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President Foster reviewing Reed College army Trainees

President Foster reviews army trainees at Reed. Foster spoke out publicly in 1917 against varsity sports, arguing that Reed’s participatory athletics program prepared young people better for service.

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

“Without freedom of speech,  there can be nothing worth   the name of college.”  —William Trufant Foster

By the end of the war, Reed was in dire straits. The ranks of the male student body and faculty had been depleted due to military enlistment. Foster’s relationships with the remaining faculty members were strained due to salary cuts and disagreements over the future direction of the college. Beleaguered, suffering from reoccurring headaches, his power over college affairs waning, Foster turned his attention to a role he never anticipated: fund-raising. The trustees had bridged the operating deficit during the war with emergency funds. Now the college was in need of a major capital campaign effort. Aging and in poor health, the five original trustees lacked the means to take it on. Foster, having alienated potential donors in Portland with his earlier pacifism, personal aloofness, and progressive causes, was, as he himself admitted, a liability to the effort. Having reached an impasse with the trustees, he resigned his presidency on December 19, 1919.

President Foster atop a rock outcrop  

Climbing the heights: President Foster scaled Mount Hood in his first year at Reed.


On the day of Foster’s departure, a newly expanded board of trustees, drawn largely from Portland’s business community, announced that the college would no longer “be moulded [sic] about the individuality of one person’s theories of education but guarded over by regents.” They began a decades-long campaign to stave off financial collapse by preserving Reed’s academic rigor while dampening Foster’s uncompromising ideals of academic freedom and nonconformity. Given the labeling of the college as a haven for “communism, atheism, free love” by hostile Portlanders, they had their work cut out for them.

Reed was not the only liberal arts college branded with this or similar derogatory slurs after the Red Scare that followed World War I. However, it appears to be the only institution to which the brand stuck for the next century. Alumni from the 1920s and ’30s contend that “communism, atheism, free love” was already being appropriated during their era as an ironic slogan to convey Reed students’ sense of confederacy and solidarity (see “All You Need Is Communism, Atheism, and Free Love”). That the slogan lives on to this day is an anomalous reminder that the “deathless spirit” of intellectual rigor, academic freedom, and nonconformity with which Foster sought to imbue the college, did not completely disappear with his departure.

Foster initially took a job as chancellor of the Los Angeles public school system upon his resignation from Reed. In 1920, he returned to Boston to head up the Pollack Foundation for Economic Research, a small think tank that would have an influential impact on the financial systems adopted during the Depression. When he died in 1950, his ashes were brought to Reed, and, in accordance with his wishes, scattered on the lake in the canyon.

Not long before his death, Foster returned to campus one last time to give the commencement speech to the graduating class of 1948. He offered no apologies for having followed the courage of his convictions during his time at Reed, as foolhardy as he admitted they sometimes were. The title of his speech that day perhaps said it all: “Pay the Price and Take It.”