Veitch reflects on his tenure as college president

President Jonathan Veitch shares his experiences as president at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday, Feb. 8th, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental
Reading Time: 13 minutes

President Jonathan Veitch announced Jan. 27 via campus-wide email that he would not renew his tenure as Occidental College’s president and will step down at the end of 2019. The Occidental’s Editor-in-Chief Emily Jo Wharry (junior), Managing Editor Matthew Reagan (sophomore) and Senior Editor and former Editor-in-Chief Chris Peel (senior) met with Veitch and Jim Tranquada, director of communications, for a question-and-answer period in his office.

Chris Peel: We wanted to start and talk a little bit about why you made this decision. You did talk about this already in your email, so to avoid having you repeat yourself, is there anything right off the bat that you want to add or that you want to elaborate on that you know you haven’t shared?

Jonathan Veitch: I was thinking about this decision, and the most profound experiences I’ve had have been in the classroom, outside of my family. The discovery of the power of language, or the beauty and complexity of art, or the vertigo of history. Being in a classroom and having a sense of what the world looks like and whole areas I want to spend more time thinking about. I taught a course this last semester with a group of students, and I realized just how much I missed it. I will say, something I didn’t say in the letter, which is that initially, my first post was as a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and my wife was working for Calvin Klein in New York. We had just gotten married, and I tried to persuade her to trade Calvin Klein for OshKosh B’gosh, but she was not on any level persuaded that that was a good trade. So I moved to New York, became an administrator, and discovered that I liked the work and I was reasonably good at it. You can make a difference as to whether the institution got this much better or this much better. It’s been a circuitous route to this; I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, but I also miss what started me out.

CP: Moving forward, is teaching something that you want to return to?

JV: Oh, yes.

CP: Do you have any plans for your sabbatical?

JV: I have a sabbatical coming, and I have a book project I want to work on. My youngest is in high school, and when she graduates high school, I’ll pick up my head and try to decide whether I still have the muscles for what I want to do and if I find it sustaining, or if I miss the adrenaline rush of the MASH unit.

CP: Do you have a favorite subject to teach?

JV: There are two things that are bookends for students that I’d really like to do. I’d like to do a CSP course on what education is about, what’s it for, what’s it good for. How should one approach it, what are the debates about what it means to be educated? What does it mean to be someone who received an education, what value does it offer? And then on the other end, I’m looking at the career center to think about career discernment. If you think about it, work, outside your family and maybe even moreso than your family, is where you spend the bulk of your time. People choose jobs because they happen to stumble into them. I’d really like to bring back all the alumni I’ve come to know to give them an opportunity to talk about their own careers, but more importantly, to get students to think earlier about what brings meaning to their lives and how work can be meaningful to them as opposed to something that just pays the rent. So then there’s those two bookends, and in between, history, literature, poetry, art history.

CP: You traveled to Eastern Europe to assist in the founding of three new liberal arts schools. Is that something that you are considering pursuing as well, or was that more of a circumstantial opportunity at that time?

JV: Well, it was probably a unique circumstance in that it was right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what came out of it actually is something that’s going to govern my book project. That is, when I went on that trip, I was there to serve as an advisor to these colleges, and as often happens with those kinds of things, you end up learning more than you’re able to impart. One of these liberal arts colleges was in Warsaw, one in Bratislava, and a third in Berlin. The rector of the Warsaw college said to me, “You know, Jonathan, you forget that the Velvet Revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland were started by playwrights, historians and economists. And the reason for that is they were deeply immersed in the liberal arts tradition that kept notions of human freedom and dignity alive through the first Nazi occupation, and through the long Soviet winter.” And I thought, “Wow, if ever there was an argument for the value of a liberal arts education, that it can sustain people through that kind of historical trauma and then begin to inform the kind of democratic societies they would create.” It seemed to me to be very powerful. So I want to go back and look at the liberal arts tradition and look at the debates about freedom, justice, equality, and see how they’re brought to bear on contemporary structural issues.

CP: You were born and raised in Los Angeles. Do you plan to stay in the area or are you thinking of going somewhere new?

JV: As I said, until my daughter graduates, yes, and then after that, I don’t know.

CP: Can you tell us a little bit about when you knew that you would resign — err, that you… is it wrong to say that resigning is synonymous [with] deciding not to extend a contract?

JV: Resigning sounds like you did it in a huff, and I love my job. It was a tough decision; we did accomplish a lot of good things, but there’s always more that could be done. So, “stepped down,” “chose not to extend my contract,” is the way I prefer to think about it.

Jim Tranquada: Also “end of tenure,” “on to pastures new.”

JV: But not “put out to pasture.”

CP: So we were curious, was there a specific turning point recently, or has it been something you were planning and waiting until the college got in a strong position, or a combination of the two?

JV: It has to be a combination of the two — yes, there are personal drivers for it, but we have a strategic plan we worked very hard to implement. I can talk to you about that in a second. We are in a very strong budgetary environment; the last nine years have been balanced budgets. We’ve had strong numbers in student applicants, and selectivity goes up every year. The college, I think, is in a good place. The moment of epiphany is something I also shared with the Los Angeles Times, when I looked over and saw my oldest daughter reading a Russian novel and I was reading a memo that I was completely bored by. I thought, “Something is wrong with this picture. I want her job.”

JT: Most staff memos are fascinating, for the record.

JV: The memo wasn’t from Jim, so…

Emily Jo Wharry: Looking back on all the time you’ve spent as president, what do you think are some good qualities of the next college president?

JV: One answer to that is that liberal arts colleges, despite their small size, are much more complex as ecosystems than people imagine. You don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one thing or two things. It’s like spinning plates, you have to keep that plate spinning and this plate spinning. You have to have the capacity to put out brush fires while keeping eyes on the prize. Sometimes the fires consume you so you can’t move the institution along strategically, but you can’t afford to just be focused on the end game that you miss all the things need to be addressed. There are managerial challenges, and I think it’s really important that a college president be able to articulate the values of the institution and champion them, advocate for them, forcefully and eloquently. And to be able to highlight the underlying social, political and historical issues behind something that may be seen telescoped around a particular incident but that actually have wider ramifications, so that’s a second thing. A third thing is college president is a job in which you are called upon all the time to adjudicate between incommensurate goods. One of the biggest challenges is you’ve got chemistry labs that need to be addressed, you’ve got scholarships that need to be raised, you’ve got three or four other things that are equally pressing. And there’s no book or calculation that will be able to tell you, “Oh, I should put more money in this or this or this.” So you’re constantly trying to calibrate and re-calibrate those choices and make good judgments. And I think that’s tough. Another quality is accessibility and openness to all kinds of positions and different constituencies.

EJW: Of all those goods, or spinning plates, do you see one that may be the most important for your successor to focus on? What do you think would be, in your mind, their primary focus coming into the job?

JV: One of the things we worked super hard on is really trying to build a profile around urban global access. That has animated almost every strategic decision we made. It’s something as banal as a vanpool to get students out to the city, but we’ve also incentivized courses and faculty to take students out into the field and to treat the city as an open-air laboratory, as well as building programming around major art exhibitions and museums. … So what’s the 2.0 version of that? One area where we need to do more is, this city is the global entertainment capital of the world, and our footprint in music and media is relatively small. One area the incoming president would need to focus on is really building that out, to the extent to which he or she endorses that global vision.

EJW: That’s interesting, I think that perspective on the entertainment industry isn’t really touched on as often as the urban policy aspect. Looking inward to the college campus, do you foresee any major challenges for your successor?

JV: Fundraising is the perpetual challenge. When I arrived, we were raising around $12 million a year. We now raise consistently $22 million per year. That’s good, but it’s still not enough for what our needs are. We have a comprehensive campaign that we’re embarked on. We have raised a little over of $100 million, but we really need an endowment of nearly twice our size. We’ve got strong needs for continued scholarship support. We give away between $40–50 million a year in financial aid. We need to be able to supplement that. I think that’s one of the most important challenges.

EJW: Did you read ASOC President Jacques Lesure’s statement [sent via email Jan. 28] on your decision not to renew your contract?

JV: Yes, and I talked to Jacques about it too. One of the things he’s most concerned about — and I think he’s right to call for it, and I think the board is ready to welcome it — and that is to have students participate in the search. I won’t be involved in the search at all, but I know the board is planning to do a round of consultation in the spring with key stakeholders, students, ASOC, student groups, faculty, staff, alumni. And there will be students on the search committee, so students will have the opportunity to participate and help shape what the needs of the college are.

EJW: Do you have a favorite spot on campus?

JV: I think the most beautiful spot is the quad, but I also love Mullin Grove. Although I never get to go, I like the Braun Room in the library. I love the new Student Center. And weirdly, I find the solar array very compelling.

JT: I don’t think that’s weird!

JV: It looks like a land sculpture to me. I don’t know if you know the solar array along the 110 [Pasadena Freeway], but it looks really ugly and industrial. Our historian encouraged us to hire a designer who could soften it and make it more like a piece of art than a piece of machinery. What they did was lower the panels closer to the ground and have them follow the contours of the land. I think it makes it, visually, more compelling.

JT: The MIT Alumni association has had field trips to look at our solar array.

CP: To pivot now from looking forward to your successor to looking back on your past decade at Occidental. Is there anything that stands out to you as your single greatest accomplishment in your time as president?

JV: I don’t know about single greatest; it’s been such a profoundly rewarding experience. What will stick with me most are the relationships and friendships I’ve formed, that’s been the most satisfying thing. I think the most obvious one is the creation of the Obama Scholars program. I think it’s really important; it’s not nothing to educate a president. To this day, Obama still cites his experience at Occidental as his most formative educational experience. To have his endorsement on the scholarship is an endorsement to Occidental, an endorsement of the liberal arts tradition and its value to him. It’s an opportunity for us to identify students who can emulate his example and become effective change agents in the world. We created the Obama Fellows program so that if we missed them in the entering class, as our juniors become seniors, we ask faculty to identify students who have done exceptional public service.

CP: In your opinion, and in your specific observation, how would you say the world of higher education has changed during the past decade?

JV: So many different things. One is, I think it’s being challenged from the outside. The value proposition is being challenged: “Is it worth it? So incredibly expensive, how could it possibly be worth it?” On the other hand, in an information-based economy, the skills you get from a liberal arts education are probably the best skills possible to succeed in that economy. In addition to that, I would say that most colleges and universities anticipate and reflect the volatility of the country. So whatever the issues are, they either start here or come back here. Ideally, the goal is to help shape those conversations so that they are illuminating people, so they understand their complexity, power, significance. I think that’s an important responsibility.

CP: In the board of trustees’ email that they sent shortly after your campus-wide announcement, they talk about a variety of different things. One of them, on the discussion of Title IX issues, is that although the school has been found to be in compliance, that mere compliance is not enough and that the school is committed to progress moving forward. We wanted to ask, looking back on that era in Occidental’s history, is there anything that you would have done differently?

JV: I think it’s really important to be reflective about everything one does. I wish I had appreciated the profound role that preventative education could play. I mean, it’s so obvious that if you can prevent sexual assault from occurring in the first place, you’re already in a much better place. We instituted online education, expanded the footprint in orientation, we followed up with peer-to-peer education, bystander training, beefed up our Clery office, our Title IX office, Project SAFE, and much of it with an eye toward enhancing preventative education. Appreciating the role that could play even sooner would be the one thing I would say for sure. I focused on policy and adjudication and all those things.

EJW: Similarly, the board of trustees talked about the specific difficulties you’ve faced in your tenure. One of those was the Arthur G. Coons (AGC) Occupation. This is the last class that participated in the Occupation. What was your experience like, grappling with that as president?

JV: Well, it was very difficult, because I love my students, the students of Occidental. I want to see them thrive, and it was an expression of some measure of dissatisfaction with the lived experience on our campus. I understand that it’s about institutions that have been traditionally homogenous, who have changed who they are but haven’t always anticipated ways in which our students from marginalized communities might experience their life on our campus. I tried to listen carefully and learn from that.

EJW: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

JV: I think, try to be more present to staff who I think were experiencing this in all kinds of different ways. Trying to find smaller forums for more productive kinds of conversations.

EJW: Is there anything you wish you had known before you had taken the job of president?

JV: I’ll tell you something. This is maybe a far-fetched analogy, but I’ll try it out. I love to bicycle, and I often do half the research, and the second half of the ride, I really don’t know what it’s going to look like. And I go anyway, and I try to get myself in a situation where I have to pedal all the way back. The most rewarding rides are the ones I haven’t fully mapped out in advance. Cause you end up getting in situations, sometimes well after dark, that you hadn’t anticipated. That can be very rewarding, actually. If someone had laid it all out in advance for me, I certainly wouldn’t have been dissuaded. It’s been even more profound an experience than I could have anticipated.

EJW: Is there anything you’ll miss specifically about the job?

JV: I will miss students most of all. But let me take that back, because the challenge of being a president is getting to them in a more regular way than I’ve been able to, so being back in the classroom is part of the driver for me [to not extend my contract], spending more time with students. That’s the thing I look forward to the most. The thing I will miss is the relationships and the people, the strong bonds I have formed.

EJW: The Office of the President, the nature of the work you do, is so removed from the day-to-day of the campus. Do you feel a sense of connection with the student body to the extent that you wish you had?

JV: Certainly not to the extent that I wish I had. I tried to do things like the NYT Roundtable and the class that I taught. When I could, I’d have lunch in Gresham Dining Hall, but sometimes I would schedule that and I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’ve gotten to know the ASOC presidents over the years and really come to admire them. Almost every year I find four or five students that I develop close relationships with, that either work in the office, or they like to bicycle, or I run into them at Cafe de Leche and we strike up a conversation. The short answer is I always wish I had more contact. It’s a little isolating [in this position], but I’ve really enjoyed the students I’ve come to know and stayed in touch with.

EJW: Is there anything about the lawsuit against the school from Jaime Hoffman that you can say?

JV: Almost nothing.

CP: Is there anything you wish students knew about the position of the president on campus?

JV: First of all, this building is kind of odd; a faculty member compared it to an alien spaceship that landed on campus. I think it can be an isolating job on the one hand, and it can be hard for me, and opaque for students on the other hand. One thing we used to do with the newspaper is “a day in the life.” I think that gave them a real sense of the range of work. A lot of times, I’m making the case for the college in far-flung places. And it seems like, “Well, where is he?” But if I don’t do it, it’s not going to happen. It’s really important to me that I get out and make the case with alumni, potential donors, and all the rest. And that tends to push me away.

EJW: So, there’s a lot of curiosity surrounding your green Fiat.

CP: It’s an icon on campus.

EJW: Can you tell us a story about it?

JV: Yes, I can tell you a story about that green Fiat. My two daughters are mortified that I drive that car around. They insist it is a car for young women in their late teens. Every time we pull to a stop light and we see another Fiat, we have a little thing where they mark the general age of the person driving. And every time I see someone over 40, I’m like, yes. More often, I think they see someone under 30. It doesn’t really count as a mid-life crisis. I think you could do far more damage, but I’ll take it.

CP: Is it uncomfortable, though? You’re like the tallest person I’ve seen on this campus.

JV: It’s not, because if you’re sitting in the front seat, the world is your oyster. It’s the same way as any car. If you’re in the back seat, it’s miserable, but no one sits in the backseat.

CP: Another, sort of, “tying up loose ends” sort of question on behalf of our students is that there’s an image of you in professional attire in the Gilman Fountain. We tried to figure the backstory, but we just couldn’t, so we were wondering if you could.

JV: I’m so ungodly tired of those presidential portraits standing in front of a bookcase. And I thought to myself, “Well, how can I make this different?” And so I thought it would be funny if I was floating there in my suit. I think this was my fifth year or something, near the end of my first term. So I proposed this to our photographer, the photographer liked the idea. So I took the picture. After it was taken, I was proud of myself, and I took the picture home to my wife, and she said, “Actually, it looks like you’re drowning.” I particularly appreciated the wit of the people who were occupying AGC because they left behind one of those images, and for them, it looked like “What, me, worry?”