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Feature Story
reed magazine logoSpring 2009

How the Humanities Saved Reed

By John P. Sheehy ’82

On July 29, 1924, Norman F. Coleman was traveling in Tokyo with his family when he received an urgent telegram from the regents of Reed College. Without opening it, he immediately grasped its meaning— Richard Scholz, Reed’s president, was dead. “They’ll be wanting me to take the presidency,” Coleman told his seventeen-year-old son Francis.

Francis had been accepted to enter Reed that fall as a freshman, and would graduate in 1929 as the college’s fifth Rhodes Scholar. For the elder Coleman, however, the invitation to join Reed as its third president would prove more complicated. Upon his return from Japan, Coleman found the board of regents locked in a bitter dispute—a dispute over the very nature of the college.

Founded during an era dominated by science and industry, Reed had been intended as a bold experiment to restore relevance to the liberal arts. Non-sectarian in its mandate, socially progressive in its orientation, the college aspired to the highest levels of academic rigor and intellectual freedom, challenging all norms and traditions of higher education. After a promising launch in 1911 under president William Trufant Foster, the fledgling college had been financially decimated by a deep recession and further damaged by local resentment of Foster’s pacifism during WWI.

Scholz had sought to revive the college upon his arrival in 1921 with an experimental curriculum he called “new humanism.” It had been rough going. After three years, Scholz’s vision was only partially realized. The Reed faculty—comprised of Scholz appointees and Foster holdovers—was in an ideological standoff over the curriculum. Meanwhile, the college remained in a state of financial uncertainty, its fundraising efforts hampered by lingering local suspicions that the college was a haven for atheists and radicals.

Following Scholz’s unexpected death, the regents were faced with pursuing his innovative plan or reining in Reed’s heterodoxy. After arguing for four months, they chose the latter course, tapping Coleman to lead the college in a pious and conservative direction.

The appointment rocked the college. Although Coleman was well liked and respected—he had been head of the English department for eight years before leaving to run a company union—he was a decidedly conventional figure, best known for his Sunday talks in the chapel and his Bible study class. On campus, his appointment, made without faculty or student input, was viewed as a hostile takeover. Students mounted the first major protest in the college’s history. Reed’s commitment to academic freedom and democratic governance—hallmarks of Foster and Scholz—now seemed open to question.

What happened next would fundamentally alter the trajectory of Reed College. The regents succeeded in steering Reed away from the experimental pedagogy and progressive agenda that had distinguished its first decade. What they did not anticipate, however, was that Coleman’s appointment would trigger a full-scale professorial revolt. The faculty seized control of the college and consolidated the innovations of Scholz and Foster into a rigorous core curriculum revolving around the humanities. Careful conservation of that curriculum would institutionalize Reed’s academic toughness, brand the college as an intellectual powerhouse, and shield it from major educational and cultural trends for the next eight decades.

reed magazine logoSpring 2009