Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch laid out an ambitious agenda for his presidency and cited the careers of Jack Kemp '57 and Barack Obama '83 as the best evidence of the value of a liberal arts education in his inaugural address today before a crowd of several hundred in the Remsen Bird Hillside Theater.
Among a dozen specific goals he identified as essential for the College's success, Veitch called for a rethinking of the College's core curriculum "to provide our students a purposeful and thoughtful synthesis of what we value most as an institution. To do less is to abdicate our responsibility." He also emphasized the importance of global literacy and advocated "a vision for science in general education that will engender respect for scientific methodology and an understanding of the basic principles of science."
Taking advantage of its location in Los Angeles, Occidental also should further develop its program of civic engagement, and form new collaborations with the city's leading cultural institutions, said Veitch, who commissioned three new musical works from Occidental faculty that were performed during today's ceremony.
"Occidental must remain committed to [its] historic mission by enhancing its scholarship support for first generation students," he continued. "Colleges and universities have a crucial role to play in safeguarding upward mobility."
Despite the success of colleges like Occidental, the liberal arts are often little appreciated and often misunderstood, Veitch said. "If one wants to understand the value of the liberal arts, one need look no further than the stunning careers of Occidental's two most famous students: Jack Kemp and Barack Obama."
The books Kemp and Obama read, and the liberal arts education they received, "allowed two callow 18-year-olds to ask important questions about freedom and necessity, justice and inequality, the possibilities and limits of the market, the vanity of human wishes and the nature of tragedy," Veitch said. "What more can one ask for from an education than this? Are these not the questions that matter most? Surely, they are the questions we want our leaders to reckon with."
Eugene M. Tobin, program officer for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Hamilton College, also addressed the issue of the underappreciated liberal arts. "Although the liberal arts college sector has had more obituaries written about it than any other segment of higher education, the real challenge facing Occidental and its peers is not extinction or 'relevance,' but rather the necessity of making difficult choices that allow it to remain true to its mission," Tobin said in his remarks. "Rest assured, President Veitch ... understands that the liberal arts college sector is a case study of how higher education has grown by adding new things without taking old things away."
Eugene Lang, founder and president of the Eugene M. Lang Foundation and namesake of the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School, also addressed the crowd. "Am I a philanthropist by presenting you with Jonathan as the new leader of Occidental College? Or am I a masochist who invited the painful concern of replacing him in New York?" Lang asked, raising a laugh. "Well, no matter! ... Clearly, Jonathan has found a community after his own heart at Occidental, a community where students are challenged to see the connections between their studies and current social issues."