While widely lauded in progressive circles, the college’s efforts also revealed to Portland just how nonconformist Reed’s East Coast radicals were. Foster and his comrades soon became, in the words of historian Burton Clark, “an alien band in town, versed in irritating local sentiments.” In short, Foster had overreached, and in so doing he unintentionally sowed the seeds of his own destruction—and very nearly Reed’s.
Still, it was not unusual in the Progressive Era for college presidents to assume political or social leadership outside the academy. Foster’s colleague and good friend, Stanford’s founding president, David Starr Jordan, had left the university at the start of World War I to assume a role as America’s leading statesman for peace. Another Foster friend and fellow stiff-collared reformer, Woodrow Wilson, had gone from the presidency of Princeton University to the White House. Returning from Wilson’s Princeton home just days after the bitterly fought election of 1912, Foster spoke out on behalf of his friend in the Oregon Journal, calling Wilson a man “of radical ideas, but safe and sane, with the interest of all at heart.” He might as well have been describing himself.
Outside of academia, Foster’s upstart nature served him poorly, especially when it came to enlightening others. The subjects that Reed faculty taught in Portland generated concern. When Reed professors went downtown to talk about biological evolution or the materialistic basis of life in a physics class, many Portlanders, according to college historian Dorothy Johansen ’33, concluded that the college was comprised of atheists. Foster himself could be provocative with his classes on public health, especially with his open discussion and strident views on sexual education, prostitution, and the prevention of venereal disease. Johansen maintained that it was these sorts of topics that gave provincial Portlanders the impression of a “Godless Reed.” (It is worth noting that while Reed was non-sectarian, it was not atheistic. Services were held each Sunday in the chapel, led by a circuit of local ministers, faculty members, and even Foster, on occasion.)
Faculty members also advocated a progressive agenda that included establishment of a minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, and the creation of a Federal Reserve banking system. Foster himself was condemned by the Journal of the American Medical Association as a communist and socialist “inciting to revolution” for his proposal of a rudimentary form of health insurance.
Reed students gave similar cause for concern in conservative quarters of Portland. The Intercollegiate Socialist Society, a radical, national student group, was active on campus, drawing to Reed controversial speakers such as James P. Thompson, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the I.W.W. or Wobblies. After having successfully organized agricultural workers in the Midwest, the Wobblies had brought their tactics to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1910s in an effort to organize lumberjacks and other timber workers. While a Wobbly-led lumber strike in 1917 resulted in an eight-hour workday and vastly improved working conditions, Oregon politicians and the press vehemently condemned the Wobblies’ ultimate goal of overthrowing capitalism. And now here they were at Reed.