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At the Helm: Bragdon, Koblik, Diver

By Chris Lydgate '90 on June 15, 2011 11:13 AM

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By Ethan Knudson '11

Reed presidents past and present Paul Bragdon [1971-88], Steve Koblik [1992-2001], and Colin Diver [2002-] held a panel at Centennial Reunions to discuss how they surmounted immense challenges to preserve Reed College amidst financial and national turmoil (video).

The problems facing Bragdon in 1971 were stark. "It was well-established that Reed was going bankrupt, its faculty were impossible, and that no president could survive," he declared.

Yet Bragdon took on the job; by the time he left the college its endowment was 16 times larger and giving had increased immensely.

Reed made national headlines when Steve Koblik decided not to submit information to the U.S. News & World Report "best colleges" rankings. He had privately laughed at the survey's methodology, but always supposed there was not choice but to participate.

That is, until he was questioned by professor Peter Steinberger [political science 1977-]. When they met in Eliot Hall, Koblik explained his reasoning and said that he could not let ideology run an institution.

Steinberger simply asked, "Do you really believe that?" and walked away. This small challenge prompted Koblik to inquire with his staff; he soon found that everyone was in favor of dropping the reports.

"We didn't have a clue what the impact would be," he said, but they went with it anyway.

One piece of advice stuck with Colin Diver throughout his presidency: "Reed College doesn't do well during recessions." He had the misfortune to see Reed through two of them, but has remained focused on the things that the college does best: undergraduate education. Diver will retire after the upcoming school year.

Diver stressed, "You need to get [Reed] in your gut, you have to immerse yourself in the life of this institution." He has consistently advised senior theses, been a visible part of the school, and even dressed up as Simeon Reed (complete with beard) for the all-class parade at Reunions '11.

Each speaker articulated a distinct challenge of the presidency. Diver argued that the president's prime task is "to make sure that he hands off the institution richer and in a more secure financial situation than where he found it."

Koblik maintained that, "All presidents face the challenge: How can one foster Reed's unique atmosphere and maintain the school's competitiveness for students and faculty?"

Bragdon stated, "The president must be comfortable dealing with diverse constituencies and able to speak a common language."

The speakers all agreed that any president of the college must have a good sense of humor, a thick skin, and a passion for higher education.

"I would look for someone who has a deep sense of themselves," Diver said. "Reed College is an institution that you have to fall in love with to do your job, and then it breaks your heart."