Conversations, Cooperation, and Community

President Elam

Through the lens of the strategic planning process, President Elam finds that Oxy’s sense of community remains very much alive

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a lengthy examination of the strategic planning process—an article that unsurprisingly attracted some attention here at Occidental, given that we launched our own integrated strategic planning process this fall. In addressing the question, “What makes one strategic plan a success and another a waste of time?” the Chronicle spoke to a number of experts, including Nicholas Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning.

It was reassuring to read that Oxy is following a number of best practices recommended by Santilli and others, including a reasonable time frame (five to 10 years), an inclusive process, and creating specific metrics for measuring progress toward goals and defining what success will look like. In all of the thousands of words of analysis, one of the points that struck me most forcibly was buried near the end of the piece: the way that a robust planning discussion fosters conversations and cooperation across campus. “That is the heart of integrated planning—that connectedness that comes in alignment, that comes out of collaboration,” Santilli says.

I made it a priority to sit in on as many community input sessions as my schedule would allow. (We held more than two dozen, in addition to soliciting comments online.) In running these hourlong meetings, Sharla Fett, Robert Glass Cleland Professor of American History and Faculty Council president, and Marty Sharkey, vice president of communications and institutional initiatives, asked a series of probing questions but otherwise said very little. Instead, they listened to students, faculty, and staff think out loud, uninterrupted, about what kind of institution Oxy is and should be, what we do well and what we should do better, how current programs and structures align with our mission, and what kind of priorities the College should have for the future.

Based on that feedback, as well as input gathered from alumni and parents and data from other sources, we intend to develop a comprehensive view of Oxy’s institutional strengths, opportunities, challenges and threats. That will in turn inform a vision statement we will develop to articulate the direction for the College.

Apart from people’s thoughtful analysis and suggestions, one thing that impressed me at these sessions is how real the College’s mission is to the community. The cornerstones of excellence, equity, community, and service are not mere abstractions; they are living concepts that people use to hold themselves and the College accountable for the work that we do. It’s inspiring to hear their perceptions of the very real impact Occidental has on its students and, through our alumni and faculty research, on the larger world. 

It’s also gratifying to see what Santilli calls “connectedness” and what I would call “community” emerge as people share their thoughts with a cross-section of colleagues from across campus. You can see the silos begin to crumble—even on the Oxy campus, there are silos—as they recognize a mutual dedication to the College and the high-quality urban liberal arts education it provides. As one would expect, participants have identified institutional shortcomings and areas for improvement. What made the sessions so illuminating for me was not just the critiques themselves but the passion for the College and its mission that was behind those critiques. Whatever their role, Oxy community members are truly engaged and want to see the College succeed.

The disruptions caused by the pandemic over the last two years scattered the Oxy community all over the globe until we were able to bring everyone back to campus this fall. We need a shared sense of community more than ever, and it’s deeply reassuring to see, through the lens of the strategic planning process, that Oxy’s sense of community remains very much alive.

Harry J. Elam, Jr. will be inaugurated as Occidental's 16th president on Saturday, April 23, at Remsen Bird Hillside Theater. For more information, including how to attend the event in person, click here.