Harry Elam bids farewell to Stanford

As he ends his 30-year career at Stanford, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam shares his parting thoughts, reflects on the current moment and offers his congratulations to the Class of 2020.

After three decades of service to the Stanford community, Harry Elam is saying goodbye. On July 1, he will begin his tenure as the 16th president of Occidental College.

Harry Elam (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Elam joined Stanford as a visiting professor in 1990. Since then he’s made innumerable contributions to the university, perhaps most notably in his roles as vice provost for undergraduate education, vice president for the arts and senior vice provost for education.

As he wraps up his final days on the Farm, Elam reflects on the relationships he’s made, the work he’s most proud of, and the unusual challenges facing the world and the Stanford community today.


As you transition to Occidental College, how are you feeling in your final days at Stanford?

Nostalgic. It’s been an amazing time; it has been life-altering and life-affirming, being at Stanford all these years.


What will you miss most about Stanford?

The people. The friends that I’ve made for life and the experiences I’ve had with the people here are incredibly special. Much like graduating seniors, I don’t get a chance to say goodbye in person to people who made such a difference in my life, so that’s a disappointment. But I have been able to share lots of goodbyes on Zoom, and many of those farewells have been very poignant and moving for me.

Being here, I have come to understand that Stanford is a place where seemingly impossible intellectual dreams can become realities.


Are there initiatives or projects you oversaw at Stanford that you are especially proud of?

I’m very excited about Frosh 101. It’s a fairly new program that looks at issues of identity, community and belonging for first-year students; it’s peer-taught and delivered in the first quarter of the year. I think Frosh 101 is going to be especially important for incoming first-year students, given all that’s happening in the world.

I’m very happy also with how Stanford in New York has launched. This already highly popular program offers students the chance to be immersed in New York, working in internships during the day and taking classes at night. I think this is a program with great potential to expand the reach and impact of Stanford and engage student interest in models of learning that mesh professional and intellectual development.

On the arts side, I am also very proud of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA) and Arts Intensive. The programming at IDA conjoins arts, race and social justice and has attracted students of all majors and levels. Arts Intensive brings students back early from summer break to take one course in the arts in an immersive, small-group setting with faculty dedicated wholly to them during that time. It is open to and attracts arts majors as well as students who couldn’t take an arts course during the rest of the year and really wanted the opportunity. We don’t want our creative students locked into majors without being able to continue to explore their talents and interests over their entire careers here. Arts Intensive won’t happen this year because of the pandemic, but I look forward to it coming back richer and stronger next year.


Speaking of the pandemic, has it impacted your transition to Occidental?

Hugely. I don’t officially start until July 1, but I don’t have the luxury of waiting until then to join in governing and guiding the college during this challenging time. So, in addition to my usual Stanford duties, I have to be involved in decisions around everything that affects Occidental as a result of the pandemic. Much like Stanford, we plan to de-densify the Occidental campus so that we can bring students back and maintain social distance in the fall. My primary concern is the health and safety of the students, staff and faculty as we realize our educational mission.


In addition to the pandemic, the nation has been rocked by the death of George Floyd. Can you reflect on the protests against anti-Black violence that are sweeping the nation and how Stanford has responded?

Throughout American history, over and over whenever there’s been a racial uprising in Black communities, particularly Black people resisting oppression, it’s been instigated by instances of police violence. Too many times in the past such crises have been ignored outside of Black communities and the police have gone unpunished. This time, however, we’re seeing people of all colors and ages angry enough to say ‘This is enough. Let’s stop this. Let’s finally change this at a systemic, structural level.’

I’m pleased that many staff, faculty, students and administrators at Stanford are not simply reacting to the situation but actively thinking about what Stanford can do to effect change in the conditions of Black life on campus. I thought “The Vigil for Black Lives” a couple of weeks ago in honor of lives lost to anti-Black violence was really powerful and I was glad to see that thousands of people have watched it. I’m also encouraged by President Tessier-Lavigne’s recent announcement of a new public safety commission to help make the relationship between the Stanford community and the police more effective. That is so important.


Is there anything you’d like to say to the Class of 2020 as they, like you, move on from Stanford?

Graduating seniors, I honor the fact that this hasn’t been the senior spring that you – that any of us – expected. But regardless of how this pandemic and these potentially world-changing protests have and are impacting you, the memories that you’ve had of this place cannot be lost, diminished or overtaken: the friends you’ve made, the times that you’ve spent, the faculty and mentors with whom you’ve developed lasting relations, the rare, personal experiences you have shared at Stanford. Nothing can take that from you. From us.

I wish you well in whatever you do in this world, Class of 2020, and I hope you will stay in touch with me as we continue on our life’s journeys.