Harry Elam

podcast / education / president
March 03, 2021
Produced by: Christine Spines

Change Lab Podcast Episode 43

Occidental College President Harry Elam on finding a roadmap for systemic change in revolutionary theater movements

Harry Elam and Lorne Buchman had only met casually before sitting down to record this episode of Change Lab. Interestingly, they had spent much of our early careers as two ships passing in the San Francisco Bay. Harry pursued his PhD in theater at U.C. Berkeley while Lorne earned the same degree at Stanford. They then traded places and Harry became a theater professor at Stanford and Lorne took a faculty position in Berkeley’s Dramatic Art department. 

Their mirrored movements continue to this day. With Harry’s recent appointment as president of Occidental College, they now both serve as college presidents for venerable institutions located just a few miles apart in Northeast Los Angeles. Consequently, their intersecting interests and career paths have laid the groundwork for a productive and enriching conversation about the unique challenges and rewards involved in leading and uniting an academic community through growth and change. 

Harry Elam

People want to see a curriculum that’s also responsive to questions of difference. And we not only have to respect that difference, we also have to teach differently.

Harry Elam
Occidental College

Perhaps most gratifying was the opportunity to explore Harry’s extraordinary scholarship on revolutionary theater movements. He’s written several books and scores of journal articles on how theater has become a vehicle for social change. And perhaps most exciting was the ways in which his insights can serve as a model for progress within the very institutions they both lead. 

This past year, maybe more than any other, has called upon them to draw on skills they developed in the theater. They’ve had to improvise and lean into the unfolding drama, responding to challenges with ‘yes and’ rather than ‘no but.’ Harry, who assumed the presidency of Occidental College in February of 2020, has risen to the challenges in his new role with particular grace and equanimity. 

Their conversation sheds light on the importance of communal spirit—not unlike that of a theater company—in forging the path ahead. But, in the end, they are two theater guys connecting around our shared belief in the power of creativity and education, as well as in a conviction that, above all else, the show must go on. 

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