By Dick Anderson | Photos by Max S. Gerber & Marc Campos
Not long after his arrival at Occidental, President Jonathan Veitch had a conversation with the head of the Huntington Library—a former president of Reed College. Asked to compare the two experiences, he replied, “The Huntington is the mission of Reed without the noise.” “Oh my God, I would miss the noise,” Veitch recalls thinking, “because the noise is the commotion of democracy.”
That was Veitch’s “working hypothesis” going into the job in 2009, he says. It’s been tested more than once in the 7 1/2 years since, as student and faculty protests over College policies have sometimes threatened to overshadow his administration’s considerable accomplishments, from academic initiatives to capital improvements.
In a wide-ranging interview, Veitch—whose current contract with the College runs through 2020—reflects candidly not only on the fallout from the protests but also the unexpected rewards of shaping an institution, Oxy’s progress on its 5-year-old Strategic Plan, the perils of parenthood, and the roads not traveled.
Looking back to your arrival at Oxy, what were your expectations for the presidency?
I don’t know what I expected. You don’t come into a position that had four presidents in five years and think that everything’s going to be easy. So certainly I had some idea that there were challenges, and maybe I was a little bit overconfident in my abilities to address them. You can’t control what you can’t control.
I also don’t think I fully appreciated what a deep source of satisfaction it is to have a hand in building an institution. The closest most people get to that is child-rearing. And, much like being a parent, there’s the same sense that while out of your control at some point, some of your DNA will stay. I look around Oxy and I see the DNA of Remsen Bird, Dick Gilman, John Slaughter, and so many others.
Like your predecessors, you’ve had your share of controversy in dealing with students and faculty. You’ve experienced protests over sexual misconduct, the 2015 sit-in, and the vandalism of a 9/11 memorial. What have you learned from this?
Ironically, if you were to take a cross-section of Americans and create a focus group around any one of these issues, I probably would have been the person closest in terms of the political concerns to the students and the faculty that were protesting. So the old phrase narcissism of small differences [a term coined by Sigmund Freud in 1917]—I think we are susceptible to that. We have small ideological differences that get magnified. Meanwhile, there’s a whole world around us that needs attention.
To be more specific, we live in a culture in which sexual assault is rampant. Colleges and universities are not primarily responsible for that culture, but they are part of that culture. The activists’ call for a renewed and more invigorated role is the right one. Instead of being resigned to a culture that one feels one can’t control, colleges and universities have an obligation to intervene. And the way they can intervene most effectively is through education early and often, to make their processes more transparent, and to provide resources to survivors of sexual assault. We have learned that you can have the best policies in the world, but if you have mediocre execution you can be nowhere. Now we are creating a campus culture where we’re attentive to the way we execute our policies, and then examine our execution on a regular basis.
The sit-in also is an example of how campuses can’t escape larger cultural phenomena. People rightly expect that colleges and universities will provide leadership on important issues. As an institution, Occidental made an early commitment to diversifying its student body. It is one of the top five liberal arts colleges in the number of Pell Grant recipients from underserved communities. But that was never meant to be an end in itself. That’s the foundation for a conversation, a culture, a curriculum, and a way of orienting oneself to the world. That is our next challenge.
But I don’t think we’ve done a very good job at holding that conversation. We live in a culture that is so deeply polarized that people don’t talk to one another. They demonize each other, and thoughtful discussions are kind of a rarity. We have to become a place for thoughtful discussion in which we can disagree and profit and learn from our disagreements. I think we can do it with respect, tolerance, thoughtfulness, and an appreciation for complexity.
If these issues were easy, they would have been solved by now. They’re not easy. There are cultural, historical, social, political, and financial factors involved that make them infernally complex. We owe it to ourselves as a community to be able to create the circumstances where people can talk effectively.
Does it bother you that some of your most vocal critics are faculty?
Yes, but some of my strongest supporters are faculty as well—I wouldn’t be here without them. But for those who are critics, I would submit that we are actually closer than people imagine. I think that sometimes the critics haven’t taken the time to find out what the College is doing on those issues and given us the benefit of the doubt that we care about some of the same things they do.
What have you learned from your dealings with students in particular, and if you had the chance to do something over again, what would you do differently?
The thing that attracted me to being a president in the first place is working with students. But this job is all-consuming, and the access I have to students is limited. I am searching for more informal ways that I can engage with our undergraduates so we can have a less high-stakes conversation about the things that they’re most concerned with. I think by the time it gets to a protest, you’re not likely to have the kind of conversations that you want to have.
So I would find ways to reach out to students more. For example, I recently went to a pub night and talked to some of our seniors and was so deeply impressed with the work they are doing. One student was working on the politics in Jane Austen’s novels; another was studying soccer hooliganism as an expression of working-class culture in Europe and the differences between that and working-class culture in the United States.
Do you keep in touch with many former students?
I do. I have a set of students that I’m very close to that I like a great deal. And I suspect that I’m more inspired by them than they are by me. There’s a kind of worldliness and sophistication and appetite for the world that I hope I had at that moment in my life. I don’t know that I did.
Have you had the opportunity to reflect a little about leadership style and what’s effective and what isn’t?
In this job, you can be “right” and still lose the battle. As I said, I wish we could find a way to talk to one another in thoughtful ways that address their complexity and nuance and differing points of view. We seem to prefer the grand confrontation of political theater to thoughtful discussion.
If you are, as I am, fundamentally an introvert compelled to play the role of an extrovert, that political theater doesn’t come naturally. I can do that, but I prefer a one-on-one discussion.
Who do you turn to for advice? Who’s in your inner circle?
I’ve been blessed with having very good leadership on the Board of Trustees and Faculty Council. So I talk frequently to a number of our trustees and faculty. I talk to my counterparts at the Claremont Colleges. I talk to my wife. And actually, I talk a lot to my college-age children, because there’s no one with a bullshit meter better than a late adolescent— particularly your own children. They are very good at saying, “You should phrase it this way,” or “I wouldn’t go there,” or “Here’s what students are likely to think.”
As a president with two children in college, you’re simultaneously a leader in, and consumer of, higher education. Has that provided you with any insights?
Going on a college tour with your children is a sobering experience. You see just how much faith and hope parents put into the institutions to which they send their children, and just how foundational it is for almost every single thing that’s going to be important in their lives. I always had a keen sense about my responsibilities, but they were sharpened through that experience.
What parents most want from a college education for their son or daughter is that their future is assured in some way or other. One of the very tangible things I came back with was a real commitment to our career services, because a liberal arts education is absolutely the best preparation for any potential career, even if the major doesn’t exactly map onto what someone might do. But I don’t think that parents and students fully appreciate that. So our Hameetman Career Center becomes vital in helping our graduates make the case effectively for themselves.
I also see how polished our competitors’ communication is so that eventually almost all colleges start to look like one another. And that was a small epiphany for me because I thought I had an acute sense of our distinctiveness. But I came away wondering if we’re able to communicate that adequately and separate ourselves from the pack because they all talk about international education and civic engagement.
The last revelation from these tours is a certain amount of humility. When my daughter was touring a school in New England that I fell in love with, I turned to her afterward and asked, “What’d you think?” And she said, “Did you notice the tour guide? Well, he was wearing flip-flops.” And I said, “Big deal.” She said, “Well, did you notice that he had an extra toe?” That’s all she’s going to remember about that college. And I was crestfallen because I thought that this is a great place for her. And she doesn’t want to go there because the tour guide has an extra toe.
So should our tour guides all wear closed-toed shoes?
If you ran across a high school senior on campus, how would you sell Occidental to them?
I would say that what a residential college offers is close relationships with faculty members, a set of friends that will become lifelong, the ability to talk through more readily the challenges of any particular assignment, the opportunity to participate in athletics—things you can only do in a particular place and time. And I wouldn’t say it this way to a high school senior, but it’s awesome.
But in addition to Oxy’s signature programs—study abroad, the Kahane United Nations program, Campaign Semester, undergraduate research—I would also cite all the things that probably are too far distant for them to think about: their friendships, their intellectual passions, the foundation for their career, questions about what brings meaning to their lives, even a potential partner.
What do you say to parents about the high cost of higher education?
We’ve had the lowest tuition increases in the last 20 years over the last several years, but we’re keenly aware that for some middle-class households student debt has made college an almost impossible stretch. One of the things the forthcoming comprehensive campaign will be focused on is scholarship support, not only for families of modest means but middle-class families as well.
So is Oxy able to meet the financial needs of all of its admitted students?
We’re able to meet full demonstrated need of all the students we admit. But there are only a handful of colleges and universities that are need-blind. We are need-sensitive, which means that we turn away some students that we would love to have here because we just don’t have enough financial aid money to go around. But the students we admit, we support fully—another reason we need to raised more money for scholarships. Our future fundraising efforts are designed to extend this support.
What are the biggest misconceptions you come across in talking with alumni?
There’s a misperception about the management of the endowment. Thanks to Ian McKinnon ’89 and Chris Varelas ’85 and the work of the Board of Trustees investment committee, we have exceeded our benchmarks for the last decade. Another misconception is that the curriculum isn’t as rigorous as it may have been in the past. Quite the contrary. While the curriculum will inevitably change over time, the core skills that Oxy teaches—interpretation, analysis, effective communication, etc.—are very much the same.
I think that alumni sometimes imagine that this is a campus that is immersed in constant controversy, and that it consumes our entire bandwidth. And the truth is, those controversies float on the surface of a much deeper intellectual enterprise that’s going on every day in our classrooms and laboratories.
I get letters from alumni all the time, and occasionally some criticize Occidental for being too PC. I think we do have a problem with political correctness, so that’s not a misconception. One alumnus wrote me a letter about Campaign Semester and a student who was doing research on Occupy Wall Street. I sent him a list of the research projects across the College—everything from molecular research to medieval French peasantry to post-apartheid politics in South Africa—to give him some idea of the breadth of the work that our students are doing.
Do you think Occidental has gone too far to the left?
The general sense that Oxy is a left-leaning campus is accurate—I’m not going to pretend otherwise. But I don’t think that we are unique in that. Certainly if you walked on the campus of Berkeley or Pomona or Bard or Barnard, you’d find essentially the same circumstances. I don’t really believe it’s my job to proselytize for one political point of view or the other; it’s up to students to make up their own minds about that they believe.
But does it make it difficult to get the financial support of older alumni, for instance, who disagree with the College’s direction?
Yes, it does.
So how do you address that?
I tell them that the things they cherish most about Oxy remain the same. When I was relatively new as a president, I attended a yield event in San Francisco, to which we invite admitted students and their families to hear more about the College. As part of the program, the admission office asks alumni from different eras to talk about their undergraduate experiences. And you could have put a blindfold on and not known when they had graduated.
That said, we do need to make overtures to bring disenfranchised alumni back into the fold. I often use the example of the late Jack Kemp ’57. He cared deeply about social issues and had market-based solutions for those concerns. He was very active in civil rights, and brought ideas to political life. I don’t think it’s an accident that people like Paul Ryan look to him as a political mentor. So we created a Kemp Distinguished Speaker Series that brought Condoleezza Rice to campus last spring. We welcomed David Brooks [the conservative-leaning New York Times columnist] to my first Commencement as president. It has to be our business to challenge people’s views on the right, in the center, and on the left.
In these pages in 2012, you said: “We must reinvigorate our curriculum, make the case for the liberal arts to our prospective students and the public at large; and define the skills and qualities of mind that we want our students to possess when they graduate.” To that end, the College came up with a strategic plan titled Mapping the Future of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, with six key initiatives. How do you feel that’s going?
I was very pleased with the way that we put the strategic plan together, because all the key stakeholders—faculty, trustees, alumni, staff, and even students—weighed in. At bottom, the strategic plan recognized that the thing that set Oxy apart was our location. But what does it mean to be in Los Angeles?
It means being part of our local community. Our students and faculty are very active in everything from local high schools and K-12 on college readiness, to working with homeless shelters and battered women’s shelters. So there’s a high level of student activity in our community, which we have tried to expand and support.
That’s meant doing things as banal as maintaining a vanpool that will get our students out into the community. Los Angeles also provides innumerable opportunities in terms of cultural institutions as well as employment opportunities. We’ve expanded our Hameetman Career Center and invested in internships so that our students have the opportunity to work in Silicon Beach, and the entertainment industry and financial services. We’ve developed partnerships with institutions like the Huntington and the Autry.
Our next initiative is to develop a footprint around entertainment and media, where our students can take full advantage of Los Angeles as a global center in these fields. The city also is unique in its location and three distinct ecosystems—our oceans, deserts, and mountains—that present other opportunities. So we are in the midst of a renovation that’s going to use our new Cosman Shell Collection and Moore Bird Lab as the basis for an environmental science program that will be a marquee program for us.
We’ve made immense progress from that simple notion of location, and trying to leverage the resources around us. Business people call them underappreciated assets. To my mind, Los Angeles is one vast collection of underappreciated assets. And if we’re smart about the way we draw connections to those assets, the sum will be greater than its parts. Our goal is to build a profile as the most distinctive urban liberal arts college in the country.
What is Oxy going to look like 10 years from now?
In some ways I would say Occidental will be very much the place that its alumni remember, regardless of when they graduated. It will be technologically more sophisticated. The curriculum will continue to evolve. It will be stronger in terms of career readiness so that our students go out prepared for the marketplace. It will be much more tied into its location and leveraging that advantage more effectively. I think it will be known more for key programs like the Kahane United Nations program, the McKinnon International Center, our environmental science program, and our new arts programming on York Boulevard. And we will be more effective in communicating that.
The bigger challenge for us is around the sciences. I just hung up the phone with the president of Union College, which is building a $100-million integrated science facility. Liberal arts colleges have to attend to the sciences. For most academic disciplines, a good professor and a classroom will meet your needs. That’s not enough in the sciences.
Looking at fundraising, few Oxy presidents have raised as much money as you have (more than $136.6 million from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2016). So is it a stretch for Oxy to raise its game?
That’s going to depend on a handful of outsized gifts, but I like our chances going forward. I can say that, to my surprise and delight, I enjoy fundraising. It matters enormously to Oxy’s future, and we have incredibly generous alums who are willing to support the College if you can make the right case to them. We’re in a race, and if you’re standing still, you’re losing ground. We need to be as nimble and as aggressive as our peers.
The biggest existential threat to colleges like Occidental is affordability. Scholarships are crucial, and in a way they’re a proxy for the endowment. For a lot of people, the endowment is an abstraction, but a student who’s benefitted from a scholarship is very real. So we need to tell those stories about how transformative Oxy was in changing the course of a life.
How would you say you’ve made an impact on Occidental?
We have established that we can raise serious money for this institution. We have addressed some long-standing capital needs, from renovating Swan Hall and the Rose Hills Student Activities Center to replacing Taylor Pool and expanding the McKinnon Family Tennis Center very soon. And we’ve done so with a set of design principles that I’m really proud of. The Hameetman Career Center and McKinnon Center for Global
Affairs are beautiful additions. We have this gorgeous historic Myron Hunt campus, but that doesn’t mean that their interiors have to be staid and traditional. We’ve added to the legacy of Beatrix Farrand through the beautiful Mullin Entrance.
Finally, we’ve put some real muscle behind why a liberal arts education matters and why it’s the best foundation for success. I’m particularly proud of this, because other liberal arts colleges have gone to nursing and pre-business programs in response to worries that they won’t be able to command the tuition unless they have clear trajectories. Our answer is that our career services is going to provide a scaffolding around a liberal arts education so that when students graduate, they’re ready and competitive for the best-paying jobs that are available.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I don’t think it’s been achieved yet, actually. Outside of my personal life, my deepest commitment in life has been my intellectual experience—a love of books and an appetite for, and curiosity about, the world. I want our students to have an appreciation of complexity, a respect for intellectual culture, and a capacity for reflection. That’s the legacy I want to have as president of Occidental.
Had you not gone into academics, what would you be doing right now?
It’s funny you should ask that, because I used to think about that all the time. One of my favorite books is by Studs Terkel called Working, where he interviews everyone from detectives to factory workers to astronauts. And the truth is, I could imagine a dozen careers on any given day.
I’ll tell you how I became a professor, and it goes back to a job that I had working in a public parking lot in Santa Monica. I shared this job with a guy who always wanted to work on sunny days because he could double park the cars and pocket the extra money. I always wanted to work on foggy days because it meant nobody showed up and I could read all day. I thought, “This is amazing. I’m earning $3.50 an hour to read Thoreau. What job can I get where somebody’s going to pay me to read books?” So I became a professor.
According to the most recent survey by the American Council on Education, the average tenure of a college or university president is seven years. How does it feel getting past that milestone?
I was flipping around channels the other night, and I came across professional rodeo. And I became mesmerized by the bull-riding competition. I thought to myself, Why am I so interested in this? Then I realized that a professional bull rider and a college president have a lot in common. In an increasingly challenging environment for anyone working in higher education, I’m proud of staying on the bull, and not getting bucked off. It’s a modest victory, but it’s not an insignificant one.
So eight years as president is comparable to eight seconds on a bull?
(Smiling) That’s an interesting question. I think I made it past the qualifying time. I’m now in the running for real points. But that’s the bare minimum for a college president: Staying on the bull.
Oxy at 130: The College Today
“I believe fervently that the best preparation for success in a career is a liberal arts education,” Veitch says—and that takes a commitment to leveraging Oxy’s assets and growing its resources. Here’s a snapshot of the College on his watch.
Tenure-track faculty hires since 2010. Oxy’s student-faculty ratio is now 10:1, with 179 full-time faculty in the classroom.
Applicants to the Class of 2020, an all-time high.
Major capital improvement projects completed since June 30, 2009. The list includes Swan and Hinchliffe halls, the McKinnon Family Center for Global Affairs, Choi Auditorium, Samuelson Alumni Center, a 1-megawatt solar array, Alumni Fitness Center, Rose Hills Student Activities Center, the Mullin Campus Entrance, and Hameetman Career Center.
Increase in fundraising from fiscal year 2008-09 ($12.2 million) to 2015-16 ($25.2 million).
Participants in InternLA last summer—one offshoot of a renewed commitment to career development.
Endowment as of June 30, 2016—up from $273.8 million when Veitch took office in 2009.
Study-abroad participants (for credit) in 2015-16. An additional 15 students participated in Oxy’s Kahane United Nations program last year, while another 14 students were full-time interns during Campaign Semester in fall 2016.
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