After a four-year term, Occidental’s President Harry Elam announced in an Aug. 22 email to the Occidental community that his last day as president will be June 30, 2024. He cited a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, a neuro-degenerative movement disorder, as the reason for his early departure.
Elam is cutting his scheduled five-year term, which began July 1, 2020, a year short. He follows President Remsen Bird (1921-1945) as the only Occidental president to step down early majorly due to a medical diagnosis since 1945, according to Rod Leveque, the College’s vice president for marketing and communications. Former college president Susan Prager was the last president to resign in 2007. At the time, The Occidental reported that Prager cited an incompatible relationship with other college leaders for her departure.
Elam told The Occidental over email that while he doesn’t think he will retire completely, his future remains uncertain.
“I do plan to write and to write about higher education,” Elam said via email.
Despite his decision to step down, Elam said he intends to stay involved at Occidental. He told The Occidental that while he doesn’t see himself returning to teaching, he is open to doing guest lectures, especially at the College.
“Oxy has a real place in my heart, and so I will look to stay involved in ways that I can,” Elam said. “Of course, I understand that the new president needs room to do what they see as valuable, and so I will give them room to do so.”
Board Chair Lisa Link told The Occidental via email that Elam shared the news with the full board the day before his email was sent to the Occidental community.
“In the meantime, as you might expect, the Board is very saddened by President Elam’s diagnosis,” Link said via email. “And we share his disappointment that he will not be able to serve the final year of his five-year term, yet alone longer.”
Elam said the board was “incredibly warm, sympathetic and understanding” when he approached them with his decision to resign.
“It has truly been a pleasure working with them, given their passion for the school and their support of me,” Elam told The Occidental via email.
Just 15 minutes after the community received Elam’s Aug. 22 email, Link sent an email to the Occidental community acknowledging Elam’s departure and reflecting on his presidency, particularly his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In that email, Link said Elam will work with the Board to effectuate a smooth leadership transition and that she will provide updates for the community regarding the search for a president as they come along.
Link told The Occidental via email that the board is evaluating its next steps to identify the next president, but what that entails is uncertain. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for October, according to Leveque.
Meanwhile, Elam said he remains committed to being active on campus and implementing the Occidental Promise, a vision for the college to provide students with an immersive learning experience, given the campus’ location in an urban environment.
“I look forward to seeing students, staff, faculty and alumni for a while to come, and helping Occidental reach its fullest potential,” Elam said via email.
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