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reed magazine logoSpring 2008
When the Beats Came Back

Marthers swept into Reed in 2002 with a mandate to improve the quality of the student body, and particularly to address the perennial underachievers—the bottom 10 percent who, once admitted, lagged behind their peers and had the hardest time finishing at Reed. After stints at various East Coast schools, and most recently as admission director at Oberlin, his alma mater, Marthers was hired as an “agent of change,” as he puts it—a tricky job at a place that prides itself on its traditions.

“I had to take out the machete,” he says. “In the beginning it was a little scary.”

Marthers retooled the admission office and refocused recruitment efforts, targeting high school students more strategically. The pool of prospects actually shrank—from 33,000 to 22,000 per year—though the number who went on to apply for admission increased. The office also stepped up minority recruitment, boosting campus diversity significantly, and doubled the number of campus visits and interviews with prospective students. Reed joined a consortium of like-minded schools that Loren Pope termed “Colleges That Change Lives,” and Marthers turned over most of his staff, almost exclusively hiring Reedies into the assistant dean positions.

Reed’s admission marketing was revamped, too, highlighting the college’s intellectual intensity while toning down the alt-psychedelic vibe prevalent in publications aimed at prospies, such as the viewbook. Today’s viewbook features a traditional campus vista on the front cover—large, red-bricked Old Dorm Block decked out in glorious fall foliage—and asks the question: “Is Reed Right for You?” The answer: “Serious. Quirky. Rigorous. Free-thinking. Classical. Iconoclastic. Paradoxical…Reed is one of the most intellectual colleges anywhere, and it is not for everyone.”

The changes have been noticed nationally. The new viewbook wins awards, and Marthers was named by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of 10 admission deans who are reshaping the field.

The word is also out at high schools: Reed is no safety school.

“All of a sudden, a kid who would have gotten into Reed five years ago may not get in today,” says Jon Reider, director of college counseling at the prestigious San Francisco University High School, and formerly a senior admission officer at Stanford. “We get at least one kid into Reed every year, and every year it gets tougher. I say more power to [Reed]. I just hope they remember who their friends were back in the old days.”

Perhaps most important, Reed faculty are starting to see signs of change in the classroom. “The best is always the best,” says Ed Segel, who has taught history at Reed for 35 years and chaired the faculty admission committee in the 1980s and 1990s. “I suppose the bottom doesn’t go down as far as it used to. I see far fewer problems.”

But Segel isn’t worried that Reed is losing its character; far from it. “The students are still idiosyncratic,” he says, “they’re still whimsical. I don’t believe they are as politically radical as they used to be, but that’s a generational change, a sign of the times.”

Reed doesn’t aspire to be as selective as places like Swarthmore and Amherst (among the top-ranked schools in U.S. News, which rates selectivity high in its calculations); those schools admit fewer than 20 percent of applicants. Marthers predicts that Reed’s applicant pool will max out at 4,000 or so in the next few years, and he doubts that the acceptance rate will ever dip much below 30 percent. Any lower than that, he says, and Reed would seem to be pursuing selectivity for its own sake. And that would run counter to the college’s values.

“Prestige is not a big value here,” he says. “Reed is much more about identity. This is where Reed is very conservative. There’s an extreme view out there that if you change anything, you’ve changed everything.”

Alt, the alumni president, is also concerned about Reed’s identity. “I don’t find a lot of value in talking about old versus new,” he says. “I believe the issue is really about staying true to the core values of the institution. By and large, Reed is doing that. But I do worry.”

Dean Steinberger isn’t a bit worried. As far as he’s concerned, Reed’s 1-in-3 admit rate has been “tremendously positive.” For him, there is no downside. “There are some who think that today’s students aren’t as interesting or quirky or eccentric as they used to be, that they’re all vanilla,” he says. “And that’s just false. That’s not what is happening.”

Meanwhile, there’s every sign that Reed’s central traditions—the honor principle, the Doyle Owl, Thesis Parade, Renn Fayre—remain sacred. There’s been no grade inflation to speak of. And having more students stick around to graduate—surviving the rigors of Hum and conference, quals and senior thesis—means someone must be doing something right. Steinberger and other college administrators think that setting a higher bar to admission is part of the equation.

Yet there’s no denying that Reed is changing. A prospective student on whom the college would have gambled a generation ago—or even five years ago—isn’t as likely to be admitted today.

“We see kids who’d do great at Reed, who’d love Reed,” says associate dean Kristine Sawicki ’00. “But it’s like, ‘Sorry, you just can’t come.’ I’ve cried about some of the kids who aren’t going to get in.”

Alea Adigweme ’06 joined the admission staff because her own experience at Reed was, as she puts it, “transformative.” She wanted to give the same opportunity to other students. She says Reed took a chance accepting her: her academic record was solid, but undistinguished. She recently went back and peeked at her application essays. She calls them “appalling.”

So, does Adigweme think she’d get into Reed today? “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, smiling. “I have my doubts.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.
He wrote “The Financial Aid Gap” in the Summer 2006 issue of Reed magazine.

reed magazine logoSpring 2008