratio. But it was also a college that was looking to the changes occurring more broadly in the United States and in the world, recognizing that if Occidental was going to be intellectually relevant and socially relevant, it really needed to be thinking about being a much more diverse student body.
Slaughter: We constantly had to deal with the myth that an emphasis on equity or diversity meant a concomitant lack of emphasis on excellence in the education. And you would have to really refute that with the successes that the students had. The thing that really stopped that—or at least slowed it down significantly—was the year  in which we had a Rhodes Scholar, a Marshall Scholar, and a Truman Scholar. The Rhodes was a Romanian immigrant. the Marshall was an African-American woman from Harlem, and the Truman was a Latina from a barrio in East Los Angeles. And we put out this little booklet titled "We Don't Like to Brag, But …"
Peterson: I would say that our messaging resonated with younger graduates more than older ones. Multiculturalism became kind of a lightning rod for dumbing down or for lowering standards. It was not at all the case at Occidental, but I can understand why people might have viewed it that way.
Slaughter: The biggest problem was, frankly, with alumni who thought of the College as it was in the '40s and '50s, as the idyllic institution that they wanted it to remain. But if they took a look at Eagle Rock—the community surrounding the College—it clearly was not the same Eagle Rock that existed in the '40s and '50s. It was becoming much more diverse, with large numbers of Latino persons moving in, and I argued that the most important thing that we could do would be for the College to be seen as a major part of that community.
[The resistance] was fiercer then I expected. I really hadn't come to grips with the idea that Occidental had been such an important part of the lives of so many people, particularly in this area, for so many years. You couldn't really understand that until you got here. And that became very clear early on.
Ted Mitchell: Occidental has a long history of inclusiveness and of making breaks from the traditional approach to a liberal arts education at critical points during its history: separating from the Presbyterian Church because the restrictions were too narrow and confining intellectually and socially; being an important refuge for Asian-American students during the Second World War; the inclusion of Jewish students on campus; establishing the institution as coeducational. I think we underestimate the bravery of our predecessors by saying, "Oh well, it was all one way in the past, and now we have this 25-year history that we have to deal with." It's a much richer, much more extraordinary story.
I certainly reject out of hand the idea that Occidental lost its [competitive] edge when we began to diversify. That is a misreading of history, and it's a misappropriation of what I think was a marvelous and powerful moment in the College's history—one that is reminiscent of the traditions of the institution. So far from being anomalous, that effort to diversify speaks to the very highest and noblest traditions of the College.
Axeen: Many of us, through the '70s, had long discussions about wanting to diversify the student body and curriculum. That came to a head just at the time I was named dean. One of the gratifying things is that when we discussed this with the trustees, they said, yes, this is what we should be doing. With faculty support, we started looking hard at how we could offer ourselves to the best people coming out of graduate schools looking for jobs, and particularly how we could try to recruit faculty members from different racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds.
Slaughter: We made contact with a number of first-rate institutions—Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Wisconsin, Yale—and found out who were some of the outstanding minority Ph.D. students who were a dissertation away from completing their work. And we brought them out here to finish their research and perhaps teach a course.
Axeen: We quickly acquired a reputation as an institution that was interested in diversifying its membership and its approach to traditional studies. We had funding we used for postdoctoral fellowships and we brought in really bright, underrepresented faculty from the best institutions, and offered them the chance to teach part time and work on their own research part time. They had a chance to look over the College, and we could look them over as well. Many of those people became leading figures in the transition. They liked it—they liked being in Los Angeles, and they liked the openness of the institution—so they stayed. It reached a point where we were able, for a long period of time, to hire our first-choice candidates.
Slaughter: If we wanted to be a viable institution in 2030, it was essential that we began to recognize that America had changed. I was concerned about the fact that we had essentially receded from being a part of the dynamics that were occurring in Los Angeles and were putting ourselves on an island separate from what was going on in Los Angeles.
My first realization that we needed to do more to build some relationships with the city was in the announcement of my appointment, which ended with the paragraph which said that "Occidental College is located east of Glendale and west of Pasadena." It did not say it was a part of the city of Los Angeles. And I remember calling in the head of the PR department at the time and saying that from now on, I want us to say that Occidental College is located in the community of Eagle Rock and the city of Los Angeles. And that we should think of ourselves as a liberal arts college of Los Angeles.
One of my first acts as president was to invite Mayor Tom Bradley to come have lunch with my wife and me. And I promised him at that time that the College and I would do everything we could to be supportive of any effort that he felt he could use our assistance. [It was] my belief that Occidental will thrive if and only if it is seen as an important entity within the city.
The Price of Pioneering
Despite the success of a $75-million capital campaign, titled Compass for a New Century, all indicators were not pointing north for Oxy. Enrollment at the College tumbled 10 percent from 1988 to 1997, and alumni giving bottomed out at 24 percent in 1992-93. While a number of outside factors (a troubled real estate market foremost among them) may have contributed to Oxy's woes, the College was paying the "price of pioneering," as Emeritus President Robert A. Skotheim puts it.
Slaughter: We did have a number of budgetary issues, unquestionably in part because of our desire to diversify the institution. But somehow we were able to deal with them, and we were able to pull off a successful capital campaign that led to the one thing that I really wanted to make happen: to remodel Johnson Student Center into a building that would be attractive to incoming students. I always felt that we cost ourselves an enrollment of 10 to 15 percent because of the decrepit nature of the student center that existed at the time. And there is no question in my mind today that part of the growth in the enrollment is due to the fact that the facilities on campus are so much nicer than they were 25 years ago.
Bill Tingley, retired vice president of admission and financial aid: Applications to Occidental in those years before I came had declined about 30 percent in six years—at a time when comparable colleges were actually seeing increases in applications. This came at a very turbulent time in higher education: The financial pressures on families and on colleges were considerable. Any time you have those conditions and then you try to change your direction—take a new approach—you're running some risk of not doing that successfully. The turnover in leadership, the College's financial picture, and the uncertainty about what it meant to high school counselors as they assessed it—this set of conditions made it difficult.
Harold Hewitt, former vice president for administration and finance and chief financial officer: Ron Arnault was the chair of the budget committee at the time, and the CFO at ARCO. He was a very impressive guy. In my first year, we wound the year up with an unexpected deficit on the order of about $2.5 or maybe $2.75 million, as I recall. In the first six weeks of my being there, we laid off 25 staff members and cut back budgets across the board—draconian, serious measures that were designed to assure John Slaughter that we were on the right track.
First of all, the budget was optimistic with respect to revenues and unrealistic with respect to expenses. We reset revenue projections much more realistically, and on the expense side we increased the budget to account for expenses that we knew would always be incurred and could not be controlled. Then Ron led a big discussion with the board about investing from reserves. In the first couple of years after resetting the budget came a plan to grow enrollment and to basically balance the budget in the future. The enrollment prior was around 1,500; the target was 1,800.
Tingley: We wanted to emphasize continuity for those who needed reassurance that the College was not changing into something they weren't going to recognize, but also recognize its formidable position in the most exciting urban area in the country. We needed to show that there was going to be a combination of both continuity and change. We did it through more effective communication.
Hewitt: Shortly after Bill, Ted Mitchell arrived. The two people I credit most with the turnaround are Ted and Bill. When we got the numbers right finally, we still needed more revenue, and the people who did that were Bill and Ted.
Mitchell: My entire professional career has been about access and equity. Occidental is and has been a place that has a genuine commitment to diversity, a genuine commitment to access, and an equal and genuine commitment to quality. That's not an easy balance to sustain, but it seemed like the right project to work on.
When I arrived, the College was a serious dichotomy. On the one hand I had never been at a place where more people were more passionate about an institution's mission. On the other side of the equation, there were blank stares more often than not about how to accomplish this mission in the real world.
Hard Decisions and Turning Points
Mitchell: I spent my first year trying to understand the College's finances, where we were recruiting students, and why we were not able to recruit them. And at the same time I was trying to work a budget for the following year that would at a minimum be balanced, and at a maximum take a bite out of the structural deficit that we had. So that was half of my work.
The other half of the work was to celebrate the College externally—to raise the flag to say Occidental is here, Oxy is going to be the most exciting liberal arts school in the country. It meant 28 alumni chapter visits in the first seven months of my tenure. It meant visits to all of the foundations. The response was gratifying. Alumni giving began to pick up. We did a big student recruitment push in the spring, hitting the major recruitment cities. For some reason I reserved Honolulu for myself.
We did salary increases that were less than what people had hoped for. We froze positions that were not filled and eliminated positions in areas that hurt—long-serving members of the community who were performing real and important work. We deferred again a number of capital spending projects that the College needed to undertake but couldn't. And at the end of the year, we had, indeed, balanced the budget.
One of the hardest decisions that we had to make was to reduce the amount of institution-based financial aid that we would make available to each of the entering classes as they came through. Without that, we would not have been able to balance our budget, we would have continued to erode the endowment, and we probably would have had to lay off more people. So this was not a case of good vs. evil; it was competing evils.
Hewitt: There was a great deal of concern among the faculty that the plan to grow enrollment would dilute or even undermine the commitment. So Bill had an unusual set of challenges. He was asked to bring in more students, to lower the institutional discount rate [the difference between what students pay to attend Oxy and the College's sticker price], and at the same time to uphold the 1991 commitment to diversity and access. That is a difficult balancing act. Yet Bill was able to maintain very high numbers of students who were students of color and grow enrollment and control the discount rate. That was the key to the turnaround.
Mitchell: On the trivial side, this was the time when we were starting to move from desktops to laptops, etc. We were looking at a multimillion-dollar bill to wire the campus when we decided instead to become one of the nation's first wireless campuses. At a fraction of a cost, we leapfrogged the current debate about how many computer terminals you ought to have in dormitory studies and moved Occidental into the digital age.
I thought, and many of the faculty agreed, that this would be an opportunity for us to double down on our assets, our uniqueness, and not follow somebody else. The diplomacy and world affairs program is known worldwide as the premier liberal arts opportunity for students who are interested in international study. And so it seemed that investing in DWA, investing in more opportunities for students to go abroad, investing in more opportunities for students to study at the U.N., that those investments would emphasize something that made Oxy different, which is that we could be an intensely intimate place on campus, but we could provide our students with opportunities that nobody else could provide. More locally, I wanted to make sure we took advantage of our location, and created opportunities for students to be more involved academically, socially, programmatically, in the life of L.A.
Four Years in Transition
Six years into his tenure at Oxy, Mitchell faced a choice between "the two great passions" in his life—Occidental, and K-12 education. He left the College in June 2005. The search for Oxy's 13th president led to the selection of Susan Prager, former provost at Dartmouth College and a law school professor and dean at UCLA.
Prager: A big attraction of coming to Occidental was the opportunity to be engaged with an institution that has had a long and important role in Southern California's history—that, and Occidental's sharp and clear focus on undergraduate education.
Because I am a big believer that you can further build an institution by highlighting and supplementing what you already have, I spent considerable time trying to learn about the work of the faculty and got an exciting view of how much was going on. I quickly concluded that Occidental is on the high end of institutions that draw students into research as a part of their education and that Oxy does an outstanding job of encouraging students to chart their own path.
Prager knows firsthand the pride of being an Occidental parent: Daughter Case transferred to Oxy from Wellesley as a junior in fall 2006. She graduated with the Class of '08 as an independent pattern of study major, and with the encouragement of faculty, received a Fulbright Fellowship to work in the Galapagos. She also received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and is now a second-year Ph.D student in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University.
Prager: Like so many Oxy students, Case received extraordinary support from a wide range of faculty—not the kind of support that is a crutch, the kind that helps students reach higher and develop as independent thinkers. Occidental faculty do it all. They care deeply about their teaching, and they understand the important synergies between scholarship and teaching. When I came back to campus to see Case graduate at Commencement in 2008, I thought: What a difference this college makes in the lives and futures of its students.
Prager's own time at Oxy lasted only 18 months. "I've tried to make the College a more faculty-centered place," she said in an interview following her resignation, "and I am optimistic that this emphasis will live on." With a nudge from his former Whitman College associate Bill Tingley, Bob Skotheim came out of retirement to accept an 18-month appointment as Oxy's 14th president.
Skotheim: What a college president really worries about are enrollment, financial condition, paying the bills, what's going on in the classroom, retention. That's the guts of the operation. When I arrived at Occidental, things were in remarkably good shape. There had never been so many applications, there had never been such a high retention rate, blah blah blah. So it was quite clear that I was mainly to support the people who were in charge of those things.
Veitch: I agree with Bob. Despite the fact that the College was in good shape, there remained a perception that things were going to hell in a handbasket. One of the things that is humbling for a president is that colleges are both incredibly resilient and delicate institutions. It shows you in some ways the limitations of a president's influence—that you could have that many presidents in succession and the institution keeps humming along pretty solidly at a certain level. Without leadership, however, an institution can't do new things.
Less than a year into Skotheim's tenure, Barack Obama '83—who attended the College for two years before transferring to Columbia University as a junior—was elected the 44th president of the United States. Suddenly there was a new shorthand for Occidental College: Barack Obama went here.
Skotheim: I would say that the Occidental of the '80s and '90s and present is so nicely captured in Obama: his speaking, his writing, his thinking. The memoir he wrote (Dreams From My Father) is such a tribute to human intelligence and sensitivity and expression. It was uplifting and energizing.
Veitch: A liberal arts education is a bit of a mystery to most people. It's valued in part because our most prestigious institutions are grounded in it. And all of a sudden, you had a president who was an eloquent and thoughtful visionary and had the habits of mind that come with a liberal arts education. It's silly to say to me, "But Obama didn't graduate." It's as much about where you start as where you finish—and to this day, when he cites the reading that mattered to him, and all the books out of Collegium, and the professors that mattered to him, they're all Oxy.
The Seasons of Veitch
Skotheim: The first time I met Jonathan was at the Princeton Club of New York on Halloween 2008, just before the election.
Veitch: The club was under construction, so we could not sit in the dining room. So Bob took me to a little sitting area above the racquetball courts, and he was the same charming, funny, engaging person that he is now. But it was an interview, so there was a long discussion about the College. Bob's questions were punctuated by these grunts—Ungh!—and the thwack of the ball. The thwack was like the metronome, and the grunts were the exclamation marks.
Skotheim: I should have taken Jonathan up to my room. That was a bad way to start.
Veitch: But Bob already had a bit of a reputation.
Three years into his Occidental journey, Veitch looks at the 125th celebration as the start of a "different season" in his presidency.
Veitch: In a sense, I feel it's my institution now in a different kind of way than it was before. And part of it had to do with being an apprentice to what the job entailed. And having [former Board of Trustees chair] Dennis Collins involved [as senior vice president of institutional advancement and external relations] was an important step in that, because he knew the institutional history so well. His presence in the administration was kind of a blessing on the future.
The most surprising thing to me about the job is that I enjoy fundraising as much as I do. I had a general perception that most academics believe that's the less attractive element of this kind of work. But it turns out that you're meeting people who are dynamic and successful—and it becomes a real opportunity to understand their life's trajectories and the complexities in which their choices have contributed to their success.
The second is that liberal arts are not well understood by the public at large—or at times even the institution itself. There is a real value to contemplative life that these four years are about. One of the challenges is to defend the contemplative, because it seems useless almost by definition and a luxury. But I would argue that it's a luxury that we can't afford to discard.
Skotheim: My idea of college is sitting off by myself and reading.
Veitch: Mine, too.
Skotheim: I am just so out of it temperamentally. As human beings, we search for the authentic. That search is at the heart of institutions like Occidental. Even the most sophisticated 18-year-old is here to be touched by a teacher.
Veitch: I think this goes to the point that the more things change, the more they stay the same. All the hoopla, all the extra programs—it still comes down to a teacher and a student.
Interviews by Jonathan Veitch (Gilman, Slaughter, Mitchell), Dick Anderson (Prager, Skotheim, Veitch), and Andy Faught (Axeen, Freeman, Hewitt, Peterson, Tingley).