Rolling in the Deep

President Veitch charts a course for the future of the liberal arts and sciences that buoys Oxy's strengths and dives into both local and global initiatives

By Jim Tranquada

It was an ambitious gambit from the beginning: the creation of a college on the outskirts of a ramshackle city. But as Los Angeles grew into "a nexus of creativity, diversity, and complexity where the world's opportunities and challenges are played out on a daily basis"—to borrow a phrase from Occidental's new five-year strategic plan—the College has persevered, evolved, and thrived in tandem with its surroundings.

Now, after more than two years of intensive navel-gazing and thoughtful, often passionate debate, President Jonathan Veitch has taken the wraps off Oxy's road map for the future. The plan uses Los Angeles as the springboard for Occidental's transformation into a "vibrant international campus," with a vision of nothing less than to brand Oxy as "the most distinctive urban liberal arts college in the country."

Central to the task ahead is Oxy's ability to reinterpret the liberal arts tradition at a time when the fundamental value of the liberal arts and sciences is under fire. "We must reinvigorate our curriculum, make the case for the importance of the liberal arts to prospective students and the public at large, and define the skills and qualities of mind that we want our students to possess when they graduate," Veitch says.

Rather than hedging its bets, Occidental will fully embrace the transformative nature of a liberal arts education—a process that is underway with the College's ongoing celebration of its 125th anniversary. Far more than a nostalgic glance at the past, the yearlong series of events commemorates the power of the liberal arts in the lives and careers of Oxy alumni, while addressing how—and why—that mix of skills, knowledge, and qualities of mind still matter today.

Building on the College's 1990 mission statement, the new strategic plan (formally approved by the faculty on May 15 and by the Board of Trustees on June 11) "strikes a very good balance between the general and specific," Veitch says. "It's general enough so that people can see a lot of things in it they'll find encouraging, and specific to give us some very clear direction." That noted, Veitch sounds the same warning he has repeated throughout the planning process: Oxy faces some difficult decisions ahead.

"We realize that a strategic plan without money is a letter to Santa, so we've already done some hard things," he says. "We've cut 5 percent of the budgets of every non-academic department, and now have some resources set aside to serve as a downpayment on the future. One of the difficult tasks before us now will be getting the next 5 percent—that's where we will begin cutting into bone, and making hard choices about what we won't do."

As the strategic plan points out, the landscape of higher education has changed dramatically since Oxy blew out the candles on its 100th birthday cake. Tuition increases have far outstripped growth in household income, making it increasingly difficult for families to send their children to private institutions. And while Oxy awarded $36.3 million in financial aid in 2011-12—an increase of almost $3 million over the previous year—parents still need more.

"Colleges today face the toughest external environment in 80 years," says Jorge Gonzalez, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College. "Federal and state governments are cutting back, foundations and philanthropists are giving less, and endowments are producing less. The financial challenges are very real. At the same time, the perceived value of the liberal arts is under fire, and a growing call for institutional accountability requires colleges to make a better case for themselves."

Internally, Gonzalez says, Occidental is in a relatively strong position: "Our application pool is largest ever, and the quality of the students we admitted is the best in many years. We are bringing superb faculty to campus. The quality of our teaching is amazing." Dozens of longtime Oxy faculty are expected to retire over the next 10 to 15 years, including seven who are now enrolled in the College's phased retirement program. "Having to replace the faculty who have made Oxy what it is today is both a challenge and an opportunity to rethink the outlines of what an Oxy education in the liberal arts and sciences is," he says.

Under the guidance of a campus-wide planning committee (co-chaired by Amos Himmelstein, vice president for finance and planning, and Amy Lyford, professor of art history and the visual arts and Faculty Council chair), 11 taskforces were charged with setting priorities and making recommendations in such areas as teaching, the residential college, the arts, civic engagement, and diversity. The subsequent conversation touched on everything from the tension between Oxy's identity as a residential college and encouraging students to go off campus to take advantage of Los Angeles, to the delicate balance between teaching and research, how to address a growing number of adjuncts on the faculty, and the proper role of public art on campus. That the discussion was wide-ranging and prolonged was no surprise, Himmelstein says. "It's been 15 years since the Oxy community—faculty, students, trustees, staff, and alumni—completed the process of hammering out a consensus on what the College's future should be."

For faculty, the quality of an Oxy education is key. "Our major goal is to enhance what we do to make it better," says Lyford. "Our role is to drive the quality of this institution and our teaching." Inevitably, the strategic planning conversation touched on the perennial debate over the optimum size for the College. In the years ahead, Occidental will likely take a two-pronged approach, trimming the number of students and increasing faculty, Gonzalez says.

During the discussion, Veitch raised a concern that the planning process tends to favor existing constituencies and programs. "Where is the opportunity to think through what we're not doing yet that we should be doing?" he asked faculty, citing computer science ("a field that is changing our lives") and media studies ("an odd omission in a city that is the global media capital") as underrepresented in the current curriculum.

Ultimately, much of the plan emerged from what Veitch calls "Oxy's DNA." That includes a longstanding commitment to diversity (ensuring that talented students from all backgrounds can thrive at Oxy); historic strengths in the arts and sciences (incorporating artists and thinkers from Christo and Common to Eric Schlosser and Samantha Power into campus life); community engagement (supporting students' development as citizens beyond the confines of campus); an active alumni community (strengthening the Oxy network worldwide); and location, location, location.

"We're urban—we won't suddenly wake up to find ourselves in a cornfield in Iowa," Veitch says. Building on existing relationships with such organizations as the Autry National Center and the Southwest Museum ("L.A. 101," Summer 2011) and partnering with other L.A. academic institutions, "This plan lays the groundwork for taking advantage of the immense range of opportunities presented us in Los Angeles," he adds. "Some might say we have only redefined what we already are, and there is some truth to that. But if you read the plan carefully, it puts meat on the bones of what we say Oxy is."

The plan's guiding vision closely parallels the one Veitch unveiled in a major Founders Day speech. "Every student who graduates from Occidental will be prepared to take on their responsibilities as citizens of the world, skilled at negotiating its complexities, eclectic in their interests and tastes," he said. (For the full text, go to oxy.edu/presidents-office/2012-founders-day-speech.)

However, as he notes, "God is in the details." The coming academic year will be devoted to the development of an operational plan that will reallocate current and future resources to align with the plan's new priorities. The Faculty Council has formed working groups on community engagement, research and scholarship, and career discernment to start the process. "We saw these as encompassing the largest number of people and programs on campus," Lyford says.

Last year's resource optimization project—which required each non-academic department to examine its operations and come up with cuts equal to 5 percent of its budget—did more than provide seed money for the implementation of strategic plan priorities. According to Michael Groener, vice president for administration, it also provided convincing evidence that Occidental is a lean operation compared to many peer institutions: "There was no low-hanging fruit in the shape of spending or programs that could easily be eliminated or reallocated." The plan's objectives underline the necessity of building the endowment for an institution whose peers have as much as four times the income to fuel annual operating budgets. As Veitch observed in a planning meeting earlier this spring, "This is a fundraising document as well."

Despite all the challenges, the self-examination inherent in the planning conversation is essential to Occidental's institutional health and well-being. "The liberal arts and sciences are not a static entity," Veitch says. "Every generation needs to go back to that well, and engage in a debate about what belongs there. What books, which ideas matter, and why? As President Remsen Bird said shortly after he arrived at Oxy more than 90 years ago, we need to make that case in every generation."