It's Getting Better All the Time
by Tony Fisher ’80, alumni association president
Back in the 1990s, President Steven Koblik invited me and 20-or-so other alumni to serve on a group called the National Advisory Council (NAC). While I’m not sure we offered much advice, I have never forgotten an exchange that occurred during one of our meetings. Koblik asked why some of us had agreed to serve. Feeling very nervous, I said something like: “because I would not want to send my kids to the Reed College that I went to.”
This provoked immediate visceral reactions—many expressed consternation and disapproval, while others muttered “right on” and nodded guardedly. As I recall, Koblik went on to explain that our reactions were typical: there tended to be a division by decades, with alumni from the ’70s and ’80s much more likely to express disappointment with their Reed experience than those who had come earlier. He cited a sociology thesis that analyzed a particular senior class during that era and determined, as best I can remember, that the class had fragmented into more than 30 distinct cliques, organized largely around departments and off-campus houses.
One explanation for this disconnectedness and dissatisfaction is that as Reed’s student body grew during the ’70s and ’80s, an increasing percentage of us were forced to live off campus for roughly half of our Reed experience. My takeaway is that dorm life tends to build cohesion, friendships, and affinity with one’s college, and that squeezing upper classmen off campus when they don’t want to be there is not a good thing.
Looking back on my Reed experience, this makes sense, especially when I think of the large number of students—myself included—who took more than four years to get through Reed. I remember vividly those early days of freshman year in MacNaughton III, meeting dozens of new Reedies from all across the country. Our first dorm meeting was on the lawn with our Dorm Mom, who looked as cheerful and “normal” as someone in a Norman Rockwell painting, and our fearsome, pirate-ish Dorm Dad, with his long black hair and beard, who was nevertheless witty, gentle, and wise. Our first official act that year was voting to make our dorm bathrooms co-ed. No doubt it was a shocker to many Mac III parents, and maybe a few of us inmates as well, but it was a great way to build camaraderie, reduce male/female tension, and, well, help us all become friends. During that year there were many wonderful hall parties, pranks, romances, and other shared experiences large and small. I’m sure that for many of us, the friendships forged that year were among the most lasting ones we made at Reed, or ever.
Sophomore year for me was very different. I lived in the second floor of an off-campus house with two other Reedies. Downstairs was a couple with 13 dogs; across the street was a seedy, noisy tavern. It was great in its own way—it seemed very grown-up—but it was much harder to meet and socialize with other Reedies and stay “in the flow” of campus life. I believe that for most students, a more residential college experience is likely to be a happier college experience. Indeed, now that my eldest child is considering colleges, I have been surprised to learn that some schools require students to live on campus for all four years.
Alas, such ample capacity is a luxury that Reed has never been able to afford. But we’re getting closer, with the biggest dorm-building campaign in a decade set to begin this spring. Once the four new residence halls and a new language house are complete, Reed will be able to provide on-campus housing for nearly 75 percent of its students.
I am gratified that Reed will be able to house 142 more students, who otherwise would be forced to fend for themselves, while paying $36,000 a year in tuition for the privilege. Along with the many other wonderful programs that have sprouted up in the past few decades to enhance student life—from Gray Fund lectures, concerts, and outings, to academic drop-in centers for mathematics and writing, to more supportive mental health services—these new dorms will continue to improve the experience of current and future Reedies.
I must say, I am happy for them and their parents—and I would be thrilled to have my kids go to the Reed College of today.