Reed’s Two Endowments
By Konrad Alt ’81, alumni association president
Ever since joining the Reed alumni board about five years ago, I have wondered about whether its activities matter, and if so, to whom. On a small scale, the answer is obvious: the college and at least a fair number of its alumni clearly benefit, for example, from the Oral History Project, which has conducted more than 150 interviews with Reedies and their former professors; from each successful reunion; and from the activities of alumni chapters around the country.
But one can also ask the question on a larger scale: what does the alumni board contribute to society? Here, the answer turns on whether Reed College itself matters. For if the college itself ultimately serves consequential purposes, its alumni board can aspire to much as well.
As the fascinating article by John Sheehy ’82 about Reed’s early years (page 24) makes clear, the college began life with two endowments. In addition to the financial endowment with which we are all familiar, Reed also began with an endowment of enormous purpose and vision: under founding president William Trufant Foster, the college would be not just another place to get a degree, but a cultural resource to the region and an educational model for the nation.
Sadly, Reed’s early leaders husbanded both endowments ineptly. The money soon ran out and Reed lost the means—and perhaps also the will—to support Foster’s sweeping vision. Following his departure, a long string of college administrations struggled to ensure the college’s survival, sometimes only barely succeeding. The college turned inward.
Yet Reed did not become just another place to get a degree. Elements of Foster’s founding vision continued to shape the Reed education in ways that set the college apart. These include, for example, the college’s commitment to knowledge for knowledge’s sake; its policy of not distributing grades; the absence of fraternities, sororities, and varsity sports; and the senior thesis. In substance, the fight for resources that has continued through most of Reed’s first century has been a fight for the means to support what was left of Foster’s vision.
Today, things have changed. In contrast to the college most of us attended, Reed today is a well-oiled and well-funded machine. Its reputation has never been stronger, its admissions never more selective, and its faculty-student ratio never lower in recent memory. These things and many more are possible, of course, because the college’s financial endowment has never been larger. The college’s quest for financial resources now has to do with advancement, not survival.
But what of the college’s vision endowment? Though remnants of Foster’s vision still characterize the Reed experience, they sometimes seem to have the quality of a family secret. Thus, even as I cheer the college’s long-running and much-publicized quarrel with the U.S. News
rankings, I wonder why we do not champion with even greater energy our far longer-running position against distributing grades. Grades, unlike U.S. News, are a matter of central importance to higher education on which Reed long ago staked out a distinctive position that many alumni and faculty believe contributes enormously to the quest for knowledge and understanding among Reed students.
Expanded housing for students in support of the academic program, strengthened financial aid, increased support for faculty and student scholarship—all of these things and more will be instrumental to Reed’s continued success, helping the college to remain competitive in the markets for faculty and students. Yet almost as a matter of definition, the things we do to keep in step with the competition are not the things that set us apart. Like an alumni board, these items matter only to the extent that the college itself matters.
The vision of a leading liberal arts college much like other leading liberal arts colleges is not compelling in itself. We must continue to aspire to more. The belief that Reed could contribute something distinctive and important to the nation motivated the college’s founders, as well as generations of faculty, administrators, alumni, and benefactors. With the financial and reputational capital it has gained in recent years, today’s Reed is equipped and positioned both to extend Foster’s vision into the college’s second century and to assume greater responsibility for leadership on issues of importance to the nation and the world.
The college’s approaching centennial in 2011 presents an opportunity to strengthen both of its endowments. As we campaign for greater financial resources, let us also campaign for renewed commitment to the qualities that set Reed apart and for fresh resolve to put those qualities to broader use in the service of our society.