Opening Conversations and Common Threads
Clearly, there has been nothing typical about this pandemic year—a year that has turned up the heat, both literally and figuratively. My wife, Michele, our two cats, Leland and Oswald, and I moved into the Annenberg President’s House over Labor Day weekend during what may have been the hottest days of the year in Los Angeles. We are thrilled to be living on campus, and we eagerly look forward to hosting the Occidental community at the Annenberg House—which Michele and I see as “the people’s house”—as soon as conditions allow.
The challenges of the year to date have been many and required some extremely difficult, time-sensitive decisions to ensure the health and safety of the Oxy community as well as the fiscal stability of the College. Throughout this process, I have been moved and inspired by seeing how everyone has risen to the occasion under so many evolving and stressful circumstances. I have witnessed faculty designing innovative new online courses and mastering new virtual teaching tools; a reduced staff working nights and weekends to get the College’s essential business done; everyone together donating funds to support staff in need; and students passionately engaged with their classes despite being geographically scattered.
In addition, alumni have reached out to offer support for students and families. Trustees and senior leadership have worked with me to ensure Oxy’s economic future and protect its higher educational mission. Our health and safety team has set up robust campus systems of testing and daily health monitoring. All these efforts have prepared the way so that we can begin welcoming our students and furloughed staff back this coming spring, if Los Angeles County public health mandates allow.
Health and safety protocols have meant the active listening tour I embarked on four months ago could not be in person as I had so hoped. Nonetheless, I have had the great pleasure of virtually meeting with many of you, from members of the community, including the Alumni Board of Governors, Parents Council, and Associated Students of Occidental College, through webinars and online meetings, as well as with staff, faculty, and students through the biweekly virtual office hours that I started holding in September. I have learned much through these interactions. Like everyone else, I have been schooled in Zoom etiquette: Stay muted unless speaking; never backlight; virtual backgrounds can disappear; cultivate a sense of humor when a child wails in the background or a cat walks on the keyboard. But more importantly, I have learned a great deal about our extraordinary Oxy community.
Certain common threads have emerged during my conversations. When I ask students and alumni why they love Oxy, invariably their answers are always a version of the same: “I found myself here,” “I found my people here,” “I found my calling here.” They also tell me about the relationships they had with peers, with staff, and especially with professors and mentors who developed relationships that opened up their thinking, changed their lives, and made them want to change the world. In fact, when I approached the two students on the presidential search committee and asked them what they felt was important to know about Oxy, both replied by citing its continuing legacy of student activism and public service. That desire to be a participant in change extends to their involvement with the College. It is apparent to me that even the sometimes-critical eye students or alumni may at times cast on the College, or on me, is an expression of the great love and care they have for the institution. In my view, ultimately, that kind of sincere engagement is a source of insight and strength for Occidental.
Despite the many challenges we—and many other colleges—have faced these last few months, I remain incredibly excited about Oxy’s future. I look forward to working with all of you in helping Occidental achieve its fullest potential.
Harry J. Elam, Jr.
Above: Emmons Health Center nurse Claudia Ramos prepares to test President Elam for COVID-19 soon after his arrival on the Oxy campus in September. Photo by Michele Elam.