President’s Office

President’s speeches, letters, and articles

Subject: President Bilger’s Remarks at Parent & Family Weekend (transcript)

November 9, 2019

I have not had the opportunity to speak in this space; it is, as you know, the space where Humanities 110 takes place. I was at an event last night where one of our astrophysicists, Alison Crocker, was being recognized with an award for young scientists. She was telling me that the intro physics classes are held in this auditorium right after Hum 110, so they get that Humanities energy, and some of the students linger from one class to the other.

I am Audrey Bilger, Reed’s president, and I am so happy to see you all here. Thanks for getting up on a Saturday morning—not hard to do when campus is this beautiful. This morning, I want to share a little bit about how I got here and what I think is special about Reed. I also want to hear from you and answer your questions. I started this position in July of this year. I feel like now that I’ve been reviewed in the student paper, I’m no longer new. I think the review is OK, so that's good. There is certainly a lot to live up to at this storied institution.

I come to Reed having spent 27 years before this in liberal arts higher education. I started out my life in public higher ed in Oklahoma at Oklahoma State University and then went to the University of Virginia. When I landed at Oberlin College in 1992, I discovered paradise. This model—the residential liberal arts college—was something that I had never even heard of. I’m first gen, and I didn’t know that places like this existed. And I pretty quickly saw what the benefits were for the students and for the faculty. Small classes, interactions with faculty who know your name and care about you, who are interested not only in you in the classroom and whether you're going to turn in the work, but you in the future and what's going to happen with you. At that time, when I started out, I didn't fully recognize that the students I met then and the students I would meet over the years would stay with me, come back, and send notes. Particularly when it was announced that I was coming here to Reed, I heard from students from decades back who said, “By the way, this thing you did ended up helping me do this.” And I thought, “I did that? Really? I don’t particularly remember that.”

I had a motto as a faculty member, which I was for the first twenty-four years of my time in the liberal arts—I was an English faculty member. What I said, over and over again, was: you prepare your material for the class, you get the discussion going, it starts humming, and the thing that will affect the student is probably not the thing that you polish and perfect and imagine, “This is the profound word that I’m giving you today that’s going to make a big difference.” Instead, it’s something that you toss off, and it's something different for all of those students in the room. So the thing that strikes me about this model of liberal arts education—and liberal arts education at a small, largely residential college—is that students have their own experience of an array of courses—not a cookie cutter or assembly line—of an array of courses with faculty in their lives who might sit across the desk, walk with them to lunch, or see them out on campus and say, “Hi, I notice that you’re having a rough day. Is there anything I can do for you?” All of these things together create an experience that our students take with them, and it’s something that I think is rare and precious. I do believe that one can get a liberal arts education—a liberal arts experience—at a larger college. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and had small classes in Oklahoma. These classes weren't in large lecture halls. They were in small or intimate spaces where someone might say, “Hey, I see something in you. Say something more about that thing that you’re saying.” You could get this type of education at a larger institution, but the immersive quality of personal attention and the ability to explore widely is really unique at a place like Reed.

Having been at Oberlin, Claremont McKenna, and Pomona College, I do have comparisons I can make. I knew about Reed because on the West Coast there are a handful of liberal arts colleges like ours. So I knew Reed was up here and I knew some of the things that Reed had a reputation for. But when I started looking closer and when I started meeting people here, I realized that we get it right here. We haven't diluted the liberal arts mission. We are a community of people who care across the board, whether it's our faculty, staff, or students. There's this deep sense of caring, and it’s fundamental. I was meeting with an alumnus this week from the 1960s who said to me, “What's the word that you would use to characterize Reed students?” I didn’t jump in there because I thought, “I bet you have one, and I kind of think you want to tell me.” He said “intense.” I thought, “Yeah, you could say intense. And I say caring.”

I have been at other schools where students have to kind of work themselves up to caring or pretend in certain contexts that they don't care that much. Here at Reed, we openly care. We care about education. We care about ideas. We care about thinking. We care about the world around us. We care in ways that can sometimes be uncomfortable. And that's good, because caring isn't always about feeling good and at ease. Caring is sometimes about worrying, asking tough questions, and interrogating those around you to see if things are working. What have people thought before us? What have people thought centuries before us? Where am I coming in? In the history of the planet, the universe, this culture? That kind of intensity, which I see as caring, is something that I think distinguishes Reed. The fact that we have a first year Humanities core experience for our students means that they get something that first year. Whether they love it or don't love it quite as much, it's something that they all have together. Having taught in environments where first year experiences are a little more fragmented—with faculty teaching the thing that they're more passionate about, but the students go to corners. I think that it's great that students come to this room for a lecture and leave having experienced something that unifies them.

So that's one of the things Reed has that's unique. We also get our students to a place where they can take a qualifying exam in their junior year. This is highly unusual and something that asks the students to begin with that broad base of Humanities education—regardless of what direction they're going to take—and then begin to focus as they get ready for that senior experience where they write the thesis. How many of you were able to come today to the presentation that Gregory McNaughton gave on the history of calligraphy at Reed? He showed us some images of students who wrote their entire senior thesis in calligraphy. I am going to get the names of those students and go over to the thesis tower to find those theses. That kind of caring or intensity in that final project is uniquely Reed.

There are other colleges that have a senior thesis and require it of all their students. But at Reed, we have not diluted that. It's very much an experience that is taken seriously and then it's celebrated vigorously with a parade and this thing that I have yet to experience called Renn Fayre. That is delightful. Something that I'm very committed to is thinking about that care and love of learning and trying to intercept where I can the idea that you're doing this right if you're suffering, and you've got to be suffering. I know, I get that; as a philosophy major in Oklahoma, I didn't feel necessarily like I was part of the mainstream and I suffered. In fact, I will confess that there was a semester where I took all incompletes. Not a good idea. And so I want us to remember not to say, “I’m busy” when we pass someone on the sidewalk and they ask, “How are you?” I feel like we all participate in this, and on our campuses we can try to get in the middle of that. I tend to ask students, “What are you excited about right now? What classes are you loving?” Something that I said when I was at my last job at Pomona—we had a mantra that was: “It's not about the major.” You will have a major when you graduate from college, but in the years that follow, not many people are going to ask you about your major. I kind of think it's like your astrological sign. You might have friends who ask your student, “What’s your major?” And then what's the next question? “What are you going to do with that?” I think those are really unhealthy questions. So I try to ask, “What are you excited about? What are you learning?” Or as Alice Harra at the Center for Life Beyond Reed would say, “What's your purpose? What inspires you?”

When I was advising students as a faculty member, I advised them about academics. But as they came toward senior year, they started to ask me for advice on life. And I was very careful because, particularly when I was at Claremont McKenna, there weren’t a lot of literature majors. If you are familiar with the college, there are big economics, finance, and political science departments. So a lot of the students I advised were struggling, trying to figure out what they wanted to do, what they wanted to be. And I would say, “Stop for a moment. What do you want the content of your days to look like? What do you want to be surrounded by? Who do you want to be surrounded by? Think about those things.”

I want to segway into talking about things that I'm really excited about and want to invest time in and help garner support for. One of those things is the Center for Life Beyond Reed. This is something that I think we're doing that's powerful and integral to the liberal arts mission of this college. The Center for Life Beyond Reed is not only helping students find internships and get interviews with prospective employers, they're also helping students get fellowships and grants and working with students through their time at Reed. They're not the place students go because they're trying to figure out, “What am I going to do with this? What am I going to do?” Which is a stressful place to put our students.

Instead, they might be directed to the Center for Life Beyond Reed because a faculty member noticed that they have this aptitude in a certain area and the faculty member sends a message over to Alice and her team and says, “This person would be a good candidate for that fellowship or that grant,” or “I hope this student can do an internship in X.” As students get on the radar of the Center for Life Beyond Reed, the Center for Life Beyond Reed starts to get that student's story and help the student process and understand their story. Maybe after their first year they do an internship that summer. And let's say they were interested in interning at a food bank. And then they start to think, “Well, what's kind of around this food bank? Oh, questions about equality in society.” Maybe they start to think, “Maybe I'm interested in politics.” They take a class and they start going in that direction. And their political science faculty member says, “They should do this grant.” Maybe they apply for that grant and maybe they don't get it. And the people at the Center for Life Beyond Reed say, “That's great that you have that application, because now we know this about you.” So they apply for something else.

In my view, the best way to do this kind of career advising is to figure out what it is that inspires our students. What is it that gives them a sense of purpose? Because what we all want is the same thing. We want our students to thrive and prosper and live meaningful lives. And we believe that the model of education that gives them exposure to ideas, helps some formulate questions, be critical thinkers, be intellectually curious—that life is going to be a meaningful life for them. When we think only about preparing students for a career or a job—and it's important, obviously, to find meaningful work—but when we think about it that way, we're not really thinking about the context of the twenty-first century when very few students will get a job that they stay in for the next 30 or 40 years. Instead, they will find themselves in fields like computer science. You get a tech job, and within a year you're going to be out looking for something else in that same field. What we want for our students is for them to think, “Here's a learning moment for me. What do I want to do next? What do I need to know in order to understand what I want to do next?” And some of that involves being able to translate: “What have I gotten from this experience that I could take to the next experience?” And also to have those resources—intellectual resources, internal resources—so that rather than believing that their quest is individual, they recognize that there are other people who have been in their place: “How can I learn from their experience? How can I learn from the ideas of those who preceded me? How can I feel good about myself at this moment when I might be feeling a lot of doubt?”

In my view, the kind of work that we do at a college like Reed is to help prepare students for those kinds of moments, and we want them to get it right. Maybe, in an iterative way, they get it right and that might not be right, so then they figure out the next right. In my view, we need to give them space for that.

If you hear someone, maybe a relative or friend, say after your student says their major, “What are you going to do with that?” Maybe you could say, “My student can do anything, and I’m really happy that they’re thinking about majoring in X, because I've learned so much from them. And I need you also to believe that majoring in X is going to make them happy and get them someplace that's good.” I say that having taught English at a place where that wasn't the dominant path that students took. I also saw students do amazing things. Students who studied with me and went to Wall Street or a more traditional path might come back and say, “Yeah, you know that class where I read that book? It made me think this.” And then there are the stories that I sort of personally love. One of my students who was majoring in econ-accounting and also in English lit wrote a thesis on something that interested her because she had a job on campus assisting a pastry chef at one of the dining facilities. She wrote her thesis on women chefs, then she went off and did her accounting job, and a couple of years in she decided that she was going to go to culinary school. And she got a show on Food Network and became a chef for the Olympics. I apologize that this story comes from another institution—I think it's very much a liberal arts college story, though. So that's something that's very exciting to me.

Also, in the broadest possible way, I believe that education is important. I believe that we're in a time when education is being criticized and diminished. Throughout the 2000s, I felt that we were embattled. I've seen a change in students from the time I started teaching in the 1980s. At that time, students came to their education believing it’s important to learn—more or less, depending on the student, of course—but not suspicious of education, suspicious of institutions. I worry that the forces that are opposed to higher ed and say that liberal arts colleges are precious and elite and refer to our students as snowflakes don't realize that our students are like snowflakes in that they are unique, but they’re also like constellations—they put together all these pieces of knowledge that are also unique. So what we do is important. My belief is that education prepares students to be participants in society. And that participation is what we all hope for. So we want our students to personally live fulfilled lives and we also want them to feel agency and an ability to participate in the world around them. In these times of polarization, I think we all want—honestly—our students to come along and fix it. That's what I want.

I am delighted to be at Reed. I'm so glad to be part of this community along with you. Families are always an important piece of the college community. Your care and concern for your students is mirrored by our care and concern. It is my hope that we're able to support you so you can feel confident that your student's explorations are not meanderings and that they are actually going to create an amazing future for the people you love so very much.

Video of President Bilger’s remarks