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An Interview With Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch

President Obama may have put Oxy on the map, but it's L.A. native Jonathan Veitch who's charting the course for some of the boldest initiatives in the college's 113-year history.

A year and a half into his tenure as president of , Jonathan Veitch has made much progress in integrating one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges within the larger community of Eagle Rock. A native Angeleno, Veitch took his post in August 2009, following a tumultuous era for Oxy leadership, which has had four presidents since 2005. Admissions have been up ever since the world got to know that President Barack Obama was a student here, albeit for two years, from 1979 to 1981, and the college has successfully recruited a diverse student body both nationally and internationally. Unlike many other colleges and universities, especially the University of California, Oxy’s substantial endowment has weathered the recession.

Veitch is a big proponent of improved community relations on a number of fronts. For years, residential neighbors of Oxy have had to contend with rowdy parties in a frat house and other homes that students rent a few blocks off campus, legendary for their night-long carousing. In 2006, Oxy announced a master plan for the campus that laid out a plan for the development of campus over the next 20 years, relying on the reuse of existing buildings and development when new buildings might be needed.

There was some controversy over a series of two-story faculty and staff condos proposed to be built on the lower slope of Fiji Hill, the open hillside on the Oxy campus rising directly behind . Eagle Rock residents had reservations that such development could have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood, including traffic, noise, and a denser campus in the middle of a residential area. (Neighbors stressed the need for more parking on lower campus, even though the number of campus parking spaces exceeds city requirements.)

Members of TERA (The Eagle Rock Association) discussed the plan with administrators and made them aware of community concerns. TERA’s Frank Parello and Michael Tharp have visited the campus leadership several times with specific and detailed concerns about the plan.

At his first meeting with local community leaders in the fall of 2009, President Veitch announced that the campus master plan would be on hold indefinitely and that the Townsend entrance and new faculty housing have been deemed unnecessary. Veitch vowed that campus growth would be much more moderate and organic. Campus construction plans are currently limited to two remodeling and retrofit projects: Swan Hall and the Alumni House.

A scholar of English and American literature, Veitch went to Stanford and Harvard and is former dean of the New School's Eugene Lang College in New York City, where he demonstrated a passion for the innovation and engagement that educational institutions can bring to communities.

One of his first acts as Oxy’s new leader was to invite leading public officials to discuss urban transportation and environmental initiatives. The series kicked off with a March 2009 visit from Janette Sadik-Khan, an Oxy alumna who is the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. A renowned bike-loving, traffic-calming, pedestrian-plaza and sustainability advocate, Sadik-Khan has added 200 miles of bike lanes and other innovations in Manhattan, transforming much of the area’s streetscape. Her visit sparked a citywide conversation of what Los Angeles could become.

On Veitch’s first anniversary in August 2010, Oxy hosted a public forum for LA activists to a share their visions for LA’s environmental future with local officials, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and other cabinet administrators, just a day after the feds declared the LA River to be navigable and available for federal funding.

Eagle Rock Patch’s Mary Tokita, a well-known Eagle Rock-based community gardener and eco-activist, recently caught up with President Veitch for a wide-ranging interview that included Ella Turenne, Oxy’s new assistant dean of civic engagement, an artist and former colleague of Veitch from the New School, who moved to Eagle Rock from Queens, NY.

Mary Tokita: Tell us a bit about Oxy’s civic engagement.

Veitch: Ella is in charge of all our civic engagement, so all the work that is done in the community is organized by her and overseen by her. The Neighborhood Partnership program with Franklin High—maybe you could say a few words about it, Ella?

Turenne: The Neighborhood Partnership program [NPP] is a “Gear Up” program across a network of schools. We serve a number of high schools and a number of colleges working in other schools. Eagle Rock High School is one of the original schools. They have been partners since 1999. NPP is the lead college partner in the Gear Up grant; we also work with LA City College, Glendale Community College, East Los Angeles College, and UCLA. The grant follows a cohort of students from 7-12 grade. This is our third grant cycle since 1999. The current grant serves 3,500 students at five high schools. At Eagle Rock High, there are approximately 700 seniors. We have 16 Gear Up tutors at Eagle Rock and 34 Title One tutors. Eagle Rock is the only school that has both a Gear Up grant and Title One tutoring. At most Gear Up schools we have approximately 16 tutors.

Across campus we have a lot of other offices that do work across the city. For example, The Center for Community Based Learning does community-based engagement work, connecting faculty and students with organizations across the curriculum. Then there’s UEPI [Urban Policy and Environmental Institute], and Bob Gottleib, who heads that, oversees lots of research, lots of policy work. Some of biggest programs are the “Farms to School program,” which looks at how to get food from local farms into schools.

Veitch: They work on improving nutrition with middle schools, reducing transportation and increasing sustainability of small farms.

Mary Tokita: Yes, I’m on the grassroots side of that, working with community gardens across the city. So we definitely interact. Bob Gottleib’s on the L.A. Food Policy Task Force, as is Glen Dake of the L.A. Community Garden Council. It’s an interesting dilemma, connecting the food that we have and getting it directly to people. Local food distribution is fuzzy yet, still developing.

Veitch: Why are there no food co-ops in Los Angeles?

Mary Tokita: It’s kind of an alien concept here in L.A. Maybe the concept hasn’t migrated from the East Coast yet. Maybe because L.A. is so entrepreneurial, or perhaps everyone here is so territorial!

Turenne: There are so many farmers markets, too.

Mary Tokita: Yes, we have all the pieces to make it work, but they’re not coalescing yet. I expect that we’ll see it worked out in the next few years. I’m from Ann Arbor, MI, and there all kinds of business cooperatives there, right alongside the University of Michigan. Community supported agriculture groups are starting all over, but they are still more of a business model than a true cooperative. Co-ops ask that the customers participate in the growing, gathering and selling of food. They become part of the process, not mere consumers.

Traditionally, institutions of higher learning and social research can really serve as laboratories for new, innovative ideas such as food coops. So that’s where Occidental can really serve as a catalyst for social change. But, I’d like to get off the big picture level and move down to a more personal perspective. Jonathan, you’ve been here for more than a year. Are you starting to acclimate? Are you still an East Coast guy? Are you becoming an Eagle Rocker?

Veitch: Well, I grew up in Los Angeles. But I haven’t been back here, except for visiting relatives for 25 years. So in terms of acclimating, I’m already there.

Turenne: You can’t beat this weather.

Veitch: I said to myself, ‘how can this be?’ I’ve been away from home for years and lived in the upper Midwest, in Madison, WI. What’s interesting to me about living here this time is that Los Angeles has always seemed anonymous to me. I grew up on the Westside. However, Eagle Rock and Highland Park are much more close-knit communities than other parts of Los Angeles. So to be in the midst of the city and yet have an experience of living with a small town feel—I hadn’t expected that. It was really a surprise to me. The other surprise has been that people are so warm and welcoming.

Mary Tokita: Well, we all want something from you, Jonathan!

Veitch: But [they’re nice] even if they don’t know you.

Mary Tokita: To me, Eagle Rock is a little piece of the Midwest in the middle of a huge metropolis. But we have our dark side, too. We’ve definitely changed a lot, and for the better over the past 20 years. At one point TERA counted more than 100 car-related businesses in our main boulevards. It was one of the reasons we developed the Colorado Specific Plan—to diversify our business mix while striving to preserve our older buildings.

Veitch: How did that happen, all those automotive businesses in one area?

Mary Tokita: We’ve always been a real blue-collar, working class community. We have always been folks with dirt in their nails. We began as an agricultural community 100 ago, and now there’s a return of that legacy. We used to have trolleys integrated into our business areas. Then in the 1960s the 134 freeway was built and dramatically changed traffic patterns. Route 66 became historical, a secondary route.

Veitch: But how could there be so many automotive businesses in one neighborhood?

Mary Tokita: Maybe they didn’t want them in Glendale or Pasadena? Maybe it was more affordable space and less regulation at one point? I’m sure Eric Warren [president of the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society] could give you his ideas on that.

Turenne: You would think that the competition alone would have taken care of it.

Mary Tokita: Yes, it wasn’t sustainable.

Veitch: There are several shops that are now closed.

Mary Tokita: It’s been changing dramatically. We’ve gotten more diversified in our business mix, so you don’t have to drive to Pasadena for a good meal. Part of that is due to attrition over time, part due to competition. Part of it is activism, and through that, the effectiveness of the Colorado Specific Plan. Our street-facing properties are valuable real estate. [Fatty’s, The Coffee Table, were once garages and auto parts stores, respectively.] So I hope we’ll see more adaptive re-use of these spaces into other kinds of businesses. But while we have definitely been transitioning in a more upscale direction in the last 20 years, we’ve been able to retain our spirit, a deep sense of place, a multi-generational commitment to Eagle Rock as a place to live and raise families.

Veitch: You are so right. The Westside is more anonymous, more transitional. You came to a special place, [Ella].

Turenne: I definitely feel that. It reminds me a lot of Queens. People assume New Yorkers coming to Los Angeles are going to have culture shock, but I didn’t really experience that. The town I came from, Laurelton, in Queens, is a lot like Eagle Rock—it’s residential, you’ve got your streets of shops. But what’s different is that the community here is much tighter knit and has a much longer memory than where I lived.

Mary Tokita: Cool. So let’s go back to the bigger picture. Jonathan, since Day One you’ve talked a lot about working with and in the community here and citywide. You’ve got a position on your staff that is dedicated to coordinating that effort. Is that a new position?

Veitch: Well historically, it’s been UEPI doing that, doing a number of very specific projects all over the city. But there’s also been a recognition on campus that there are a broader range of things to be done. And more locally. One of the things we did very early is to pull the Occidental Master Plan, as you know. It seemed to be a plan for the campus alone, but not for the neighborhood and the community overall. We want to create an overlay for the community that makes sense for them, as well as us. Many of our faculty and staff live here in Eagle Rock and Highland Park. We want to keep them close to us, we want to keep involved in the schools and the many students who are here. Working on issues to make Eagle Rock and Highland Park even better.

With Bob Gottleib and Christopher Hawthorne [Los Angeles Times architecture critic] we have been able to bring in people to talk about urban planning issues and the city’s future in an exciting way. Michael LoGrande [L.A.’s new planning chief] was just here. He does seem forward-thinking. I think the challenge for him is going to be that he’s so radically understaffed—and instead of being able to be forward-thinking, he may be dealing with putting out fires.

Mary Tokita: Dealing with intransigent bureaucracies and fewer resources is definitely a challenge for the City, with all its financial issues. Many of the non-public, non-community facing institutions are now having to deal with the publics that they serve for the first time. Here in Eagle Rock, for example, everyone is now talking like you and Janet Sadik-Khan: We want pedestrian, bike-friendly streetscapes and fewer lanes of traffic.

Veitch: Well, talk is cheap! In terms of biking, Janet Sadik-Khan has changed New York dramatically. But it didn’t happen all at once. She is very good about talking about pilot programs. She puts in a few planters at an intersection and says ‘If you don’t like it, we’ll take it down, but let’s live with it for six months and see how it impacts traffic patterns, who starts to use it, what the safety issues are, etcetera.’ And I’m hoping that —with her help—we can begin some biking projects here in Eagle Rock and Highland Park. I understand that there’s a new group of people working on medians here in Eagle Rock.

Mary Tokita: Yes, it’s open to all stakeholders and being coordinated by the CD 14 field office. They are focusing on doing one median in Eagle Rock as a pilot program. There’s a monthly meeting about that.

Veitch: Where is that median going to be?

Mary Tokita: On Colorado Boulevard.

Veitch: Well, I think those medians are okay. But Eagle Rock Boulevard needs some attention. We’d love to be part of that process.

Mary Tokita: It would be great to have Oxy’s input on that. There’s always a lot going on here. There is a meeting almost every night during the week and some event almost every weekend. I’m sure you’ll be inundated with emails if you’re not already. Ella, are you living here in town?

Turenne: Yes, I’m right across the street from campus.

Veitch: It would be great to focus on York, Eagle Rock and Colorado first. Those boulevards are very important. There are a lot of things to explore. For instance, it would be interesting to see what the billboard companies are doing on the street level. Something other than adult content or brand marketing. Doing art projects with billboards.

Turenne: On York, we’ve all seen the bus shelters and benches with the ads on them. It would be interesting to create a program that integrates art there. Or projects that involve students. Or students collaborating with community members. Increasing public transportation options and making them more visible. Creating public spaces that are more inviting and more visible, encouraging people to go there and linger. Part of using it is making it more appealing, with seating and plants.

Mary Tokita: What other things do you envision on the streets here in the next 10 years?

Veitch: Michael LeGrande mentioned Larchmont as an example of narrowing some of the streets, to make them more pedestrian friendly, adding more bicycle lanes, more trees, of having restaurants—like Swork does—spill out onto the sidewalk more. Just to restore a sense of more people-safe, pedestrian boulevards. On Eagle Rock [Boulevard] it’s harder to see how that would be done. But Colorado and York are perfect for that.

Mary Tokita: What is Oxy’s interest in community engagement beyond the immediate neighborhood? What about your plans for engaging Oxy in greater L.A.?

Veitch: Well, Ella has been instrumental with that effort in New York. A lot of our students come here because we’re located in Los Angeles. They want to be part of that broader community. But it’s not enough to say here it is, have at it. We have to structure that experience for them. It’s one of the most complex cities in the world. Every social issue is being worked out on our doorstep. So we are getting our students to understand those issues and its history, and then to witness and think through how to respond constructively. For example, studying the L.A. River as an object of public space, about water—it prompts all kinds of fascinating meditations.

Mary Tokita: How artists can move things forward …

Veitch: Yes, like [UCLA visual artist] Judy Baca and others who do wonderful work here. As well as partnerships with other institutions. Which is something that Ella did very well for us in New York. We had relationships with the Guggenheim, with the Museum of Modern Art. A homeless organization called Women in Need and a number of others. We’d like to do the same thing here and have been talking to the Autry, to the Huntington, to MOCA. That might mean building some coursework around major exhibitions, maybe doing internships there, archival work there.

Mary Tokita: How’s the family doing with the Oxy experience? Are you living in the President’s House on campus?

Veitch: We are. In some ways, it’s fantastic. It’s a beautiful place and campus is beautiful. The kids treat it as their backyard, which is nice. On the other hand, you’re never alone. You’re surrounded by dormitories. I always tell the students that I’d better like the music they’re playing.

Mary Tokita: You’re literally a neighbor to the dorms. And you can hear what’s going on there on the weekends.

Veitch: Yes. I hear everything that’s going on. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Mary Tokita: Have you ever had to call Campus Safety?

Veitch: I’ve refrained from doing that because I don’t want to be one of those people that does that. By and large it’s mostly just loud music, so I can live with that. And we did move our 14-year-old son’s drum set to the same side of the house as the dormitories, so we can return the favor.

Mary Tokita: So what about your most legendary alumnus? Have you had an opportunity to engage with President Obama yet?

Veitch: We have had a number of people from his Cabinet on campus already, such as the Outdoors Initiative with Lisa Jackson from the EPA. But we’ve not had the president engage. We are likely to have someone from the White House who will be our graduation speaker this year. We’re waiting for the White House to finalize the travel arrangements. And just as we brought Janet Sadik-Khan to L.A., we are bringing Peter Glieck, one of the advocates against the use of plastic bottles.

Mary Tokita: You have your stars in the faculty and staff here at Oxy that are already engaged in community work and outreach projects. How are you finding the rest of the Oxy community? Are you asking them to think more outwardly? Are you encountering resistance to change?

Veitch: It’s not really my business to ask our faculty to change their ways. Someone who’s interested in medieval French peasantry should be free to spend their summer in the archives there and share that research here. You want a college that does lots of things. People who are absorbed in their work, people reaching out to the community. We have people who are oriented toward civic engagement work and opportunities that Los Angeles provides that are extraordinary in that respect. We have a number of very good partners.

One of the things that Ella pioneered at the New School is not doing an infinite array of internships, but developing close relationships with a small set of partners, whether it’s Franklin or Eagle Rock high schools or some other group. Really understanding that organization and making sure that our students are used intelligently. And framing those engagements with coursework that allows students to consider the social, political and historical context. So if we’re talking about homelessness, the context of poverty and social policy.

When I left New York, they were starting to hire around those commitments. So we already have a strong nucleus of that in Bob Gottleib and UEPI, and a set of partners related to that work. We have an education department with outreach there. So how do we want to make our next hire so that it buttresses that commitment? Immigration is another issue that we’ll be working on in the next few months.

Turenne: Bob Gottleib and I are co-chairing a task force on campus on civic engagement that’s looking at all issues across disciplines and across departments. We are looking to see how we can be as collaborative as possible to bring together the intersections of all that work. We’re also developing an alternative spring break program by taking students to Manzanar. We are working with administrators, faculty and students and community organizations to develop this program. We’re working with our library because we have an archive of letters that were written to and from Manzanar by students who were interred there.

We’re bridging the idea of citizenship and democracy and looking at how it [Manzanar] was a period in time when those ideals were tested. And then how it relates to contemporary issues and events that are happening, so that students can make that historical connection. The faculty are developing a curriculum around this and we’ll be inviting speakers and panelists so that it’s broader than just going there for a few days. It won’t be a course, but a series of seminars. And students will be working on projects around these experiences after their return.

Veitch: At Manzanar, there are really not many buildings left anymore, so it’s takes some preparation in place to ensure that the students are able to understand and appreciate the place.

Turenne: We’ve also got community members as part of this project. One of the things that they’d like to see is a heightened awareness of Oxy’s involvement in that issue and the resistance to what happened at that time. We have one or two students from that time who are still with us. I believe that we have granted degrees to them all, even though they were forced off campus before completing their studies.

Mary Tokita: What are you calling this project?

Turenne: “Engaging Democracy: A Journey to Manzanar and Beyond.”

Veitch: We are also exploring the possibility of providing recognition to those alumni as part of our graduation activities this year.

Mary Tokita: What are your biggest achievements to date? What are your proudest accomplishments?

Veitch: I am very proud of the fact that I’ve been able to bring new people like Ella, who have a lot to offer, persuading them to move across the country. We have a strategic planning process underway that is engaged with the local community. It’s too early to say, but I’ve also been working to improve the dynamics of the community and Oxy. I have made civic engagement a priority. We have projects moving that have been stalled for a long time. Swan Hall is a good example of that, the Alumni House is another.

It [Oxy] had been a campus where there have been several presidents. So just calming the waters a little bit, being accessible, building morale is an important part of what needed to be done.

Mary Tokita: Do you see yourself making a commitment to stay here for several years?

Veitch: Yes, I don’t see how you get anything done unless you do. I’m proud that we have made it through this economic crisis without laying anybody off. In fact, we have enjoyed increased retention among our students. Our applications are up 6,000 now for 550 places, so it’s very competitive. Students are finding what they need here and are staying. I can’t take credit for that. We are one of the top three most diverse liberal arts colleges in the U.S. We increased our funding for scholarships during a very difficult time, at some sacrifice to other investments in the institution. We have the highest number of Pell grant and first-generation students among select liberal arts institutions. The only competitors are institutions with more than a billion dollars in endowment. We have a quarter of that.         

Mary Tokita: What about the two buildings under development on your watch?

Veitch: I know that Swan will be a LEEDS building. And we’re meeting with the architect to see if the Alumni building can be LEEDS, too. We’ve made changes in the spirit of cooperation. Our initial plans, the plans that I inherited, weren’t as attentive to preservation issues as they should have been. So we sat down with the L.A. Conservancy and worked through those issues and made changes—and frankly, additional investments in the building had to be taken from other things. But we now have something that really preserves the historic fabric of that building. I believe, TERA, too, was involved.

Mary Tokita: There are some changes that we [TERA] wanted. [Occidental College Communications Director] Jim Tranquada has been keeping us apprised regularly at our board meetings. I know that we’re not done and we will keep talking to you. TERA has learned to keep on task throughout the design and construction process, right up through completion. But we are glad to be at the table with you and appreciate the effort toward communication. That has not been the case with prior administrations.

modugriff February 14, 2011 at 10:07 PM
Excellent interview, Mary!
jo February 15, 2011 at 01:47 AM
Very good interview, jo
Linda Johnstone Allen February 15, 2011 at 07:33 PM
Great interview, Mary.....and President Veitch. It is a great way to keep the community "connected" to Oxy. Keep us posted!
Jeff Genauer March 05, 2011 at 10:30 PM
Oxy should start a student-run food cooperative! Really -- other students across California are doing it (UC-Berkeley, UC-Davis ...) AND the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive is a new national training program and research institute empowering students to create ethically-sourced, cooperatively-run sustainable food storefronts and cafés on college campuses. Check out this story about CoFed: http://civileats.com/2011/03/02/cofed-builds-a-web-of-student-food-co-ops/ ~~ And their website is http://cofed.org
Gloria Short March 29, 2011 at 07:21 PM
I appreciate the in depth interview and the efforts to be connected to the local community and Los Angeles. It certainly will help to keep Occidental a unique liberal arts college and enhance its reputation as forward thinking. Gloria Clark Poe Short '56

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