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Occidental president has testy Q&A with students

Occidental president has testy Q&A with students
Students at Occidental College in Eagle Rock announced that they would end their occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center. They met with President Jonathan Veitch in a sometimes test Q&A session. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch met with students and staff Thursday, engaging in a sometimes tense question and answer session while also saying he had spent too much time away from campus while tensions rose.

"I focused on raising money," said Veitch, who added that he planned to interact with undergraduates more.

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Last year, Occidental raised $30.4 million, a record high for the liberal arts school probably best known as President Obama's alma mater.

Veitch has been criticized by students who feel that administrators have not done enough to stop racism and increase diversity at the Eagle Rock campus. Students occupied an administrative building for nearly a week before Thanksgiving and presented a list of 14 demands, including increasing diversity in the student body and faculty, removing the LAPD from campus and creating a Black Studies program.

They also asked that Veitch resign if their demands were not met.

School trustees voiced their support for Veitch, whose contract runs through 2020, but Occidental officials agreed to many student demands before the Thanksgiving break.

But it was clear from Thursday's meeting that many students still didn't trust Veitch, who has been president of the school since 2009.

Students in the session laughed at several of Veitch's answers, prompting the moderator, Richard Mora, a sociology professor, to admonish them.

"You have to show respect," Mora said.

In response to questions, Veitch said he did not believe Occidental was a racist institution, but that he was troubled by allegations of students being called epithets and feeling uncomfortable in classrooms and social settings.

"I care about you," he said.

Veitch disputed allegations that the school is not committed to diversity. About 42% of the 2,100 Occidental students are minority or multiracial, according to college statistics, down slightly from about 44% of the non-international student body in the 1995-96 school year.

Veitch said he was at least partly to blame for the hostile relationship between students and the administration. "I'm sure I bear responsibility in that for not seeking out students," he said, but vowed to be on campus more and attend more events.

At one point during the hour-long session, one student referred to Veitch by his last name and he asked the undergraduate to refer to him as "Jonathan or President Veitch."

It was unclear whether the session relieved tensions. At the end of it, Veitch said that "this is the beginning of the conversation" before leaving the silent hall.

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"Crickets," one student said, prompting scattered laughter from the crowd.

Follow @byjsong on Twitter.

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