In a surprise move, Occidental College president says he’s stepping down due to health

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

As Occidental College welcomed a new crop of students Monday, they could not have known they were the last class of freshmen to hear a welcome address by college President Harry J. Elam Jr.

Elam, who took on the role in 2020, announced Tuesday that he would be ending his tenure early due to a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neuro-degenerative illness that affects movement.

“Please know that I am doing well, with excellent medical care and a strong support system,” Elam said in a letter to students, staff and alumni. “But in order to prioritize my health and time with family, I have made the difficult decision not to serve the final (2024-25) year of my five-year term as President.”


Prior to his time at Occidental, Elam was vice provost of undergraduate education at Stanford University, among other leadership positions. In addition to his work in academia, Elam worked as a professional theater director for over two decades.

Occidental College, in Eagle Rock, serves around 2,000 undergraduate students and offers more than 45 areas of study.

Harry J. Elam Jr., Stanford vice provost hailed for promoting diversity and rethinking undergraduate education, is named Occidental College president.

Feb. 11, 2020

Since becoming president, Elam led Occidental through the COVID-19 pandemic, from remote instruction to the return to campus in 2021. He also oversaw the development of the college’s strategic plan through 2030, dubbed the “Occidental Promise.”

Most recently, Elam announced the end of legacy-based admissions to the school in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision to strike down affirmative action.

“What we want to do is ensure access and opportunity for all students,” Elam told The Times in May.

Lisa Link, chair of the Occidental College board of trustees, said the board would work to ensure a “smooth transition” for Elam’s eventual successor.


“I look forward to our partnership in this final year,” Link said, “as President Elam begins implementation of the Occidental Promise, and sets the stage for the next president to continue.”

Staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.