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In 1992, when you first arrived at Reed as president, was there anything that surprised you?
Well, I don’t know about the word surprise. I had a fairly clear idea of Reed’s mission and its values. I had really tried to understand Reed on its own terms as part of my candidacy, and what I discovered when I got here was that it was all true and more. I think one of the most pleasant surprises for me was getting to know the faculty. The first two months I was at Reed I spent five hours a day interviewing and visiting with the faculty. I discovered there was an extraordinary diversity in terms of attitudes and values, but also extraordinary commonality in their dedication as teachers and mentors. There was a time when the faculty was very angry at each other. I think my first and most important task was to really understand that here were people who did share values and a dedication |to teaching, which meant there was a common base for reestablishing the faculty’s capacity to work together effectively. I knew that Reed had a demanding, rigorous academic program, and I expected it to have its share of wonderful and rigorous teachers, but I discovered that the range of the ways in which Reed faculty members encourage, stimulate, prod, and whip their students towards remarkable intellectual achievements is really quite unusual.

"Steve’s leadership of leading liberal arts colleges, his dedication to their missions and ways of doing business, bespeaks a man who ‘gets it.’ He has been a splendid colleague and a good friend.”

Pat McPherson, vice president of the Mellon Foundation and former president of Bryn Mawr College

“Steve’s enthusiasm and energy for life, whether at work or at play, is both awesome and contagious. Simply by example he reminded the Reed community that we should all take pleasure in what we do. His positive attitude will be sorely missed.”

Patrick McDougal, professor of chemistry

At your inauguration you said you were looking forward to coming to a place where there was a culture of openmindedness and tolerance among the students. Did you find that to be the case?
In one sense I did and in another I didn’t. There is a pervasive tolerance of difference at Reed among the students that I think is so ingrained in the culture that it allows small, minority values to sometimes dominate other value systems. To address this you have to try and build social and personal bridges across groups of young people who don’t necessarily have the tools to do this themselves. I have struggled to try to help students find each other across these differences because there’s an extraordinary richness and diversity in the student body.

Koblik SpeechOne way the student body has tried to encourage this diversity was by creating the community rights committee, so that some of this disruptive behavior can be brought into the honor system’s processes. There has to be a significant level of energy put into it by students and staff and faculty to try to make the social environment affirmative and supportive of the academic mission. I think that’s frankly the hardest part of Reed College and one on which I think we’ve made some progress, as the significant increase in our retention rate suggests.

What would you identify as some of your other challenges?
I think that the biggest challenge—the one that I tried to be mindful of all the time—was to stay focused on what I was trying to do. Things come at presidents from all directions: that’s the nature of the job. The problems usually wind up in the president’s office because they haven’t been resolvable anywhere else; by the time they get here most of the good choices have been eliminated, and usually the person bringing them into the office already has an answer but would rather have me take responsibility for it. That’s perfectly appropriate, so that the problem doesn’t get lost in this welter of issues that fly in the door. When I became president, the fact that we needed more money was obvious,
so we began work immediately on a fundraising campaign. The fact that we needed to work on reestablishing effectiveness in faculty governance was also obvious, as was the fact that we needed to improve student social life. With all these challenges, what I was really trying to accomplish was to strengthen the mission of this institution. I took the mission almost as the founding faculty and the founding board understood it and took it to heart. I believe in it, and I think it’s a spectacular mission for an educational institution, and so I had this as a touchstone I could return to.

“Steve Koblik is a man of indefatigable energy, warmth, and insight, whose immediate grasp of any situation constantly astounds and whose embrace of every responsibility that comes his way delights those who want to see the best educational values triumph.”

Al Bloom, president, Swarthmore College

This was the reason that I came out in the middle of the fundraising campaign with the presidential initiatives that went beyond the goals of the campaign. I had a very high comfort level that they would immediately resound in a positive way to all constituencies—and they did. The most important of these was the initiative to lower the student– faculty ratio to ten to one. I believe part of the reason why we were successful in the campaign and subsequent initiatives was because it was clear that the college had a confidence level that it hadn’t dared express earlier.

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The other challenge has been student social life. I have this deep feeling that students at Reed are just so extraordinary as human beings, with such remarkable ranges of talents and interests, and they don’t expose each other to these talents and interests. I believe the college’s commitment to treating students as adults is absolutely correct. The problem is that in this society most adults behave like children anyway, so that’s sometimes not a very useful model.

I believe part of the challenge is that we have never found a mechanism to create the kind of community that existed at Reed when the student body was 700 or less. I think making the student body smaller, around 1,150 or so, would really help us make some major changes to student social life, not by changing the rules but by helping the students create a more positive environment.

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