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New Occidental College president hailed for diversity efforts

Harry J. Elam Jr.
Harry J. Elam Jr. has been named the 16th president of Occidental College.
(Marc Campos / Occidental College)

A Stanford University vice provost hailed for promoting diversity and rethinking undergraduate education has been named the new Occidental College president, the Eagle Rock campus’ trustees announced Tuesday.

Harry J. Elam Jr., who joined Stanford in 1990 as a faculty member in theater and performance studies before serving as vice provost for undergraduate education and in other senior positions, will succeed President Jonathan Veitch as the college’s 16th president.

That drama background has influenced his administrative style, which faculty and students on both campuses have described as warm, open and collaborative.

Elam has compared directing plays — an endeavor he has continued for more than 25 years — to university administration, saying that directors must lay out a vision but collaborate deeply with artists to bring it to life.

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“I came to understand early on that a director succeeds when he or they or she are not autocratic but collaborative, collective, working with everyone ... to empower their best work in listening to what they do and their ideas,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “And I think the notion of shaping a collective and cohesive vision is something that works in administration as well.”

Those skills at bringing people together were hailed by Occidental leaders, who have weathered turbulent campus protests over racial inequity and sexual assaults during the last decade.

In 2015, scores of students occupied the administration building for a week, demanding increased efforts to improve the campus climate for diverse students. The college has since launched a black studies program, hired a vice president for diversity and inclusion, increased the number of women on its faculty and boosted funding for diversity programs.

In 2013, Occidental drew national headlines when 50 students, alumni and faculty members filed federal complaints alleging the college had fostered a hostile environment for sexual assault victims. The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office ultimately found that Occidental had failed to promptly address some sexual misconduct complaints, but did not violate civil rights laws. The university voluntarily agreed to reforms.

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Occidental Board of Trustees Chairman Stephen Rountree praised Elam’s “genuine ability to connect with people” in addition to his leadership skills, understanding of undergraduate education, and commitment to access and excellence. He said the board voted unanimously to offer the job to Elam, who will take the helm on July 1.

“Dr. Elam is a champion of all that Oxy stands for,” John Lang, associate professor of sociology, Faculty Council president and search committee member, said in a statement. “His lifelong commitment to promoting diversity and equity, supported by his scholarly pursuits in social justice are a natural fit with Oxy’s own mission.... He can help people coalesce around a shared purpose.”

Elam said his first priority would be listening to the campus community. He said that he planned to meet with student groups immediately to hear their concerns and that he would continue his Stanford practice of regular office hours for students, faculty and staff.

Elam said the college’s mission to promote liberal arts with a focus on excellence, equity, community and service deeply resonated with him. The selection committee, for its part, wanted someone who could work well with students, build strong campus relationships and take the college to the next level of excellence, he said.

Occidental was ranked 39th among 223 national liberal arts colleges evaluated last year by U.S. News & World Report and is also one of the most diverse. Students of color make up 41.8% of its approximately 2,000-member student body: Black students represent 4.0%, Asians 14.7%, Latinos 14.1%, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders 0.2% and two or more races 8.8%.

Elam, who started a student advisory group at Stanford to advise his office on undergraduate education, won a thumbs up from students on the Occidental search committee. “He is someone who has experience in community building and will consider the voices of his constituents when developing a way forward,” Alejo Maggini, a second-year student in diplomacy and world affairs, said in a statement.

Elam 63, grew up in Boston during the tumult of that city’s court-ordered school desegregation. His father served as the first black chief justice on the Boston Municipal Court, his mother was co-director of library programs in the city’s public school system and his younger brother Keith rose to fame as rap artist Guru and founder of the hip-hop group Gang Starr before dying of complications from cancer in 2010.

Elam’s experience with racial inequities came at a young age. As a first-grader in an all-black public elementary school, he said, he felt he wasn’t learning. A white teacher saw his potential and advised his parents to move him to a private school, he said. He was able to escape, he said, but never forgot his classmates who could not.

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In high school, Elam began using art as a tool of social justice by creating a black theater group and using performance proceeds for scholarships for needy students. Later, he researched the power of theater to mobilize social action for his doctoral dissertation and started several programs at Stanford aimed at supporting underserved students. He created the university’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, initiated a summer program to help students transition to Stanford and worked to increase graduate students of color in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

Elam’s scholarship has significantly influenced the study of contemporary American theater, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His first book, “Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka,” helped inaugurate critical race studies in connecting African American and Chicano theater, the academy said.

Elam is author or co-editor of six other books and has won several teaching and scholarly awards. A graduate of Harvard College, Elam earned his doctorate in the dramatic arts at UC Berkeley.

As a Stanford vice provost, Elam spearheaded efforts to reshape undergraduate education. One program for first-year students, for instance, aimed to help them steer away from a standardized testing mind-set of focusing on right and wrong answers. Instead, students learn to formulate rigorous questions that would lead to scientific experimentation, literary interpretation or social policy analysis.

His wife, Michele Elam, is William Robertson Coe professor in the humanities at Stanford and an associate director of the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

Elam said he has received calls of congratulation from Occidental alumni around the country. How about the school’s most famous student, former President Obama?

“I haven’t heard from him yet,” Elam said with a laugh, “but who knows?”


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