President Elam’s college cabinet to bring together departments across campus

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Sunset over Occidental College on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. (Photo by Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer)

President Harry J. Elam Jr. announced the creation of the College Cabinet in an email to the Occidental College community Sept. 28. According to Elam’s email, this body will serve as a place for communicating, planning and addressing issues across different sectors of the college. The College Cabinet will have its first meeting Oct. 15 and will meet twice a semester.

“The motivation is communication,” Elam said. “And then really understanding what is happening on the campus as a whole. I mean, yes, it’s a contained campus with a small liberal arts college so it has a small number of students, but still, it’s a community that can be siloed and have different conversations. So this is a way for anybody to come together to talk about, to listen to, and to hear and communicate across those different units.”

The Cabinet has 46 members, including four student representatives who were announced during the Oct. 5 Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate meeting. These representatives are Jordan Walker (senior), Ruby Ferehawk (senior), Collin Mazeika (senior) and Matthew Jackson (first year). They were selected by Stephanie Howard (junior) in her role as ASOC vice president of internal affairs, and a committee of various students to read the name-blind applications she assembled.

According to Wendy Sternberg, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college, one of the goals of the cabinet is to address the Occidental community’s call for more transparency across the college, especially from the school’s leadership.

“One thing that was very clear that we heard from our community listening sessions and discussions across multiple constituencies when we were planning for the search [for the president] and writing the position description was a very clear call for increased transparency across the college,” Sternberg said. “I think that this effort is part of a range of approaches that the president is taking to address that particular need that was heard very clearly throughout the search process by members of the search committee and the Board of Trustees.”

Elam said he decided to implement a cabinet at the college due to similar successful groups at higher learning institutions he’s been involved in previously, such as the University Cabinet at Stanford University where Elam served as vice provost for undergraduate education, senior vice provost for education and vice president for the arts.

Sternberg said that during each meeting a different office, division or area will present their goals and aspirations, and any initiatives they have in the works.

“At the various meetings, whatever the new area that’s being highlighted will be able to convey both how and what are we doing now,” Sternberg said. “What were our plans pre-pandemic? Where did we see our division or offices or initiatives headed? What are we continuing to remain committed to?”

Elam said ASOC President Kitty Lu (senior) and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot will be discussing their departments during the first meeting of the cabinet on Thursday. According to Sternberg, her division of academic affairs will also be one of the first areas to present to the cabinet.

“Academic affairs is going to work with our faculty on their professional development so that they are prepared for whatever the spring throws at us,” Sternberg said.

According to Sternberg, communication between different departments on campus is vital to keep everyone on the same page.

“The goal is to really help improve communication across the various divisions of the college, make sure that there is good communication, and that people are aware of what the priorities and initiatives are across the different areas of the college,” Sternberg said.

According to Faculty Council President John Lang, faculty have known about Elam’s plan to implement a cabinet for a while.

“This is something that President Elam has talked about prior to arriving at Occidental, this idea of trying to figure out ways to improve communication and find other ways for us to communicate,” Lang said.

According to Lang, College Cabinet meetings will be an important place to facilitate long-term discussion on campus issues.

“I think it’s long term good to have all these conversations. Regardless of how one 90-minute meeting goes, the idea that there’s a regular avenue to put people who are in charge of making really important decisions together, all in the same room to talk through those decisions, and ask questions about those decisions,” Lang said.

Lang said the College Cabinet will meet in a virtual setting until it is safe for everyone to be in person again. Lang said the College Cabinet will discuss some issues related to COVID-19, but the majority of Spring 2021 and COVID-19 planning will not happen inside of the cabinet.

Sara Semal, senior director of student wellness and special advisor to the president on health and safety, is also a member of the cabinet and will be involved with its COVID-19 planning efforts.

“The college cabinet will facilitate conversations about the future of the college, right now specifically around planning with COVID-19 and will take into account the different viewpoints of all of the different representatives of the different groups that are there to ensure that every voice is heard and every perspective is considered,” Semal said.

According to Semal, planning for next semester will also be done in the COVID Operations Group, the spring planning group and multiple subcommittees that are looking at ways to ensure the safety of anyone who might be on campus in the spring.