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 current 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.
“The play works best when everyone feels that they are working to their fullest, that they are contributing to the whole, and that it’s going to become this great thing as they go forth — the play,” he told the Stanford Report in 2010. “All of those things are true about university administration.”
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 diversify the school. 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.
Occidental Board of Trustees Chairman Steve 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, 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 said the college’s mission to promote liberal arts with a focus on excellence, equity, community and service deeply resonated with him. Occidental is one of the nation’s most diverse liberal arts colleges, with students of color making 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%.
The university, however, has sought to address calls for a more inclusive campus climate.
“Over the past years I have, in effect, operated a liberal arts college within the structure of a research university,” Elam said in a statement. “Occidental represents a particularly dynamic vision of the liberal arts, and the work of collaborating with faculty, students and staff to lead the college into the next phase of its evolution is a truly exciting opportunity.”
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 helped create a black theater troupe at his high school, researched theater as a mechanism for social justice 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 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.
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