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Beth Sorensen
Office of Communications


Reed College was founded in 1908 as a private, co-educational, non-sectarian, liberal arts college, and from the start Reed attracted students who defined themselves as intellectuals. William Trufant Foster, Reed’s first president, sought "to establish a college in which intellectual enthusiasm should be dominant." He advised, "Those whose dominant interests lie outside the courses of study should not apply for admission. Only those who want to work, and to work hard, and who are determined to gain the greatest possible benefits from their studies, are welcomed.

Foster’s vision still guides the college. We provide a community in which people who lie outside the mainstream are appreciated, distractions such as extramural sports and fraternities and sororities are absent, and critical thinking is celebrated. By combining a highly structured academic program with considerable personal freedom, Reed encourages its students to develop the skills, responsibility, and discipline necessary to construct a meaningful personal and professional life both in and after college.

Reed College has always emphasized small classes, a discussion-based style of learning in which students test rather than accept propositions, and close and frequent interactions between faculty and students (there are no teaching assistants, and all classes are taught by faculty). Grades are de-emphasized in favor of more lengthy and nuanced feedback. These practices are combined with a curriculum that is in many ways traditional, demanding considerable breadth and depth. All freshmen are required to take an intensive year-long humanities class that examines ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and encourages students to interrogate principles many take for granted. Students must also satisfy a distribution requirement that ensures broad training and genuine intellectual engagement with fields outside of one’s major.

All seniors complete a senior thesis, a year-long independent research project that must be defended in an oral exam before three or four faculty members. Prior to beginning this thesis, every junior must pass a qualifying examination determined by the student’s department. The requirements of each major are so demanding of a student’s time that few undertake a double major, but all develop a deep and scholarly engagement with their field.

The result is a vigorous intellectual community of remarkably self-directed undergraduates working side by side with a professionally accomplished and committed faculty. Reed attracts students who genuinely want to be part of this community and who value active discussion, learning for its own sake, and innovative thinking. Reed alumni include 31 Rhodes Scholars, a number exceeded by only one liberal arts college in the country; and in the last 10 years alone, Reed alumni have won nineteen Fulbrights, thirteen Mellon Doctoral Fellowships, and eighteen Thomas J. Watson Fellowships. Reed ranks third in the nation in the percentage of graduates who earn Ph.D.s in all fields.

The intense, self-critical, demanding nature of the Reed experience, combined with the intellectual freedom given to our students, has produced an explosion of highly successful "Reedies" outside the academic world as well. This effect is especially evident these days in the biotech, finance, and computer worlds. We find ourselves strangely relevant. Confident and disciplined individualism, focused and intense questioning of received certitudes, and the creativity that comes from inner-direction are now highly valued.

Reed’s intellectual program demands a governance structure that is thoroughly egalitarian. Reed has a strong system of shared decision making, in which faculty, students, and staff have considerable autonomy and power. When this system of governance works, Reed is successful in carrying out its mission. When it is frustrated or thwarted, the community is less successful in what it has set out to do.

Major decisions about curriculum are made by the entire faculty, and decisions about promotion and tenure are made by an elected faculty committee. Evaluations of faculty are solicited from the community at large, with no special role for departmental evaluations. Faculty salaries are the same across all disciplines. The outcome is a sense of shared intellectual and pedagogical goals, and also a unified curriculum built around central principles.

The student body controls its own budget and its own social policies. The students guide themselves through an honor principle, taken very seriously by the community, and enforced in most cases by a student-controlled judiciary that reports directly to the president. On issues affecting the entire campus, students, faculty, and staff work together, writing legislation for the whole community.

In many other regards, all members of the community are on equal footing. There is no honors program at Reed; all Reed students are considered honors students. Every student writes a senior thesis. First-year students have the same access to faculty as do seniors. Students and faculty all have ready access to the president, and there is no presidential parking space.

As might be imagined, the pathway of a college with these ideals has not been an easy one, and Reed has spent much of its 90 years of existence struggling against political, financial, cultural, and even academic tides. Reed’s financial endowment was modest for many years, and it is only in the wake of two very successful presidencies, Paul Bragdon’s (from 1971 to 1988) and Steven Koblik’s (from 1992 to 2001), that Reed has gained a firm financial base. When Bragdon’s term ended in 1988 the endowment stood at $60 million. During the presidency of Steven Koblik, Reed’s endowment has grown to $350 million (1/31/01).

These two presidencies were also successful in other ways. Important curricular initiatives have been launched and nurtured. Many buildings on campus have been renovated or newly built, including three new residence halls. Fifteen new faculty positions have been created as part of an initiative begun by President Koblik to bring the faculty-student ratio to a true 10:1. And in the Koblik presidency, portions of the Reed community, fractured in the 1970s and 1980s (difficult times for most colleges) have mostly healed. The faculty has reassumed their role in the governance of Reed with attendant benefits for all. Morale among students is excellent; attrition rates (although still high by national standards) are at an all-time low.

The normal obligations of the president of any small liberal arts college are demanding. On-going fund raising and capital campaigns are an absolutely vital part of college health and growth. Budget and endowment management, faculty recruitment, and enrollment will always consume a great deal of the time and energy of the most capable president. Other challenges must also be addressed, some shared with other liberal arts colleges, and some unique to Reed:

* Reed’s stress on small classes, on a substantial senior thesis, and on a broad-based curriculum puts it in the forefront of many of the trends in contemporary education, but also sets it against others. Reed’s focus on teaching means that publishing, while valued, is not the most important criterion for faculty hiring or advancement. Distance learning and experiential learning, while important in different contexts, run counter to the ideology of a residential college where students continue the process of learning in discussions with each other in their residence halls and over meals. Reed’s lack of emphasis on grades does not fit with the trend towards increased quantitative assessment, and, while courses that train students for specific jobs are increasingly in demand, Reed insists on teaching the more general and enduring skills of conceptualization, articulation, analysis, and argument.

In this mixed climate, Reed College needs a president who can articulate and defend the role of a liberal arts education in general, and of the specific version practiced at Reed. The importance and value of this education must be made clear to a variety of constituencies: potential students, potential faculty, foundations and other funding bodies whose support is crucial to the functioning of the college, individuals who are potential supporters of the college, and perhaps the faculty of Reed itself, at a time when the percentage of junior faculty is unusually high because of the recent increase in tenure-track positions.

* The president must work within the particular structures of Reed’s governance. Reed’s system of shared governance is a necessary part of its identity, and the new president needs to enjoy working within these confines and with these different constituencies, to be open to faculty initiatives, and to be able to develop strategies that affirm and respect each constituency, while moving the institution forward as a body.

Our history has taught us that the Reed faculty responds well to intellectual leadership on the part of the president of the college, but the president’s capacity to lead must be earned. The president needs to be an intellectual leader who will work within the long-standing goals of the college and the well-rooted tradition of faculty self-governance.

* Reed students are given considerable personal freedom in order to help them develop responsibility and intellectual independence, but this freedom can be misused. Like many colleges and universities, Reed has problems with substance abuse on campus. While many students suffer no ill effects, others see their health and academic performance deteriorate.

Most students, while fiercely attached to intellectual and personal freedom, nonetheless respect their classmates and their obligation to Reed’s intellectual heritage. There is reason to believe that with the leadership of the right president, and with a fuller engagement of the faculty in this area, Reed can help students take greater responsibility for themselves. Reed students have struggled with the tension between personal freedom and infringing on the freedom of other students. The honor principle is the community governance mechanism for negotiating this tension; the principle is in the process of being reinvigorated, a process still under way.

* Reed needs to increase the diversity of its student body, its faculty and its staff. The next president must, therefore, make particular efforts to carry our vision of a liberal arts education to groups that may not be familiar with or persuaded by that vision. With inspired leadership, the college can examine recruitment strategies and features of college life that have limited its access to groups for which it has not been an attractive or realistic option. Reed can broaden its reach while preserving its distinctive character and defining principles.

* Reed has suddenly joined the ranks of the financially respectable. For some time our relative poverty limited the choices we could make and the issues we could take on. We are fortunate in our ability to examine major institutional questions with the expectation that we will be able to act on the conclusions we reach. For example, our relative wealth increases our obligations to young scholars of diverse backgrounds and financial circumstances.

* Discussions of the relationships among student recruitment, diversity, financial aid policy, and our ability to fund new initiatives are beginning. We have an unprecedented opportunity to apply our resources to the chronic problem of small applicant pools and to radically improve our ability to compete for the thousands of seniors in American high schools each year for whom Reed is the best possible choice. Many of these young people are distinctive and independent in ways that would help them to thrive here. They currently do not consider us. Reed must not homogenize itself to appeal to a larger group of students.

The next president of Reed will be more able than anyone in the history of the college to realize William Trufant Foster’s ideal: individualistic young people committed to intense intellectual activity in a community that gives them freedom to make mistakes of all sorts, yet demands great effort and dedication of them. The rewards will be great. There is a special joy in seeing the development of a young scholar for whom Reed was the right choice.