This Will Be a Special Year

By President Harry J. Elam Photo by Marc Campos

During the last week of August, we will be welcoming students back to the beautiful Oxy campus. What joy it brings me to write that!

With great excitement and anticipation, our Oxy community is looking forward to resuming the person-to-person interactions at the heart of an Occidental education—in the residence halls, classrooms, labs, studios, athletic fields, and all across campus. It’s a measure of what an unusual year we have just gone through that this fall will be my first opportunity to meet most of the Oxy community in person—from students, faculty, and staff to trustees, parents, and alumni.

This promises to be a fall like no other. Earlier this year, in keeping with promises we had made to last year’s seniors, we staged two in-person Commencement ceremonies on Patterson Field: one for the Class of 2021 in May, and a second for the members of the Class of 2020 in June. This fall, we will be putting on two Orientations—one for first-years just starting out on their college journey, and a second one for sophomores, who also will be arriving in Eagle Rock for the first time, even though they already have a year of classes under their belts. I am tremendously grateful to all of the staff whose creativity, professionalism, and get-it-done work ethic has made it possible for us to double up on these foundational events and to sponsor subsequent events throughout the year.

Amidst the exuberant expectancy, we are very much aware that the pandemic remains with us. The surge of cases in Los Angeles County and in many parts of the country caused by the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 is a serious matter. But we remain confident that our carefully made plans will allow us to open safely. Under Oxy’s mandatory vaccination program, we have already reached a 97 percent vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff—a percentage that we expect will grow even higher by the time the semester begins. Our testing policy, inspection and upgrade program for all campus air circulation systems, and masking policy—everyone must wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status—will serve us in good stead.

Even as we continue to take the necessary steps to protect the health and safety of the Oxy community, we intend to accomplish much important work this year. As we look to Oxy’s future, it is clear that our ability to achieve and maintain academic excellence will depend on our embracing diversity of all kinds and developing an environment conducive to the success of every student. While the urgent demands of the pandemic may have temporarily masked the issues of equity and justice we face, COVID-19’s differential impact on people of color and low-income communities has only underlined the need for action. We recently welcomed Dr. David Carreon Bradley as Oxy’s new vice president for equity and justice and chief diversity officer. David, a Los Angeles native, who has served in this capacity at Vassar and Smith colleges and most recently as well as  from Cal State Fullerton, will play a major role in addressing the Equity and Justice Agenda that I announced in March. That effort, in turn, will be an important part of the larger strategic planning process for the College which will get under way this fall.

Buoying all of our efforts is the continuing success of The Oxy Campaign For Good, which to date has raised $191.2 million in gifts toward our goal of $225 million—the most ambitious campaign in Oxy history. Trustee Anne Wilson Cannon '74’s recent multi-million-dollar estate gift to the College made history: When added to her previous giving, this makes her Oxy’s all-time largest living individual donor. Just as importantly, alumni support as a whole has been widespread and enthusiastic. Alumni from 45 states and 10 countries and from almost every class since 1950 gave more than $1.5 million during our annual Day For Oxy in April. With support this broad and deep, there is every reason to be optimistic about Oxy’s future.

Recently, I attended the last session of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Seminar for New Presidents, which is billed as “a practical orientation for the presidency, familiarizing new presidents with the opportunities and hazards they will likely face.” During the final conversation with Harvard President Larry Bacow, he warned that the second year of our presidency—after the bloom of the honeymoon period had faded—would be the hardest. My fellow presidents and I, who began our service in the exigencies of the pandemic, collectively gasped. In no way deterred, I can honestly say that I am looking forward to everything that this second year at Oxy will bring. This will be a special year.