Harry Elam: An inside look into his decade-long tenure as vice provost for undergraduate education

Dec. 3, 2019, 12:20 a.m.

“Stanford can never be a place where one size fits all.” 

Ten years ago when Harry Elam first stepped into his role as vice provost for undergraduate education, he uttered these words to The Daily. Now after announcing that he would step down from his position at the end of the current academic year, it’s clear that this understanding has shaped the way he influenced undergraduate education.

Elam paved the way for many new programs and initiatives, including the Leland Scholars Program, Frosh 101, the WAYS requirements, Thinking Matters, the Student Advisory Group, the Stanford in New York Program and the Arts Intensive. 

In an interview with The Daily, Elam reflected on his tenure. Despite his role being termed as the vice provost for undergraduate education, Elam says he has served with the goal of ensuring students receive a rich undergraduate experience overall — not just in their academic endeavors. 

“What inspires me is how to really reach that goal and how do we make it so that our programs meet students where they are but also provide for the richness that we feel is necessary or important in undergraduate education,” he said. 

As the third vice provost for undergraduate education, he spoke to the evolution of the role. Increasing equity and access to educational resources at Stanford has been an important goal, he said. 

“For example, the growth in terms of our population of students — first-gen, low-income — which is a driver for us and we’re really committed to, means we have to think somewhat differently about students coming from an under-resourced high school to Stanford,” he said. “How do we even that playing field?”

‘An extremely collaborative person’ 

Staff and students who have worked closely with Elam attest to his dedication and his collaborative style. 

“What really marks Harry as a leader is his ability to really focus on the student experience broadly speaking, so thinking about the whole student experience, well-being, creative expression, breadth, exploration, experiential learning and finding the gaps and imagining places where you could address that,” Senior Associate Vice Provost Shari Palmer said. 

“He’s an extremely collaborative person,” she added. “He has built up partnerships and new groups for consultations and worked with both students and staff to understand what’s happening with the student experience and how we can best support that.” 

One of these collaborations includes the Student Advisory Group, designed to give undergraduates a voice in their education through advising Harry Elam on VPUE initiatives and bringing student issues and interests to discussion. Discussions take place over two lunch meetings each quarter and range from topics like Greek life and alcohol policies to increasing peer mentorship on campus. 

Isabelle Foster ’19 served as the chair of the Student Advisory Group for three years under Elam. 

“The Student Advisory Group was something that Professor Elam created because he really wanted to engage with students and have the group as a space to bounce ideas off of us, get student input, be connected to the student body and really understand what was happening on the ground, which I think we all really appreciated,” Foster said. 

Foster described the group’s meetings as deeply collaborative between the administration and the student body.

“It was very dialogue-based and participatory so there was a short presentation in the beginning,” she said, “but then it was mostly us having conversation about these topics.”

Former Senior Associate Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education and current Senior Associate Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Sarah Church worked closely with Elam in the VPUE administration. Her role was to provide a STEM perspective for Elam, whether it was concerning STEM courses or considering grants to departments for undergraduate studies.

“He’s got such a deep commitment to undergraduate education and understands a lot about the undergraduate experience,” Church said. “He’s a very respected leader in VPUE. He’s got vision.” 

‘Stanford is not static about undergraduate education’

Of the many programs Elam has implemented, there are a few in particular that he hopes will live on after he steps down. Frosh 101 is a two-unit, discussion-based course meant to ease students’ transition to Stanford. The program started in the fall of 2017 with just five residential communities and this year expanded to all residential communities where frosh live. 

“What I saw was there was a need for that space for something that would help students acclimate to Stanford, find ways to find community, find ways to help them negotiate issues that happen in that first year and questions of identity and belonging and community,” Elam said. 

Allen Wang ’23, who is currently taking Frosh 101, praised the course. 

“It’s a valuable way to connect with your classmates as well as gain a deeper understanding of your place at Stanford,” Wang said. “The various exercises we do really make you contemplate what you want to gain out of your Stanford experience and how to achieve the goals that you wish to accomplish by the end of your time at Stanford.” 

Elam also discussed the Arts Intensive and Stanford in New York programs. With an A.B. from Harvard College and Ph.D. in Dramatic Arts from the University of California, Berkeley, Elam has served as a director, author and editor. 

“Everything for me sort of starts with theater,” he chuckled. “I see it as a social and collaborative art. The director is working towards a shared vision. That means working with [everybody in the team] in a variety of ways not to dictate what they do, but to help them fulfill what they want to do and how it serves a vision.”

Created in 2008, the Arts Intensive, which happens in September before the start of school, is meant to give students a chance to focus on the arts without the pressures of the regular quarter. As Stanford continues to see an increase in computer science and STEM majors, this program attempts to provide students with a place to explore the arts.

“It’s been exciting to see students find courses that really work for them and somebody who not necessarily saw themselves as artists but really wanted to explore something,” Elam said “And what was surprising to me, the classes were just supposed to be for two and a half weeks, but students were staying [for longer]. They wanted to do more art.”

The Stanford in New York program uses New York City as a classroom and allows students to take on internships in fields including the arts, architecture and media. Church worked closely with Elam on this project as well, stating that the program combines “the kind of experiential learning of the internships with classes and the immersion in the city.” 

While Elam has created and contributed to many new programs that he hopes will continue to grow and thrive at Stanford, the Thinking Matters and WAYS general education requirements that Elam was responsible for implementing may be replaced by a first-year core curriculum

He said it’s not unusual for requirements to change — according to Elam, Stanford typically changes its general education requirements every 15 years. However, Thinking Matters only went into effect in 2012. Elam attributes the acceleration of this change to various factors, including the growth in computer science and a changing sense of student needs. 

Elam praised the first-year core curriculum for striving to cultivate a shared intellectual experience. 

“The idea [is] that students can discuss an issue that they share about shared readings or shared approach to a reading, that students can come together around that opens them up to thinking about not only what they’re going to do at Stanford but the future in a way that allows for conversation and communion.”

He also described the recent proposal to mandate all majors between 60 and 95 units — as opposed to the current system where majors range in size from 55 to 135 units — as a positive improvement. This change aims to provide students with a more liberal education and to increase the accessibility of all majors to interested students. 

“One thing I’ve liked about my job and Stanford more generally: Stanford is not static about undergraduate education,” he said. “It doesn’t rest on its laurels either. So if things aren’t going as well as they could, we can shape them in a better direction because of what we know about student learning or what we learn from students about student learning.”

‘It’s about leading, but it’s also about serving’

In the two terms as VPUE, Elam has left a noticeable impact on Stanford’s undergraduate education. 

“I think given VPUE touches every student, it’s hard to overstate the impact that Harry has had on undergraduate life,” Church said. “I think he understands a lot about the undergraduate student condition and he’s always thinking about how the decisions he and others make impact students.”

While Elam will be stepping down from the VPUE role, he will continue to serve as vice president of the arts and the senior vice provost for education. 

“He will continue to be involved in ways that really hearten me,” Palmer said. “These shifts, these positive directions, are going to continue. He’ll continue to be involved in the implementation and the direction of the Residential X, the ResX project of the ideal initiative around inclusion, diversity, equity and access.” 

Elam attributes the best part of his job to the students. 

“As an administrator it’s about leading, but it’s also about serving,” he said. “And they gotta go together. So it’s not just about deciding on new programs or finding new pathways and charting out a vision. It’s also sitting down with students and serving their needs and thinking about how that comes.” 

“What I like about it all is no day is ever the same,” he added. “Every day is different and who knows what’s going to happen in that day. I really, really enjoy the time, and it’s been a great ten years.” 

Contact Esha Dhawan at edhawan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Esha Dhawan '23 is the Vol. 260 Spotlight Editor and was previously a Vol. 258/259 desk editor for science & technology news. She is a human biology major and creative writing minor from Atlanta, GA. Contact her at edhawan 'at' stanforddaily.com.

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Deadline Extended!