Decade Ahead
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Decade Ahead

We will have new energy returning to campus

A conversation with Harry Elam (May 28, 2021)

By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman ()

“I feel optimistic,” says Occidental College President Harry Elam. “That sense of hope is not something I have alone. We all want 2021 to be better.” Before beginning his tenure in July 2020, Harry visited the college in March just before the shutdown. “Oxy prides itself on activism,” Harry reminds us, using the shorter nickname for the college. “When I got the job, one of the students said ‘we like you but if you mess up, we’re going to protest you.’’ The students’ opportunity for protest changed with the move to remote instruction. While the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests brought out student activism, “there weren’t students on campus, so it’s not clear if there would have been protests,” Harry says. The students had “bigger meetings because they could be online,” but they could not organize in person to build on each other’s energy. Thinking ahead to the upcoming return to campus, “I wonder if coming back, we will see activism at an extreme,” Harry asks.

Harry Elam

Before moving to Occidental, Harry Elam served as Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University for a decade, also becoming Stanford’s first Vice President for the Arts in 2017. A professor in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, Elam is the author of award-winning The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (University of Michigan Press, 2006). He has directed professionally for more than 25 years, including several plays by August Wilson. As president of a liberal arts college, Harry talks about the perceived conflict between traditional liberal arts and successful paths to employment today. “People want to know what is the value added,” he says. As a believer in the arts, “I want to argue that liberal education is needed more than ever.” At the same time, he understands that “people want a career path and an income.”

Like other university leaders, Elam’s decisions for fall 2020 were controversial, with pushback from parents but some surprising support from students. “While we made the decision on July 15th, it was not until August 12th that Los Angeles County prohibited in-person instruction,” Harry tells us. With that foresight, “we got a jump start over some schools.” However, acting before the County decision also had its consequences. “On July 16th, I got a note from a parent saying I had ruined her daughter’s life.” That would give any college president pause. On the other hand, students were seemingly on board with the decision: “student government petitioned us to go fully remote. They … didn’t trust their fellow students to maintain all the expectations of congregate living.” Harry observes that there was “great disparity in terms of education: some students could go to a private home,” while some “students had to learn in the living room with others.”

In Harry’s eyes, faculty responded admirably to the year. “They always had student empathy,” he says, often bringing concerns directly to him. As students asked their instructors to recognize the “additional strains remote learning was causing them,” many faculty were sensitive to these concerns and the resulting student burnout. While Harry tells us that some professors built a “health day” into their syllabus, others did not. Of course, instructors were dealing with their own struggles and doing the best they could: “Faculty were faced with new challenges and had to figure out how to teach remotely.” In the sciences, “people were making lab kits and sending them to students.” Having now completed a year of remote instruction, a poll of faculty produced a list of teaching changes to keep after the pandemic: (i) online office hours, because more students come and are more forthcoming; (ii) remote guest speakers via zoom, given the broader participation of guests and students alike making the campus more porous; and (iii) breakout rooms, which faculty found led to really engaging discussions. Looking ahead to next year, Harry also suspects that active learning will increase, as faculty create flipped classrooms that leverage the technology used in the past academic year.

Returning to student activism, Harry reminds us that “socially, culturally, students want to have a social impact.” After experiencing the pandemic, they “feel like there’s an urgency that perhaps wasn’t there before.” Some concerns are the “environment they live in and also their social class. There’s an urgency around it.” Despite the fact that students were all off campus, it was clear to Harry how all students felt empathy for the position of Black students in response to BLM. Students created broad coalitions that Harry and his team met proactively, talking to leadership of the Black student alliance and inviting more students to hear their concerns. Harry reflects on what he has seen and what that might mean: “It’s a very interesting time. I wonder what it’ll be like with pent up activism when students are back on campus.” With half the students having never set foot on Occidental’s campus, Harry recognizes that student behavior will be unpredictable. “We might get activism at an extreme. We might get partying at an extreme as well.” No matter how student activity looks in the Fall, Harry reminds us “having students on campus will be hopeful. A sense of hope is what everyone wants.”



The Decade Ahead project presents observations, case studies, reports, and commentary on forces and events that are shaping the next decade of education

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