Building Bridges Across Differences

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

In an atmosphere of urgency and unease, a campuswide series of initiatives works to support community and safety

Before I began my term as president of Occidental College back in 2020, I approached two students who had served on the presidential search committee and asked them what they most cherished about Oxy. Both cited the College’s history of activism, a desire to participate in change, and the opportunity to be of service to their community—values which I believe are a source of our strength. Much of a college education happens beyond the classroom, and at Oxy, that learning often occurs through immersive, hands-on experiences, the application of critical thinking to the most important global issues, and a dedication to helping others.

Last semester, I reflected frequently on that early student conversation as we experienced a renewed season of political activity on campus. As was the case at many colleges and universities across the country, the war in Israel and Gaza, with its deep and complex historical roots, stoked passion and fueled for many an atmosphere of urgency and unease within our community.

Indeed, there is perhaps no more intractable issue in our time than peace in the Middle East, and there is perhaps no better space for conscientious academic learning and scholarship than Occidental. Unfortunately, the rhetoric around this issue both on and off campus has at times been heated, divisive, or hurtful. It also has tested our sometimes-competing obligations to defend bedrock principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom while providing a welcoming and supportive environment for all students, faculty, and staff.

I do not hold that these concepts must be in opposition at Occidental, or elsewhere. Community is one of our most deeply held values, and a cornerstone of the College’s mission. We often talk about what is legally permissible or not permissible as it relates to free speech and academic freedom—but I believe we can also reach beyond this framework to consider the impact of our words on our fellow community members and to find ground for mutual care and understanding, even as we have strongly held views and share differing opinions.

As the spring semester begins, we are tightly focused on ensuring and reaffirming an environment where students learn to navigate and appreciate difference, where we practice a culture of care and learn from viewpoints divergent from our own.

To guide the evolution of this work, I am pleased to share that I have convened a College-wide task force to prevent or address the occurrence of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of harassment and discrimination at Occidental. The Task Force on Supporting Community and Safety is uniquely constructed to draw upon the widest possible range of input from students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and advocates to address the specific and ongoing needs of our community.

Acting with my full support and authority, the task force is directing projects and initiatives consistent with seven key areas: increased support for Oxy students; educational outreach; facilitating restorative conversations; accountability and support for student organizations; academic engagement; building capacity for change; and policy review and implementation. I invite you to visit the task force website for details on these initiatives, many of which have already sprung to life.

In January, for example, we were fortunate to welcome to campus Interfaith America, a civic organization dedicated to promoting pluralism and unlocking the potential of America’s diversity for the common good. Over two days, Interfaith America facilitated a series of listening sessions for students, faculty, and staff that provided a space for diverse viewpoints to be heard in a neutral setting. We look forward to receiving a report on the sessions from Interfaith America later this spring.

We also have increased training and education for faculty, staff, and students on topics such as microaggressions and bias in the classroom, bias intervention, and the history, origins, myths, and misconceptions that contribute to antisemitism and Islamophobia.

This work will continue throughout the semester and beyond. I am optimistic that it will help shape this institution into the exemplar of academic excellence, collective hope, and mutual understanding to which we aspire.

Amidst this important work, the spring semester also brings many joyous traditions that build and strengthen our community. I look forward to applauding our students at Apollo Night, cheering them on during Dance Pro, and listening to the echoes of Springfest in the Remsen Bird Hillside Theater from the president’s residence across the street.

This year’s Commencement is also particularly special to me, and not just because I joined the Occidental community at the same time as the Class of 2024. Students in this class started during the pandemic, took a leap of faith, and believed they could still have a great experience during the most trying of times. I am so very proud of all they have accomplished and I look forward to celebrating them as they step into their bold and brilliant futures.

As a liberal arts institution, our primary responsibility is to educate within an interdisciplinary, interconnected framework and to prepare our students for leadership in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and pluralistic world. By leading with our values and foregrounding academic excellence along with our empathy and compassion, we will continue to be an Oxy where all members of our community flourish and succeed.