Harry J. Elam, Jr. Inaugurated as Occidental’s 16th President

Jim Tranquada Photos by Marc Campos

Harry J. Elam, Jr. was inaugurated as Occidental College’s 16th president in a joyous April 23 ceremony showcasing the arts and Elam’s call to bring “New Harmonies” to an Occidental liberal arts education.

The ceremony in Remsen Bird Hillside Theater on a picture-perfect day featured numerous personal tributes to Elam from family, friends and colleagues in front of an enthusiastic crowd of alumni, students, parents, faculty, staff, trustees and previous Occidental presidents.

“You know, I am starting to think that every new president should have to wait two years for their inauguration. It makes for a very different Inauguration speech,” said Elam, who took office July 1, 2020, four months after the surging pandemic led Occidental to switch to remote learning.

Elam used his speech to both defend the liberal arts—"I would argue that liberal arts that teach us to think critically, to solve problems creatively, to apply learning adaptively are more important than ever”—and to call for their reimagining. “At Oxy, I see this involving not just new programmatic inventions but fresh juxtapositions of ideas, remixing past practice with current thinking to evoke bold future-looking initiatives,” he said.

“These new harmonies, as I am calling them, incorporate older traditions into new frameworks, bringing into view new perspectives, new ways of doing,” he continued. “Such new harmonies call for a reinvention of relationships and interconnections across fields of inquiry and research, signaling not an end to disciplinary expertise but the cross-fertilization that both students and faculty seek and need.”

The use of the phrase “new harmonies” is intentional, intended to “foreground the arts as a vital component of the College’s future,” said Elam, an internationally renowned theater scholar. “My hope—figuratively and literally—is to discover and implement ways in which Occidental can create its own new sound and sing its own particular music.”

Elam also used the occasion to announce that Occidental has reached a significant milestone in its comprehensive campaign—the most ambitious in the College’s 135-year history—by reaching its $225 million goal one year early. “Not many presidents can say they met a comprehensive campaign goal before they were even inaugurated!” he said. “With one year still to go, with this extraordinary community, I am confident we will only continue to build.”

Stanford trustee Roberta Denning and her husband Steve Denning, former chair of the Stanford board, both paid tribute to Elam. “Occidental chose its new president well. Harry Elam is a leader who doesn’t exhort from the front nor prod from behind but instead walks alongside as a partner,” Roberta Denning said. “We know that with Harry Elam as president, Occidental College will be well-positioned to demonstrate the value, and the values, of a liberal arts education for decades to come.”

Television and film actors Sterling K. Brown and Ryan Michelle Bathé, who met during a Stanford theater production directed by Elam, paid tribute to their friend and mentor in the form of a letter to their 10-year-old son about the benefits of going to college.

“You will sit in class and people not only impart knowledge but consistently challenge you to write better, listen better, read better, ask better questions and give better answers,” Bathé said. “It is the only place where you will encounter people who are deeply invested in you being a bigger and better version of yourself simply because they are so passionate about education that they can’t help bring out the best in you. … And if you’re lucky, you will find a Harry J. Elam or Michele Elam of your very own.”

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In  her remarks, former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal Harriet Elam-Thomas spoke about the power of the arts and the central role they have played in the career of her nephew (who the family calls Jay). “Everything Harry Elam touches is infused with his deep commitment to art and its impact on the human condition,” Elam-Thomas said. “Art’s transformative power to touch the corners of the soul otherwise unreachable is the hallmark of Jay’s persona.”

Conveying greetings to President Elam were History Professor and Faculty Council Chair Sharla Fett, on behalf of the faculty; Ellie Findell '23, Associated Students of Occidental College president, on behalf of students; Tiffany Goo Wright, executive assistant to the vice president of enrollment, on behalf of staff; Tuan Ngo '07, president of the Alumni Board of Governors, on behalf of alumni; Trustee Bob L. Johnson '77 on behalf of trustees; and Deputy Mayor Brenda Shockley '68 H'17 on behalf of the city of Los Angeles.

Highlighting the flourishing state of the arts at Occidental, the ceremony included a performance of the African-American anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in an arrangement by Chester Cahill ’24 and Leslie Garcia ’24 for orchestra, jazz ensemble and Glee Club; singer and actor Lencia Kebede ’16 singing “I Know Where I’ve Been”; and an original composition for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, “Alone/Together,” by Adam Schoenberg, associate professor of music.