Harry J. Elam Jr. became Occidental’s 16th president July 1. The Occidental’s Editor-in-Chief Jackie Dall (senior), Managing Editor Charlie Finnerty (junior), Community News Editor and former Editor-in-Chief Matthew Reagan (senior) and Opinions Editor DJ Prakash (sophomore) met with Elam for a question-and-answer period via Zoom Sept. 4. This interview was edited for length and clarity and will be published in two parts. Part II will be published next week.
Jackie Dall: How would you describe the relationship between a college president and its students, and how can students best contribute to this relationship?
Elam: I think it has to be reciprocal, and I’m gonna learn a lot from students. It’s one of the reasons I took this job — because I love working with students that are particularly, like Oxy students, empowered to think about their own education. So I’m going to learn from them and [from] things that students say and what they want and begin to enrich my knowledge of the place. […] The second thing is that from me, they can expect as much transparency as possible. The transparency may be about how we come to a decision, not the decision itself in some cases. I know that students may not like everything that I say, but I want them to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing so that there’s a constant dialogue between us and the students.
JD: As someone who spent a career within higher education, how do you think higher education will transform in the next five to 10 years?
Elam: In several ways — and one is really important to Oxy — and that is understanding what the value of a liberal arts education is. I think it’s more valuable than ever before in terms of what it gives you [and] what you all are going to leave Oxy with — but we have to show that to the world because it’s expensive. So what’s the value proposition? And how do you make people understand the skills that you’re getting? The idea of critical thinking, that idea of lifelong learning, the idea of being able to adapt and […] being empowered to be a creative thinker about problem-solving — all of those things come out of a liberal arts education, more specifically out of Oxy’s, and people have to appreciate that.
The other thing that is going to be a subject, […] is what does it mean to be a residential campus? We’re not residential right now, and I think we’re all hungering for that. We’d love to be here with other students, sharing with the faculty in different ways, meeting in the Marketplace, all of those things — and there’s a value in them. So it’s not just about the classes, but education is about what happens outside of the classroom. […]
I mentioned diversity — that is going to be a big question for colleges and universities to think about. As the population of the country has changed, it’s a place where I think Oxy has been ahead of the curve. […] So how does that play into thinking about what kind of education that students can have, and what does it mean in terms of other factors like faculty change as well as the student body changing? […] When I mentioned diversity, let me put something else with that: equity. And that brings in this sense of social class with it. Again, that dynamic equity we want with education is so big — how do we make it possible for people from underresourced backgrounds to get to schools like Oxy? And then to thrive when they’re here? So that’s a question that we’ll be considering and other schools will be as well.
DJ Prakash: Obviously, going to school during a pandemic can be incredibly difficult for a lot of people. Do you have any messages for Oxy students who may just be coming out of their second week and they’re struggling and they’re worried about the semester ahead?
Elam: That you’re not alone, and that if you need someone to talk with about how you’re feeling about a situation, that through Emmons and other sources we have teletherapy [and] people you can talk with. […] There’s no stigma in terms of that. Your own mental health is like your physical health. […]
I talked to a friend who graduated years ago, but she was remembering back to her time with a roommate. […] And every morning they would get up and say, “What are we going to do today for our mind, our bodies or our soul?” And I’d add to that — how about for social justice? So if you got up every day and went, “What am I doing today from my mind? For my health and body? For my soul, what’s gonna make me feel good? And also what’s going to make society feel good as well?” So I recommend that as this strategy as well. But the idea of a semester, as you all know well from doing it, it’s a marathon. It’s a long time, it’s 14 weeks, so you’ve got to pace yourself through it, and the processes of what you do workwise and healthwise. And don’t be afraid, come visit me in office hours and reach out if there’s anything I can do personally, if you think I can be of help.
Matthew Reagan: I think specifically in the Oxy community, thinking back to last semester with the loss of Ilah Richardson and Jaden Burris, it’s been tough for the Oxy community even before the pandemic, and the reckoning with police violence and everything that’s been going on. Last April, we had a first-year Jazz Henry, [who] penned a letter to the editor, “The Black Community Feels Isolated After College Mishandled The Death of Two Black Students.” I know in some of your correspondence with the community, you’ve addressed last semester and the impact it had on the community. And I also know on Aug. 26, yourself, Dean Flot and Dean Sternberg announced a Black Action Plan, specifically for Oxy. So I just wanted to give you the space to talk about that action plan.
Elam: Thank you, Matthew. Let me say upfront that a priority is thinking about the health within the community as a whole, but the Black community within it because of all that happened last year. [Elam reached out to Harambee and Black Student Alliance (BSA) and they to him.] I’m meeting with them collectively, and they put together some concerns that they have. And I look to address those concerns, many concerns, I think the Black Action Plan speaks to. The Black Action Plan was developed by Chris Arguedas in ICC and in particular, meeting this summer with students from the Black community and going over things that would make a difference. The MLK Lounge is one of the things that’s going to get new furniture — and that’s an easy one. Easier one. Harder ones, […] [are] training in and around concerns about equity, but also concerns about awareness and understanding, and really negotiating difference in an effective and productive way on campus.
Creating different alliances and making an environment where everybody feels comfortable and that they can thrive — so how do we do that? And how do we set up training that’s going to help with that? And that’s training potentially for faculty as well as students. And making something mandatory is often not the best way to go because then people feel like they do it because they have to do it […] rather than something you’re learning from, learning with and then something that’s reinforced later on along the way. […]
Another thing that we’ll be looking to do, that’s both mentioned within the action plan but more also within discussions with the committee on equity and justice, is to create a position, a new position. It’s a position they had but isn’t here now, for chief diversity officer and that officer will work on ideas within, be they from training to strategic planning to concrete actions that I mentioned in terms of different concrete actions such as… what will we do in tribute and memory of Jaden and Ilah? [What] concrete things in terms of […] what needs to be implemented in terms of Black Studies? So there’s some things in and around like that, Matthew, that we’ll work directly on. But it’s a priority. And I’m really looking forward to this meeting with those student groups to hear from them, rather than me saying, “We’re going to do this.” Let me hear from them what they feel they need as well, and we’ll act on that.
MR: I just wanted to follow up quickly on the CDO position, because in recent years, it’s been a topic of conversation on campus. We had letters to the editor, you know, eventually calling for the former CDO to resign. Eventually, she did. So there’s been a lot of, I think, discussion and publicity, I should say, around the CDO position. So I know that it was up for discussion on whether or not that position should even stick around. So I’m just curious, what went into the decision to retain the CDO and then what attributes are you looking for in the CDO that you think will make them be successful?
Elam: Great question. The committee that I mentioned — [the] Equity and Justice [Committee] that had staff, faculty, alumni and students on [it] — all felt this was important. So that was one impetus for it. But also [with] my experience of what I’ve seen at [other] schools, […] last time, I think the job description was just too broad that — it was like, save humanity, and more within that — and it’s just too much. So focusing on a streamline. This person, we’re creating as an interim person, so we want to see that it works, and if it doesn’t, it’ll be cut again. But the job description is doable, and one of the major things I want the person to do is help implement the Black Action Plan to help us strategize for the question of how equity and justice fit into the larger plan. […]
The person also has to be someone whose main power is partnerships and collaboration. We’ve got to hire the right person, because that’s their power. They may have some money and resources they can give to things, but more than that they’ve got to partner with faculty, they’ve got to partner with students, they’ve got to partner with staff. So we’ll see how that develops. The person, I think, can make a real difference — if it’s the right person and done the right way.
DJP: In the same vein, one piece of news we’ve been covering the past many years is a lack of resources being made available to the Black Studies program. What do you see as the future of Black Studies, [and] its place on Oxy’s campus?
Elam: It’s a good question DJ. I’m going to meet soon with the leaders, Professor Ford and Professor Ball and other members of Black Studies too. I need to get a better sense from the faculty in this listening [session] about what’s needed in Black Studies. So I really can’t answer what it needs yet until I’ve had that thorough examination with them. Let me just say that Black Studies is critical to being here at Oxy and can inform students in a variety of ways [whether] they major in it or if they just take a course. […] So there is a vital role for Black Studies to play on campus.
MR: Looking at the college and the future of the college, I know obviously the pandemic, as we’ve talked about, is going to have a big effect on higher ed across the board. But specific to Oxy on Aug. 3, the college announced it’d be potentially more than doubling what it is withdrawing from the endowment to cover the cost for this year. So I just want to get a sense of what are some of the long-term effects or impacts that withdrawing more from the endowment might have. And then what are some tangible ways students could see that manifest on campus when we are back?
Elam: Yeah, I’ve got to think about the manifest. But the first part is that to understand in terms of endowment, we’re taking a payout from endowment every year, okay? And if the endowment goes down that impacts the payout and also impacts the future, you know, future payouts. Our endowment is good. It’s not great. One of the major differences that schools depend on is the amount of endowment money per student, and the more you have per student, the more you can do, you know, or allow to happen, potentially, or programming you can do. So where we’ve cut back right now and our philosophy in cutting back is that we’re not going to do anything that would damage the core mission of what we do.
The core mission of what we do is about teaching and learning and working with the quality faculty that we have. So I know that you’re not gonna see a difference in terms of that, […] [but you might see a difference in] things around infrastructure. […] That may be something that students see around the edges of things that are cut down in terms of services. What we are determined not to impact are things like mental health, or the career center. Positions like that are student-facing and really have an impact on students’ lives. Regardless of what we’re going to cut back, we’re not cutting those things. […]
Endowments are for a rainy day and if anything was a rainy day, then this, well, it kind of poured and is still pouring. So the trustees are responsible for that. We have to bring the budget to them and they understood that this was a very trying and challenging and unprecedented time, so they let us take that amount. What we are trying to ensure is that the quality is what we want it to be, but there’s some decisions. I’ll be honest, Matthew, there’s some decisions we still have to make, and students will be involved in this decision making, about the experience if we have to cut more going forward.
DJP: Can you talk a little bit about what fundraising looks like at this scale and at this level? I guess it might be a little different from how most people understand the word fundraising, and what your role as president would be in this.
Elam: My role as president is to be the chief fundraiser, period. […] To do that, it’s engaging people and working with them about what they love about Oxy and talking to them about what they will hopefully continue to love about Oxy in the future and painting that picture. […] It’s working with people on what they care deeply about, it’s not asking them for something like they don’t. It’s reaffirming that Oxy matters. And that’s fun and that’s great.
So, there’s a campaign going on right now, we call it “The Campaign For Good” and the campaign is ongoing even in this major time of uncertainty and unprecedented financial challenge. […] The campaign is to raise over $225 million. We’re over $160 [million] so we’re getting there, and it’s for things that will have a definite impact: scholarships. Right now over 70 percent of our students get some form of aid. That’s more than most schools. I mean, I came from Stanford, it was 50 percent.
That sense of commitment to students with Pell grants, to students from underresourced backgrounds is something we want to reinforce and fundraising is going to help do that in terms of scholarships. Professorships is another place. If we want to have the quality faculty that we do have and an engaged experience of faculty and students, we want more professorships.
DJP: Speaking of the campus, you must have read the Wall Street Journal article covering Oxy?
Elam: Oh yes.
DJP: Did you find that to be an accurate representation of Oxy’s priorities? Was there anything that you would differ on?
Elam: You all know, she’s speaking about the article in the Wall Street Journal which talked about [how] we, Oxy, actually didn’t take any [Rick] Singer money, while other places, like my former institution, did. It speaks to an integrity, a commitment and what is valued. What it means when I talked about increasing the visibility of Oxy [is] the world should know that Oxy made this decision and celebrate that. It’s one of the things I think that speaks to the character and values and mission of the place then, and also the people who work here. In admissions, this came to Vince Cuseo, […] so he knows more than anyone in terms of reinforcing a sense of values in terms of the students we admit. Ones that keep that sense of integrity. So I’m really proud that that happened and glad to be a part of an institution with such beliefs and ethics and integrity.
JD: Part of the reason why we want to have this interview is to allow Oxy students to get to know you a little bit. So some of our next questions are more about you personally and your background.
Elam breathes a sigh of relief.
Next week: President Elam talks about growing up in Boston, his career path and home.