Most Occidental students know Communications Director Jim Tranquada best for two things: strolling down the Quad picking up litter and sending out emails on a startling range of campus updates.
Adrian Aviles (senior) still remembers two emails Tranquada sent out in October 2020 about the college’s new strategy for coexisting with the coyotes on campus, which were growing more aggressive during the pandemic. Thirty months after the emails were sent, Aviles can quote — almost verbatim— his favorite line: the matter-of-fact instruction to “increase what is known as ‘hazing’— standing tall, waving arms, shouting and making loud noises, or even throwing something in their direction.”
“This email lives in my mind,” Aviles said.
Tranquada, who joined Occidental in 2000, will be retiring in June. Through five college presidencies (not including interims, he noted), he has been sending concise notifications on all manners of news-you-can-use, from beekeepers on campus to storm preparations.
“Those, I hope, have been helpful. And in some cases reassuring, but always informative,” Tranquada said.
But Tranquada writes in a lot more genres than emails — and he knows as much about Occidental’s history as he knows about its news. In an email announcing Tranquada’s retirement, President Harry Elam said that Tranquada serves as the institutional memory.
“I’ve been here longer than most Oxy students have been alive,” Tranquada said. “Because of the generational nature of students, because they’re only here for four years, it’s easy to lose track of institutional history. And I think it’s important not to do that.”
Tranquada wrote the “Our History” page of Occidental’s website and is perpetually quoted in The Occidental‘s own coverage. Occidental Publications Editor Dick Anderson said the two have chronicled the ongoing life of the college, going deep into Special Collections to explore events from student protests to athletic rivalries to the founding of the college. Laura Paisley, the director of Occidental’s website and content strategy, said Tranquada is a fountain of knowledge.
“When we’re talking about writing a story about someone or we get a pitch, Jim can always pop in and say, ‘Oh, we wrote a story about that person in 2001,'” Paisley said.
Tranquada is a native Angeleno; his great-grandparents lived on Townsend Avenue and his grandmother attended Franklin High School. After graduating from Stanford with a history degree, he began as a reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News. He said working as a general assignment reporter got him accustomed to writing about a wide variety of topics on a short deadline.
“The research that I’ve done, in part, is just a reporter’s desire to answer a question,” Tranquada said. “I’m curious. I don’t know, how does that work? Who is responsible for that? What is that process? When did we start doing this?”
Tranquada said that when he arrived at Occidental, there was a widely held belief that the Pomona v. Occidental football game was the oldest collegiate rivalry west of the Mississippi. But Tranquada decided to look into that further, and he found that his suspicions were correct: the Stanford-Cal rivalry was older.
“It had been repeated so often that it just became accepted as true, which is something you see throughout history,” Tranquada said.
When Barack Obama was on his first presidential campaign, many people subscribed to the false idea that Obama, who attended Occidental between 1979 and 1981, was not an American citizen. These “birthers” called or emailed the college from around the country to assert this theory, and Tranquada would get into a conversation to explain that it was not true.
“I really enjoyed talking to those people, because they often wrote or called just to vent, and they were always surprised when someone called them back and gave them the facts,” Tranquada said.
Emily Jo Wharry ‘20, former editor-in-chief of The Occidental, said Tranquada has been tremendously supportive of the paper. He read every issue cover to cover, Wharry said, taking note of the by-lines so he could talk with writers about their work.
“Jim saw the bigger picture, both of what we were trying to accomplish and what we had yet to learn as young writers, and he treated us with such patience and empathy,” Wharry said.
Wharry said this supportive relationship between a college’s communications office and its student newspaper is not typical. She has spoken with editors-in-chief at other college papers, who described communications directors denying interviews, actively trying to defund student journalism and even redirecting website traffic from their sites. On the other hand, Wharry said, Tranquada’s graceful and measured approach inspired her to pursue a career as a communications specialist at UCLA.
Tranquada said that as a former reporter, he understands the importance of holding institutions accountable, and that Occidental students are so vocal because they care. Although he can’t always share all information publicly, he said he aims to be as clear and forthright as possible.
The people who have worked with Tranquada unanimously described him as kind. Paisley said he is calm, unflappable and quick to note people’s successes, while Wharry and her co-editors were moved to name the newsroom’s pet fish after him (“Jim Tank-Wata”).
“Jim is the best boss I have ever had, and a good friend as well,” Anderson said via email. “If I was stranded somewhere and could make one phone call, he’d be at the top of my list anytime. I guess I’d better get to work on revising my emergency contact list.”
Tranquada said retirement will take some getting used to. He estimated he has taken one three-week vacation in the 44 years he has been working.
“[I’m looking forward to] not getting texts early in the morning,” Tranquada said. “And actually being able to read books, as opposed to articles and memorandums.”
Tranquada is an avid ukulele scholar and the president of the Historical Society of Southern California. Anderson, who shares some of these interests, said he can think of one place where his understanding of history diverges from Tranquada’s.
“Jim would be the first person to tell you that the history of Occidental would suggest that no one is irreplaceable,” Anderson said via email. “I don’t entirely agree with Jim on this one. Jim Tranquadas don’t come along very often.”
Contact Divya Prakash at firstname.lastname@example.org