Cheers, Tears for 2014

Family and friends filled Occidental College’s Remsen Bird Hillside Theater to cap off a weekend-long celebration of the distinguished members of the Class of 2014. 

Commencement speaker Elizabeth Diller overcame her "phobia of pomp and circumstance" to join the graduates as they take the next step on their journey. She assured them that this was no time to be nervous about the future.

"Very few people nail it early," Diller said. "They bumble their way through the first years. I for one ended up doing what I thought I’d despise. I have true reservations about punctuating one’s education with a period, or even a comma or a colon. School prepares us for education."

The recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant and an associate professor of architecture at Princeton since 1990, Diller is a founding principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the 100-person design studio that integrates architecture, the visual arts and the performing arts.

Among the firm’s projects are the renovation of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the controversial expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Institute of Contemporary Art on Boston’s waterfront; the Museum of Image & Sound on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro; and the Dongguan Factory and Housing Complex in Shenzhen, China.

She describes her projects, such as the adaptive reuse of a New York City abandoned railway line into the High Line Park, as "surgical interventions into existing structures and logics." She extolled the need to retain an independent voice among the voice of an institution.

"I didn’t want to be a problem-solver," she said. "I wanted to be a problem-creator. I was a misfit in architecture because I was a border-crosser. I didn’t fit neatly in boxes but instead fit between the cracks."

Honorary degrees were presented to Diller along with two other recipients: Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, and Odessa Woolfolk M’73, educator, civic activist and founding president of the Birmingham (Ala.) Civil Rights Institute.

On first glance, a food critic, a civil rights activist and an architect appear to have few commonalities. But as each spoke to the Class of 2014, the common thread became clear. Through their work they each engage their communities and appreciate and embrace urban life. They emphasized the need for today’s graduates to do the same.

"As an institution committed to a robust and thoughtful growth of civil society, Occidental awards honorary degrees to those women and men who have made a positive difference in the lives of their and our community," said President Jonathan Veitch.

Assistant professor of sociology John Lang says Gold "has helped millions of Angelenos become curious about their neighborhoods."

A native Angeleno, Gold spoke of the city as an "extraordinary multicultural mosaic" that will prepare students to learn and live in the world. "I can attest to the outside influence Oxy has had on me. Then, as now, Oxy is remarkable with its advanced emphasis on social activism. Something is clearly going right in Eagle Rock."

Woolfolk, who received a master’s in urban studies at Oxy, echoed similar sentiments as Gold. Speaking of her time at Occidental, she said, "The City of Los Angeles was our laboratory" and "a cauldron of social activism." Like Diller, she works in "the healing of a city by design."

At the close of 127th academic year, Oxy also honored five retiring professors, Arthé Anthony, Larry Caldwell, Allen Gross, Martha Ronk and James Whitney. These teachers and mentors represent more than 250 years of classroom experience and shaped the education of thousands of Oxy students.

President Veitch, who led the conferring of degrees, concluded the day’s festivities by admitting graduates into the family of Oxy alumni. "We hope and expect you will continue to remain involved in your alma mater, granting us your friendship, your advice and support."