Convocation 2009

Diver image
Colin Diver

Good afternoon. I am Colin Diver, president of Reed College, and it is my great privilege to welcome you to orientation and to convocation, which marks the official beginning of the 2009–10 academic year. And for many of you it marks the beginning of a remarkable journey that will transform you.

During your time at Reed, the college will celebrate its centennial year. The college opened its doors to its first entering class in 1911 in a rented office building in downtown Portland. We have a photograph of the first day of classes. Every male student wore a suit and tie; the women dressed modestly in long skirts and freshly starched white blouses. Ah, the good old days. But some things never change: the new students all looked terrified and clueless. And parents keep coming up to the President at orientation to say, “We did our best for 18 years—now she’s all yours!”

In 1912, a year after the first class met downtown, Reed shifted its operation to this glorious campus—then, little more than a farm with a lake and a creek running through it, and a couple of unfinished buildings. The lake and the creek are here still, and last year, thanks to a multi-year canyon restoration project, steelhead trout once again made their way up the creek and back to their ancestral spawning grounds. (By the way: NO FISHING!) Those first buildings are here still—Eliot Hall to your left, and Old Dorm Block behind you—still iconic emblems of Reed’s ancient roots, and still NOT air conditioned, including my office! But, most important, what is here still is the spirit of intellectual adventure that has infused this college from its beginnings. You will tap into traditions that are among the most durable and distinctive in American higher education. Humanities 110; junior qualifying examinations; senior thesis; the Doyle owl; Renn Fayre; even tee shirts that proclaim the creed that generations of Reed students have embraced: Capitalism, Faith, and Sexual Abstinence.

Reed College was founded during one of the most momentous periods of recent history. In the arts and literature, the soft contours of romanticism were giving way to the jagged edges of modernism. In technology, the harnessing of electricity and radio waves ushered in a new era in communication; while the internal combustion engine revolutionized transportation and launched a century-long addiction to oil. Agrarian societies were rapidly disappearing in the march of urbanization. Colonial empires were crumbling everywhere. And social collectivization was sowing the seeds of state socialism, and producing military machines that would soon unleash terrifying destructive forces.

Many people think that we are now in an era of comparable tumult. They point to the momentous impacts of the information revolution—to the radical democratization of information, the transformation of community, the erosion of personal privacy. They point to the ungovernable interconnectedness of human economic activity, as illustrated by last year’s global financial meltdown. They point to the rise and spread of religious fundamentalism and political fanaticism, as threats to the very rule of reason that has reigned since the Enlightenment. They prophesy calamity from global warming unless we radically change our way of life.

Whether the current age will indeed prove to be a period of transformation as momentous as the early twentieth century remains to be judged by history. But you will live that history. And we can predict at least one thing with confidence: as it unfolds, that history will sweep you along on powerful and unpredictable currents. Maintaining a sense of personal agency will require from you a remarkable degree of skill and wisdom. You will need perceptual acuity, methodological flexibility, investigative rigor, and intellectual discipline of the highest order. That, in a nutshell, is why you are here. For nearly a century, Reed College has equipped young men and women to embrace change and to shape change, rather than to be overwhelmed by it. This is what we offer to you, beginning here, beginning now.

All over the world today, people are mourning the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy. Perhaps the best way to sum up my wishes for you, at this moment in your lives, is to quote that famous line from Kennedy’s convention speech, delivered just a year ago: “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”

Your work begins anew, here, today. May your time at Reed help you nurture hope, and achieve your dreams. Thank you.