Harry J. Elam Jr. became the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education five months after the university announced plans for a comprehensive review of undergraduate education.
BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN
As the oldest son of the first black chief justice on the Boston Municipal Court, Harry J. Elam Jr. long thought he would follow in his father’s legal footsteps.Until Elam realized – as a senior at Harvard College – that he was more interested in the drama of the courtroom than the law practiced within its walls.“When I was going off to UC-Berkeley to get a PhD in dramatic arts, I asked my father if he was disappointed in that choice,” Elam, the new vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford, recalled during a recent interview.Elam got a surprising answer during that conversation more than three decades ago, a reply that seems to astonish and delight him even to this day.“My father said that” – here, Elam burst out laughing – “the one thing he would have been if he wasn’t a lawyer was an actor.”His father, who is now 88 years old, had already demonstrated his skill as an impresario by filling the house when his two sons – Harry, then a senior in high school, and the late Keith Elam, then in seventh grade – helped mount a production of A Medal for Willie, written by William B. Branch.“The Family,” a black youth theater troupe at Noble and Greenough School – the private school both sons attended – staged a summer production of the 1951 play, in which a southern African American woman rejects the medal posthumously awarded to her soldier son for bravery during World War II.“My father sent all his friends – jokingly – summonses to come to the play,” Elam said, sitting at a small round table in his office in Sweet Hall one recent summer morning. “For two nights, 500 people came – in the summer in Boston – to see A Medal for Willie, which my brother had a small part in.”Elam said his 81-year-old mother, who was the co-director of library programs in the Boston public school system, took him to plays as a child and encouraged his interest in theater. “Nothing was more important to her than reading,” he said.
Early acting career
Elam, who joined Stanford’s drama faculty in 1990 and is now the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities, said acting was a big part of his undergraduate years at Harvard.
“I loved to act at that point,” Elam said, adding with a laugh, “until I realized, years later, that probably I wasn’t that good.”At Harvard, Elam earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies, a cross-disciplinary major that focused on social change.Elam, who directed plays in high school, continued directing as a doctoral student at UC-Berkeley, after a professor asked him to direct skits in a class on Chicano drama.There, Elam discovered what he described as an “incredible connection” between the plays of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino, a theatrical troupe founded as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers Union in 1965, and the plays of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), an African American artist – poet, essayist, playwright, music critic – and political activist.“All of a sudden my dissertation topic changed,” Elam said.“I wanted to look comparatively between African American drama in the 1960s and Chicano theater of that same time period. I wanted to see how theater functions as a mechanism for social activism and, to push further, to develop a theory about how to evaluate such theater. Such theater is necessarily ephemeral and often didactic, and some people were saying it wasn’t such great theater. But since its ends are social, I felt that it needed a much different means of analyzing it.”It was a topic that would become the focus of Elam’s first book of dramatic criticism, Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka, which was published in 2001.While Elam was writing his dissertation, he accepted a teaching post at the University of Maryland and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1983.He enjoyed living in the nation’s capital but was eager to return to California. He accepted a visiting position in Stanford’s Drama Department in 1989 and joined the department as an associate professor the following year. At that point, he said, everyone in the department had published two books – except him.At first, he found the situation a bit intimidating.“But it was intimidation that drove me to work and to achieve at that level – as a scholar,” Elam said. “What I feel really lucky about during the years I was struggling to find myself and embrace the word ‘scholar’ was the partnership, collaboration, support and mentorship I received at Stanford, inside and outside the department, from people who were able and willing to give of their time.”
Author and editor of six books
Since then, Elam has written and edited six books. In 2006, he was inducted into the prestigious College of Fellows of the American Theatre.Elam became director of the Committee on Black Performing Arts when he arrived at Stanford, a position he held for 18 years. For eight years he also was the director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, which is devoted to exploring questions of race and diversity through the lens of artistic practice and performance. Elam has served as the chair and the director of graduate studies in the Drama Department.In addition, he was the senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education, working for two years under former vice provost John Bravman, now the president of Bucknell University.“Working in administration enables you to help shape the vision of an institution you care deeply about,” Elam said. “For me, being able to ‘sell’ Stanford, or to help Stanford, or to make Stanford a better experience, are critically important tasks and not at all antithetical to the other things I am – a scholar and a teacher.”
Elam compared working in university administration to directing a play.“When you’re directing a play, you are sharing your vision of the play with the audience, but it’s a vision informed by all the other artists involved in the production, including the actors and set designers,” said Elam, who has directed theater professionally for nearly two decades.“The play works best when everyone feels that they are working to their fullest, that they are contributing to the whole, and that it’s going to become this great thing as they go forth – the play. It’s also about an ‘end,’ because the play has to be performed. All of those things are true about university administration.”Elam became the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education five months after Stanford announced plans for a comprehensive review of undergraduate education. At that time, Elam was co-chair of the task force conducting the review, known as the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford. The task force is expected to present its recommendations in the fall of 2011.“One of the most important questions for the task force, and for me and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, is ‘How do we reach and teach the new millennial learner,'” Elam said, referring to the current generation of students, which is made up of technologically savvy, confident, pressured, team-oriented individuals who have unusually strong relationships with their parents and a strong desire to achieve.The world has changed dramatically since Stanford transformed undergraduate education on the Farm 15 years ago with new programs, including undergraduate research and the Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program for freshmen.Under the new review, Stanford is looking for ways to prepare the students of today to become the global citizens of tomorrow.After becoming vice provost, Elam stepped down as co-chair of the task force. Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor in Biology and a member of the task force, replaced him, joining James Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History. Elam said the combination – which unites professors from the humanities and the natural sciences – strengthens the task force.Elam will be getting to know some of those millennial students during the fall quarter, when he and his wife, Michele Elam, the Martin Luther King Centennial Professor, will be team teaching Beyond Survival, an interdisciplinary IHUM course, to incoming freshmen. The course will investigate the question: How do men and women survive – and overcome physical deprivation and social oppression – physically, intellectually, creatively and spiritually?“I am truly excited about teaching IHUM this year, not simply because I enjoy team working with my wife, Michele, but because I relish the interaction with Stanford undergraduates,” Elam said. “And I have this opportunity to try and make my teaching practice benefit from all the important ideology discussions that I have taken part in for the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford.”