Convocation 2011

President Colin Diver

Diver image
Colin Diver

Good afternoon and welcome to Reed College. You arrive here at an auspicious moment, almost exactly a hundred years from the day when a handful of intrepid souls attended the very first classes ever offered at an upstart college in Portland, Oregon, called Reed College.

Many things have changed since those days. In 1911 Portland Oregon was—well—boring; now it's—well—weird. Portland was called "Stump Town." Now its most famous coffee brand is called Stumptown. In 1911 Mount St. Helens was 9,700 feet high. The mountain has aged—now it's 8,400 feet high. America was isolationist, but soon to enter a world war; now it's interventionist, but, God willing, about to exit three wars. In 1911 America got its oil from underground; now it gets it from oil tankers. Europe was fighting over territory; now it's fighting over the Euro. China was barely on most Americans' radar screen; now China makes the radar screen, and the computer screen, and just about everything else. Back in 1911, there were newspapers; now there are blogs. Then, there were ideas; now there are opinions. Except at Reed, where there are still ideas.

Reed College has also changed. There were 50 students in that first entering class; today there are 374. In 1911, there were five faculty members; now there are 135. The entire college could be housed in just two buildings; now it takes 50. A hundred years ago, the campus was basically a farm; now it seems to be basically a movie set. In 1911 the endowment was $3 million, and falling; now it's $400 million . . . and falling. In 1911 the president was 32 years old. In 2011 he's 67 years old. But, hey, 67 is the new 32, after all!

So, yes, Reed has changed. But those are all superficial differences. What is so striking is not how much it has changed, but rather how much it is the same. Then, as now, Reed was fiercely committed to intellectual exploration, educational rigor, academic freedom, equality, transparency, and a spirit of virtue and responsibility. Then, as now, Reed was educationally conservative and socially liberal. Then, as now, all students were required to write a senior thesis and defend it to an orals board. Performance on academic work was evaluated by written comments, but grades were not routinely shared with students. Student conduct was governed by an honor principle. All students participated in athletics, but none participated in varsity athletics. There were no exclusive organizations such as fraternities or eating clubs. Faculty and students had central roles in institutional governance. All of these things are still true today. From its very beginnings, Reed welcomed all applicants regardless of race, class, religion, or gender. Forty-eight percent of the 1911 entering class were women; this year it is 51 percent. In 1911 the student-to-faculty ratio was 10:1; today, it is 10:1.

And I dare say this: If U.S. News and World Report had existed in 1911, and had been publishing bogus rankings of colleges, Reed College would have refused to cooperate then, as it does today.

So here we are, a hundred years later, different but the same. Still an upstart, still marching to our own drummer. Reed College really is distinctive, but not for the mere sake of being different. Reed is distinctive for the highest purpose imaginable—to liberate ourselves, and the world, from the curse of ignorance, to pursue honestly and relentlessly the search for truth. So if that's what you are looking for, you have found it. Welcome home.