Reed Union History
A guide and history created by former student senator Brian Radzinsky.
Reed Unions are gatherings of the entire College to discuss topics of specific relevance to the Reed Community. These topics may pertain to College life specifically or to broader national and international issues that bear on the Community’s life. Reed Unions are organized by the Reed Union Committee.
The Reed Union was born out of an existing tradition of symposia and discussions on campus. Prior to the first Reed Union in 1947, the Quest reports panel discussions and student gatherings to discuss issues of the day. Especially beginning around 1946, students gathered to discuss World Federalism, the Marshall Plan, and other postwar political topics. One such gathering became formalized as the “Reed Forum,” which was understood to be different from Reed Unions.
Reed Forums ran concurrently with the Reed Union, and during activities fairs both groups would hold meetings. A Quest article from January 1948 mentions a Reed Forum on the Marshall Plan featuring Professor Munk, Dr. Steiner of the First Unitarian Church, President Odegard, and unidentified Mr. Jones.
The founder of Reed Union was a freshman, Jim Walsh. Through his initiative, the Student Council passed legislation creating the Reed Union, “an association of the members of the Reed Community assembled to deliberate on significant issues” (The Reed Union, Student Council, February 3, 1947). Walsh went on to become Reed’s 12th Rhodes Scholar in 1949.
The first Reed Union was held on February 13, 1947 on the topic, “Labor Legislation and the National Economy with Special Reference to the Wagner Act.” The topic may sound abstract but in the Spring of 1947, this was one of the most controversial national issues and Reed students wanted to discuss it. The National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) was a federal law that protected the rights of workers in the private sector to organize unions, take part in strikes and engage in collective bargaining. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed it into law in 1935. Its critics tried many times to repeal or amend the law, and all efforts failed until the Taft-Hartley amendment in 1947. Labor leaders denounced the Taft-Hartley Amendment, and President Harry S. Truman vetoed the amendment on June 23, 1947. But Congress overrode the presidential veto and the Amendment became law.
The Reed Union panel featured representatives from the National Association of Manufacturers and the CIO, Economics professor F.E. Melder, and Norman Lerzin. Peter Odegard, the President of the College, moderated.
Reed Unions typically began with a meal in commons followed by opening statements from the panelists. The floor would then be open to discussion. A Quest article from December 1947 notes that “a precedent for the informal type meeting in which all speaking is from the floor is one meeting held last spring in the commons at which the subject of science in the Reed curriculum was discussed.” At the end of the evening, those in attendance would vote on the resolution at hand. After the panel formulated the question for the following week, the Union would adjourn. In this sense, the Unions appear to have mimicked Oxford’s Unions, at least in the respect of framing the discussion as a precursor to a vote.
Indeed, in April 1948 the Student Council voted to make the Reed Union “the only official organ of campus opinion on all matters of official campus political issues.” Those seeking statements of “general will” had to present a petition to the Reed Union Council. If greater than 25% of the student body signed the petition, the Union would take a poll of the student body and publish the results. The Union then could decide to forward the poll to relevant organizations.
Following the first Union in February, three more were held in 1947. The second (11/20/47) asked, “How do you define the good man and the good society in principle?” And it included a curious bit of ritual: “Before the meeting Mr. Abbot of the Southern Pacific Railroad presented a huge bell to the Reed Union as a confirmation of the spirit of neighborliness which has always existed between Southern Pacific and Reed College.”
The early Unions operated with a mild element of ceremony. The position of timekeeper was usually assigned to a campus dignitary of sorts. For the first few years of the Union, the college president kept time. After the first Union the Quest reports that the Student Council voted to “place its blessings on the Reed Union” by presenting the committee with a ceremonial bell. There is also mention of some kind of regalia to be worn by the timekeeper. Efforts to find the bell or description of the regalia have not been successful.
The third Union was held in December 1947. The resolution (“Resolved: that the present state of civil liberties in American is cause for alarm) was affirmed 27–8. Indeed, Reed Unions did not shy away from controversial political topics. One, held on February 8, 1949, asked, “Should communists be allowed to teach?” Though obviously topical and relevant, the Union added a local dimension by featuring Herbert Phillips on the panel. Phillips was dismissed by the regents from his position in the philosophy department at the University of Washington after it was revealed that he was a member of the Communist Party.
Reed Union topics—still called resolutions in the early years—also touched on campus issues. The fourth Reed Union (1/16/48) asked, “What does a liberal education mean to me?” The next Union was also Reed centric. Held on January 26, the Union discussed some matter—exactly what isn’t clear—related to the former third-arm of student publication on campus, the Prologue magazine. A Union held on April 15, 1948 discussed “Reed’s Sacred Cows”—the three school wide requirements of junior qual, senior thesis, and departmental major requirements. It was popularly billed as “FEPC (the Faculty Educational Policy Committee) vs. the Student Body.” The following year (2/28/49) the topic of discussion was simply “The Senior Year!” and touched broadly on the ends of a liberal education through the lens of the senior year.
The Union was also not above self-deprecation: a Reed Union held on October 7, 1948, explained, “Why I’m Sorry I Came to Reed.” The Quest reported, “the affair will emphasize ‘local color and the lighter vein.’”
And yet other Unions waxed philosophical. The second Reed Union ever asked about the “good man.” The sixth (2/25/48) asked simply, “What about religion?” On May 26, 1949, the Reed Union asked, “What constitutes a community?”
Reed Union topics were both generally political and also specifically geared toward local politics. The most extensively documented early Union was held on November 10, 1949, on the Columbia Valley Administration. The CVA was a 1949 bill that created a wholly-owned government corporation that operated within the watershed of the Columbia River on the model of the Tennessee Valley Administration. President Truman submitted it to Congress on April 3, 1949.
“Is the Columbia Valley Administration a Miracle or a Monster?” brought together Thomas Lawson McCall, the future Republican governor of Oregon (then assistant to Governor Douglas McKay); Norman Stoll, a chief counsel to the Bonneville Power Administration, Monroe Sweetland, and Jim Collins. In 1948, Monroe Sweetland was Oregon's national committeeman to the Democratic Party at a time when Republicans controlled virtually every major institution in the state. Sweetland won a seat in the Oregon House in 1952, and Congressman Earl Blumenauer hails him as the “father of the Democratic Party of Oregon.” Jim Collins was the National Committeeman for the Young Republican Federation.
At least two unions—“Music and the Community” (12/9/48, featuring Werner Janssen) and “Why Modern Literature?”—were neither political nor philosophical. The Quest piece on the latter noted that “the aim of the evening, as in all Reed Unions, will be a community thrashing out of the subject.”
Overall, only 6 of the 13 early Unions were on Reed related topics. Of the remaining 7, 3 were on political and legal issues, two on the arts, and two on religious and philosophical topics.
Reed Unions were the responsibility of the Student Council. They appointed an Executive of the Reed Union in joint session with the outgoing Reed Union Council from student applicants. The Executive consisted of five students and two faculty advisers. The advisers by appointed by the Community Affairs Committee on the recommendation of the Reed Union Council. Legislation provided that a moderator had to preside over all activities of the Reed Union and that the moderator had to be chosen from the Reed Union Council in an open meeting. The moderator’s term was one semester.
The task of the Reed Union, then as now, is to arrange meetings, select topics, enlist speakers, and publicize events. It is not clear if the Council allocated a budget for the RUC to perform its activities. Unions sought to represent a variety of contesting perspectives, often posing topics as questions and bringing in high profile speakers from the outside. And the Reed Union Board, as it came to be called, submitted an official report at the end of the year; a photocopy of the 1959-1960 report exists in the archives.
Most unions in this period were overwhelmed by the College’s financial crisis and sharp disputes over education and student life. Of the 21 Reed unions recorded between 1963 and 1973, only five were on topics of national importance (the wilderness, communism, the Vietnam War, Race Relations and the National Student Strike). This set the trend for the next decades. Speaking of these, President Koblik remarked in January 2001:
“By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, broadly shared social values and social discipline were eroding: personal experimentation, sometimes with the aid of illegal substances, and a greater emphasis on self-fulfillment were more normative than previously. In the spirit of these times, the Honor principle became one more of free license than of the obligations of self-control and of self- discipline for the greater good of the Reed community. The social atmosphere at the college under these circumstances became more individualistic, more atomized, and less communal. The increase in the size of the student body in the late sixties also changed the intimate student environment on campus. Long-time community traditions such as Reed Unions became less regular, poorly attended, and finally hardly to exist at all.”
Alumni and faculty recall occasional Reed Unions in the 1970s and 1980s, but they describe these as spontaneous affairs. There was a sense that Reed Unions represented a “general will” of the student body, but the original resolution-discussion-vote format had long since disappeared along with the communal meal, moderator, regalia, and the ringing of the bell.
Still, a healthy vein did remain and in 1995, the faculty and students revived Reed Unions. In that year, President Koblik presented his “Campaign for Reed College.” The Quest reports that the president had assembled a slide show on the future of the college and campus life, including issues of control over the Student Union. The topic proved to be controversial. After students expressed their frustration over the lack of input, the first Reed Union in about 20 years was held on February 13, 1996. The topic was racism and diversity, and this too ended in controversy because it featured only Koblik, top administrators, and division and committee heads.
In an interview with the Quest, Koblik said that “the purpose of the Reed Union is for students to raise issues” (4/2/96). Toward the end of his term, Koblik spoke of the importance of Reed Unions in more encouraging terms but appeared to think of Unions as strictly affairs to discuss student life at the College. In his 2001 speech on “Reflections on being an adult,” Koblik remarked, “Renewed faculty interest and leadership has led to more intense student-faculty dialogue but again little new clarity on many of the issues. The college appears caught between a recognition that limits on behavior detrimental to the college need strengthening and a continuing commitment to challenge students to control their own behavior. Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in the area of drugs and alcohol.”
In 1999, the Faculty introduced community legislation in effect recreating the Reed Union Committee (Fac Mins 12/7/1999). The RUC ceased to be a student committee and became instead a community committee. But its chair remained a student, and in other respects, it continued its charge as before.
The RUC was not given, and still does not have, a budget to pursue its activities; it depends entirely on voluntary contributions. This of course constrained what RUC’s could do, and recent Unions, like those in the 1960s, focused almost exclusively on local issues. On June 30, 2001, for example, a Union was called to discuss the damage of Renn Fayre 2000. In the course of that Renn Fayre, the College suffered close to $15,000 in damage and the future of Renn Fayre was in question. The union brought together 225 students, faculty, staff and alumni. Tensions were high but the atmosphere was reported to be overwhelmingly positive. Speakers came from the Reed community. They focused less on laying blame and more on constructive suggestions for improvement.
In fact, of the twelve Unions held since 1998, only two raised issues that went beyond the Reed Community (these were on political neutrality and the war on terror). Most typically, as Koblik anticipated, the Union became a lightning rod for controversial campus issues. Unions covered the honor principle (3), diversity (2), drugs (2), campus planning and investments (2), and a controversial commencement speaker.
In 2007, the RUC realized that once again students were no longer familiar with what Reed Unions were and that the Committee had not completed the first charge given to it in 1999, namely, “to establish a description of the term ‘Reed Union,’ for the reference of future Reed Union Committee members” and for that matter for the campus at large. This pamphlet constitutes the completion of this charge. The RUC also observed that, in recent years, Educational Subcommittee of the Honor Council has taken up issues related to the honor principle and diversity, and thus many typical topics of recent Unions were taken up in other contexts.
Thus, the committee set out to recover the original vision of Jim Walsh, namely, to discuss topics of national importance on campus, topics which impacted the lives of each of us in enormous ways but which were not triggered by local issues and crises. The committee also has sought to broaden participation in Unions to include those from off-Campus and to problems of the Portland and broader national community.
The RUC is guided in this respect by some of the College’s oldest documents. The Reed Catalog of 1911-1912 states that the College’s aim is “to study exhaustively the peculiar needs of Portland and of the Northwest, and so develop each department that it will serve the community more effectively than could any merely transplanted institution” (Reed Catalog, 1911-1912, 11). This is amplified in a later catalog, “The aim of Reed College is to prepare students for active and useful citizenship. It seeks to accomplish this by developing their powers of self-direction, by teaching to form judgments upon the basis of the fullest available information, and by interesting them in the common problems and common resources of the American people and the whole family of nations (Reed Catalog, 1925-1926, 11). This is still a good description of what Reed Unions hope to achieve.