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What's so funny 'bout communism, atheism, and free love?

President Foster with Family on donkey  

President Foster poses with his children in front of Prexy, the family’s campus residence.

“I mounted my horse, spear in hand,   and rode forth in all directions at once.” —William Trufant Foster

He had a clear, if radical, vision for the school that would sprout up on the old Ladd farm in the rural outskirts of Portland. It would be committed to intellectual purity and meritocracy, avoiding the gentleman’s club atmosphere that prevailed at other schools. It would be imbued with a “deathless spirit” of intellectual rigor, academic freedom, and nonconformity; it would be independent, operating “without fear or favor of politicians, or religious sects, or benefactors, or public cries, or the college’s own administrative machinery”; and it would revolutionize higher education, becoming “first rank” among academic institutions.

Archival newspaper clipping

Unburdened by a past and armed with a generous $3 million founding endowment, Foster recruited an idealistic group of professors, many from elite schools back East, who were known for their dedication to teaching. At an average age under 30, they were the youngest faculty in the country. Challenging them to anchor Reed in the “here and now,” Foster discarded rigid classical studies in favor of laissez-faire electives. He eschewed grading to underscore Reed’s commitment to knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and in the admission process, he placed a heavy emphasis on personal interviews rather than entrance exams, which he considered worthless. He also set out to make Reed tough, shutting the doors “on idlers by means of a discipline from which there would be no escape,” and setting the senior thesis and orals exam as mandatory goalposts for graduation. In this climate of rigorous inquiry, students and faculty were encouraged to “study together” in a collaboration unbound by custom, tradition, or codified rules of behavior. This approach was only tempered by the honor principle, an ideal of community responsibility that he felt no need to define lest it become sclerotic. Then, for good measure, he banned the sideshow amusements of fraternities, sororities, and intercollegiate sports.

As a result, Reed soon was distinguished not by just a few educational improvements but by genuine innovation. In an expansive, complimentary article published just seven years after Foster began work, the New York Times wrote that although a handful of other colleges had adopted one or two of the innovations seen at Reed, none had done so with such a sense of “religious enthusiasm.” Academically, it was a success: Reed produced three Rhodes Scholars from its first five graduating classes.

Had he left it at that, Foster’s bold experiment might have been a radiant educational success. But being among the best in academia was merely the stepping stone to something greater. Infused with the idealism, stubbornness, and evangelic drive of the Progressive Era, Foster sought to take his reforms to the wider world, and quickly. “I mounted my horse,” he wrote, “spear in hand, and rode forth in all directions at once.” He and his comrades threw themselves into local civic reforms. They launched an ambitious “city-wide campus” of educational courses and public lectures in Portland that attracted 55,000 attendees by 1917. They also convened a major conference on the public health, hygiene, government, and social services of Portland, attended by academics and reformers from all over the country.