Inauguration Speech: Harry J. Elam, Jr.

This speech, titled "New Harmonies," was delivered on Saturday, April 23, 2022, by Occidental College's newly inaugurated 16th president, Harry J. Elam, Jr.

Thank you so much for the wonderful introduction, Alejo. Alejo was one of the two student members of the presidential search committee. Thank you all for being here. I am also so grateful for all the music in this ceremony, the beautiful vocal tones of Lencia Kebede, the joyful stylings of the jazz ensemble and symphony, the deeply moving original piece by Adam Schoenberg and the lively choral sounds of the Oxy Glee Club! Many thanks to Brenda Shockley, Bob Johnson, Tuan Ngo, Sharla Fett, Tiffany Wright and Ellie Findell for sharing your ideals for Oxy and for welcoming me to the challenge of helping to realize them. My deep appreciation goes out to my good, good friends, Steve and Roberta Denning and Sterling K. Brown and Ryan Bathé, all for taking the time to be here today and speaking so generously on my behalf. Truly, I am so very grateful. And of course, special thanks to my truly amazing aunt, Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas, for her always keen insight.

I would also like to give a shoutout to my friends and family, some of whom have travelled considerable distance to be here. In the audience today and watching on the livestream are Elams, Clarks, Ruffs, Holmes, Walkers and Birnbaums. Love and appreciation to my dear older sister Patricia, professor at Howard University and award-winning author—I have always admired her. My deep thanks to my daughter Claire, who has taught me so much about the gift of parenthood. And I am so grateful for Michele—my wife, my life, my soul, my confidant, my love. In all things along the journey of life, including our time here at Oxy, she has always been there with, and for, me.

Joining with us today are presidents and representatives from colleges and universities across the country. Welcome and thank you! Also in attendance are three former Occidental College presidents. I am very grateful to all of them for their presence here and for all they have done to build Occidental.

There are those who are no longer here on this earth who I know would have loved to see this day—my father and mother, my father-in-law and my brother. And while I miss their physical presence dearly, I feel their spirit with us today and I draw on their strength, their integrity, on this day and as I accept this new—well, now “newish”—role as the 16th Occidental College president.

Candidly, when I accepted this position, I assumed that I was the first Black president at Occidental. As many of you know, I am not. John Slaughter was installed as president in 1988. The fact that Oxy has had two Black presidents—something no other small liberal arts college that I know of except for an HBCU can claim—says so much about this college and its progressivism, its openness to different models of leadership, its willingness to embrace change. I am so very proud to be here at a college with this history and with such rich possibilities.

Well, it took two years but we are finally here today! Inauguration. With this ceremony, on this date, I officially become president. You know, I probably should have checked to make sure that those 500 diplomas I signed and handed out at Commencement last May are valid! I don’t think it is overstating the case to say it has been a rather interesting and eventful two years for both Oxy and me. We have experienced and encountered so much: Despite isolation, we have found new ways to come together, to empathize and care for one another even when held apart. 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! 

At the outset, it is with joy that I am able to share with all of you that we have met a critical milestone in The Oxy Campaign For Good. As of this week, we have surpassed the initial campaign goal. Not many presidents can say they met a comprehensive campaign goal before they were even inaugurated! With one year still to go, with this extraordinary community, I am confident we will only continue to build.

For all of us, the last two years have been, to varying degrees, defined and determined by COVID-19. This pandemic will have an enduring impact on our college specifically and on the world more generally. The virus has painfully exposed those social structures that need to be remade, and those inequities that need to be dismantled. With the decision to go remote in July 2020, Michele and I initially spent over a year living on a campus populated by more coyotes than students. While COVID has taken its toll, we have also operated in an increasingly urgent period of racial reckoning and disheartening racial retrenchment. The rise of Anti-AAPI violence, anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, anti-LGBTQ legislation all occur at a time when our country becomes, like Occidental, increasingly diverse in all ways. In addition, the world now stands on edge as we all bear witness to the crisis in Ukraine and the brutal aggression of Russia. Far from being immune to these pressing concerns, the Oxy community steps up in many ways, both bold and subtle, to engage rather than retreat from these social and political realities.

Oxy has a long and complex history of involvement with social justice and the work is ongoing. Back in 1967, to highlight the Civil Rights struggle and the need for more students of color at the College, then-President Gilman brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak on campus. The challenges of our world—including everything from the outsized cultural impact of increasingly sophisticated technology and social media to the rise in mental health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic—do not stop outside our college gates. Our students grow up amidst these crises and carry them into our classrooms, labs and residence halls. Far from seeking isolation on our bucolic campus, our students ask that we engage their whole selves and the whole spectrum of their experiences. As we enter resolutely into this next chapter for our college and for our world, I pledge to lead an Oxy that seizes this particular moment to fully realize what a vibrant, relevant, social-minded liberal arts education can be.

This is a time when the very relevance and value of a liberal arts education are questioned. 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. Specifically, I believe the liberal arts, for our times, needs some 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.

These "new harmonies," as I am calling them, incorporate older traditions into new frameworks, bringing into view new perspectives, new ways of doing what might have been business as usual, the “same ole, same ole.” 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. Such new harmonies can enable deliberative and nuanced integrations of residential and classroom experiences, of student life with curricular developments, of local commitments with global understanding.  And such new harmonies will result from our creating honest, real dialogues across difference that foster understanding, empathy, equity, and inclusion. We can and must live our mission.

My use of the expression "new harmonies" is also purposeful, foregrounding the arts as a vital component of the College’s future. 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.

New harmonies will emerge when we challenge purportedly contradictory values that are in fact not contradictory at all. After all, equity and excellence are two sides of the same coin. Global concerns are also local. Liberal arts education can have real-world application and direct social impact. Historically, critics of liberal arts education contend that it lacks relevance to career preparation and to the acquisition of usable job skills. In contrast, some others worry about the liberal arts becoming “merely” vocational. But these are in many ways false dichotomies. Between seemingly discordant tones, Oxy has found ways to create extraordinary learning experiences that feed students’ intellectual hunger and their thirst for personal and professional growth.

The mixture of hands-on experience with classroom intellectual inquiry can be unique and transformative. Liberal arts co-joins experiential learning with consequential professional development. It enables students to adapt and apply classroom lessons to real life problem-solving and to test what they believe and return to the classroom to discuss critically. New harmonies will involve a commitment, in the coming years, to increase the number of these often-profound, immersive experiences so that this becomes an integral part of Oxy’s “composition,” the Oxy sound and experience.

Creating new harmonies also means putting in conversation programs across the conventional divide of what C.P. Snow in 1959 called the “two cultures,” the Sciences and the Humanities. This new musical score, if you will indulge me the metaphor, can yield fresh scholarly research, can even potentially call us to conscience, and to social action. For instance, imagine a sustainability studies curriculum that acknowledges and engages issues of environmental racism.

Or imagine a place for student success that houses both academic tutoring and a creative maker space facilitating entrepreneurship—or should I say Oxypreneurship. Imagine the possibilities for spontaneous collaborations in a new campus building that nestles together two seemingly very different departments such as Computer Science with Media Arts and Culture. You know my late brother, Keith the Guru, was practicing sublime new harmonies when he brought hip hop and jazz together for the first time in four groundbreaking albums, an idea he named “Jazzmatazz.”

He was a pioneer and Oxy too, is a rare bird, an urban liberal arts college. The dynamic and diverse global city of L.A. remains perhaps our most important collaborator in formulating new harmonies. As we identify, develop, and nurture our engagements with L.A., we must build mutually beneficial connections with the city.  It is not just a matter of what L.A. can do for Oxy, it is what Oxy can do for L.A.

And of course, such a focus on the urban by no means diminishes the importance of the global in the Oxy experience. In fact, one of Oxy’s historic strengths is its commitment to educating global citizens and leaders through international study and research.

I also fundamentally believe that arts and the arts industry are key locations for our engagement with L.A. and for creating Oxy’s new sound. The arts were decimated by the pandemic as all organizations and practitioners from performing artists to museums suffered significant economic losses. And now we have an opportunity to help the arts as we help ourselves—film, theater, literature, music, visual arts and media—by forging new relationships between the College, the arts industry, and the creative practitioners themselves. I mean it when I say the arts really do have the power to change the world and Oxy must be a center for that.

In a recent moment of revelation, my wife Michele pointed out to me something neither of us had noted before when thinking about this idea of new harmonies: The anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that opened this inauguration ceremony actually contains the line, “rings with the harmony of liberty.”  It is a powerful line that so perfectly resonates with this speech it almost seemed a divine coincidence if there is such a thing. Liberty has its own distinct harmony. A harmony that can only be achieved, as the song suggests, by lifting every voice. It is a collective sound, a collaborative “joyful noise” that acknowledges the “dark days” we have shared but then imagines, as former Oxy student President Barack Obama might say, “a spirit of hope.” Such a spirit of hope encourages goodwill, bolsters our resolve, strengthens our resilience. The Harmony of Liberty calls on us to act in the cause of freedom, in the perpetuation of justice, in the articulation of a shared democracy.

Oxy, too, has an obligation and special role to play in the uplift of democracy. It is an obligation that the whole Oxy community takes seriously. Oxy students are doers and makers, arriving here wanting to make a difference. That commitment to social betterment directly correlates with our mission. And sure, sometimes, the work is difficult. But as Frederick Douglass famously said, “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

It is significant that the song “Lift Every Voice” expresses a faith in the power of collective struggle and perseverance. I think of that power of communal resilience now, as I reflect on the difficult, demanding journey of our Oxy community in particular over the past two pandemic years.  At times, it has felt like trial by fire. But in these still-uncertain times, I have witnessed the creativity and resolve of our faculty, staff and students, the faithfulness of our alumni. Encouraged by this unwavering belief in Oxy, I am fortified, inspired—exhilarated—for our future. And I hope you, too, feel this optimism and are ready for all that lies ahead. Given what we have already accomplished together, I know Oxy will reach its fullest potential, its abundancy, its most beautiful harmonic sound.

It is indeed a glorious time to be at Oxy as we achieve all that is our legacy and our promise.

And I am thrilled, humbled and honored to be your 16th president.

Io Triumphe!