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John Slaughter Has Transformed Occidental College From a Lily-White Institution Into a Campus That Reflects the Changing Demographics of L.A. Is Everyone Happy? Not Quite.

May 02, 1999|CAROL LYNN MITHERS | Carol Lynn Mithers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her last piece for the magazine was a profile of human-rights activist Pippa Scott

When John Brooks Slaughter arrives at work at Occidental College, as he has each day for the last 11 years, he watches students dressed in grunge slouch by on their way to class, some shouting, others laughing, their heads bent close in conversation. It is an utterly ordinary scene, except that the faces--black, white, brown, tan, yellow--could fill a Benetton ad. And Occidental President John Slaughter is the casting agent.

As a child in 1940s Kansas, Slaughter was schooled within a system so rigidly divided by race that it became a national symbol of injustice. Just a few years after he graduated from Topeka High, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka that school segregation is unconstitutional. Those ugly years of separation molded Slaughter, now 65, into one of the country's most passionate advocates of equal opportunity in education. Through a varied career that's included jobs with the U.S. Navy, the National Science Foundation and the University of Maryland at College Park, he has tirelessly voiced one theme: A college education is the road to fulfillment and success. Those who don't fit the traditional image of student--those who are poor, minority, full-time workers or older than 21--not only must be given access, but can be without compromising scholastic standards.

"People in our society find it difficult to believe that excellence can coexist with equity," he says. "I reject that notion."

This belief has produced startling results at Occidental, a small liberal arts college in Eagle Rock. Under Slaughter's administration, the onetime nearly all-white institution recast itself as a school that U.S. News & World Report has labeled the nation's "most diverse." Forty-three percent of its 1,550 students are Asian, Latino or African American. And more than half the faculty hired in the past decade are women and/or people of color.

Last June, Slaughter announced his retirement to take effect this June 30. On campus, the announcement was followed by rumors: Because Occidental's governing board of trustees could have extended his tenure but didn't, the president was, in essence, forced out, and that he was furious. He vehemently denies this, and no one else is talking for the record.

But the persistence of the gossip underscores the controversy that has risen from John Slaughter's transformation of Occidental College. Is it merely an idealistic and overly expensive experiment? Or is it a glimpse of L.A.'s future?

*

Come to Occidental on a sunny day and chances are good that you'll find John Slaughter sitting outside his office in shirtsleeves, smoking a cigar and chatting with a student. Around them, the campus gleams, a gorgeous 120 acres of Italian/Mediterranean-style buildings, oaks, eucalyptus and flowering trees. Slaughter's pride is obvious as he gives a tour, pointing out an airy, high-ceilinged new student center and a lounge area decorated with Mission-style furniture. "Hey, how're ya doing?" he greets everyone he sees, and students,

faculty and administrative workers all respond with genuine warmth.

There's something immediately likable about Slaughter, a mellow-voiced man with a receding hairline, bifocals and thick brows. He seems avuncular, calm, soothing. Even when he's searching for an answer, he doesn't move or fidget. He has a puckish smile that he flashes a lot.

The school's commitment to what its "mission statement" calls education with "a distinctive interdisciplinary and multicultural focus" is evident everywhere, in programs and policies that would give conservatives nightmares. Through the spring, campus placards announce observance of Black History Month; Semana de la Raza; a celebration of women's "herstory"; and tributes to Armenian and Asian American heritage. Each year, student leaders go to Palm Springs for a retreat that includes "diversity training," and political correctness abounds: In a recent letter to the editor of the student newspaper, one man identified himself, without irony, as "a conscious, proud, white, male, heterosexual, owning-class, able-bodied individual."

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