Presidential search committee gathers student feedback

Alejo Maggini (sophomore), student representative on the Presidential Search Committee, moderates a discussion about the presidential search process outside the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Ca. Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Meghan Lee/The Occidental

Dafna Erana (junior) and Alejo Maggini (sophomore), the student representatives on the Presidential Search Committee, hosted a town hall Nov. 1 to provide the first opportunity of the academic year for the student body to share their expectations for the new college president. Erana and Maggini have been the formal student representation on the committee since Dean of Students Rob Flot announced its structure in March. Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg also sent an email announcement to the student body detailing the expected timeline of the hiring process Nov. 1. According to Sternberg’s email, the search committee has narrowed the pool of candidates down to 10, all of whom have accepted the invitation to advance to the first round of interviews. The committee will conduct them over a two-day period during the week of Nov. 4.

In order to avoid jeopardizing the current occupations of the candidates, the search committee has kept their identities confidential. Sternberg’s email also announced that Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) President Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić (junior) will be on the interview panel in December alongside the original search committee, as well as past and present members of the faculty council, co-chairs of the administrator/staff council and vice presidents who are not on the committee.

Maggini and Erana said the two had been planning the town hall for a while and wanted to create an opportunity for first years in particular, who were unable to participate in previous opportunities for student input, to bring the feedback they wanted to the search committee’s attention.

Julia Eubanks (sophomore), ASOC vice president of external affairs, helped coordinate the event alongside Erana and Maggini. The event offered free Spitz, funded by ASOC, for attendees.

“At this point, when they’re going into the final selection process, it’s really important to get last-minute student input on what they value in a candidate,” Eubanks said.

The open event took place in the garden attached to the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) where Erana, Maggini and Srdić Hadži-Nešić held a lengthy discussion with a dozen student attendees who did not wish to be directly quoted. Students discussed the challenges and responsibilities a new college president would face, including responding positively and quickly to student activism, the impact of Occidental as an institution on Eagle Rock and the surrounding communities, the appointment of senior administrators and the recent difficulties facing Occidental’s understaffed grounds team.

The primary concern of the students attending the event was that President Veitch’s replacement will prioritize issues of equity and inclusion.

“One thing I would be pushing is that the new president has true commitment to diversity and equity, and the fight for equity,” Srdić Hadži-Nešić said. “I’m honored they selected me because this will allow me an opportunity to press the candidates on these issues, knowing that the over-represented admin and faculty in the search committee might have mostly academic concerns or administration-related concerns.”

Erana said it was an intentional decision to host the town hall at the ICC.

“We want to not only the input from first year students and the whole student body, [but also] students from marginalized identities, which is like the whole mission of the ICC,” Erana said.

Alejo Maggini (sophomore), student representative on the Presidential Search Committee, moderates a discussion about the presidential search process outside the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Ca. Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Meghan Lee/The Occidental

Erana, Maggini and Srdić Hadži-Nešić said they do not expect the communication to administrative authorities about students’ concerns for equity to be completely straightforward. According to Srdíc Hadži-Nešić, at a listening session in the spring, these concerns were not the priority.

“Interestingly, the discussion started with the conversation on fundraising,” Srdíc Hadži-Nešić said. “We talked about all these other things students care about, such as concerns related to diversity — we brought up so many other issues. But somehow, at the end of the hour-long discussion, it circled back to fundraising and the importance of that quality.”

Maggini said finding a candidate who is a successful fundraiser for the college and can also fully embrace the mission of equity and inclusion has been a concern in the open hearings since the first one last spring. Maggini said he is confident such a balanced individual does exist.

“We are looking for a unicorn, people say,” Maggini said. “We’re looking for someone who is a really good fundraiser and community builder, a specific individual who can encompass whatever the community really wants from the core of the community. Not a unicorn.”

The three students on the December interview panel said they are unsure whether their voice will be sufficient to make this a genuine agenda for the search committee, especially because Srdić Hadži-Nešić is not officially joining the committee itself.

Erana said that it is very hard for two students to represent 2,071, and while the expansion on the original search committee for the December interview panel includes Srdić Hadži-Nešić as another student, she is accompanied by the addition of four members of the faculty council and the two co-chairs of the administrator and staff council. Several students who attended the event Nov. 1 were concerned about the student representation in these groups. The committee has five faculty, four senior administration, two students, two staff and eight trustees, whereas the December interview panel has three faculty, four senior admin, two staff and one student, according to Erana.

Sternberg said it will likely be mid-February when the committee announces the new president, a little over a year after President Veitch originally announced his intent not to renew his contract as college president in January 2019.