Presidents of Reed

Colin S. Diver’s speeches, letters, and articles

Creating Reed's Future
Centennial Celebration
Remarks of President Colin S. Diver
September 23, 2011

Happy birthday Reed! You're lookin' good, old girl. You may be a hundred years old, but you're still the coolest college on the planet!

So, what's next?

Nine years ago I stood on this spot and delivered my inaugural address as the fourteenth president of Reed College. It was a simpler, more innocent time. The tent was smaller. The audience was quieter. The budget was much smaller. I was younger. We all were younger. Nationally, it was a simpler time. The federal debt was a mere six trillion dollars. Democrats and Republicans openly embraced each other on the streets. Almost no one had heard of Barack Obama, much less Sarah Palin or Rick Perry. Facebook was . . . well, a book, with faces in it. An "eye-pad" was something pirates wore. Yarrrr! We Reedies all have a pirate spirit in us.

But enough of nostalgia. I'm here to talk about the future, not the past. And the future is all about creativity. That was the theme of my inaugural address, and it's my theme tonight. I said then that "Reed College should be devoted centrally, and fundamentally, to developing in its students a capacity for creativity." Today, nine years later, I believe those words more passionately than ever.

Over the years people have tried to hang various labels on Reed College—"boot camp for the mind"; "hippy heaven"; "training ground for college professors." And some others I won't repeat.

In the future there will be another label: "idea factory." Reed is a factory of ideas.

We all know about the creative geniuses from Reed's past, and we all know their creations—Steve Jobs and the personal computer, the iPod, the iPad, the i-just-about-everything; Gary Snyder and beat poetry, and eco-poety; John Sperling and the University of Phoenix; Pamela Ronald and disease-resistent rice; Peter Norton and antivirus utilities. Their stories have been repeated so often they have become legends. But what we may not know is that the current generation of Reedies is following in their footsteps, not by the dozens, but by the hundreds.

You have seen on this stage tonight a spectacular example, Sasha Kramer, class of 1999, and all of the classmates and colleagues who have helped to create, in SOIL, a truly transformative organization.

Another example is Michael Richardson, class of 2007, who co-founded a tech startup called Urban Airship that has been cited by the White House as a model for entrepreneurship.

Or consider Anaka Narayanan, class of 2004, former economic consultant and now innovative fashion entrepreneur in India.

Or Jon Wei ’88, whose creation, The Telling Project, enables military veterans and their family members to tell their stories through theater productions that they themselves write and produce. It too has been recognized by the White House.

Or Elyse Fenton, class of 2003, poet and essayist, who transformed first-hand experiences of the Iraq War into a prize-winning volume of lyrical and passionate poetry.

Consider Noah Pepper, class of 2009, whose work at Reed on the evolutionary dynamics of technology led him to form a start-up company that detects emergent patterns in huge streams of electronic data.

Or consider Jan Liphart, class of 1996, a Berkeley biophysicist who is achieving breakthroughs in our understanding of the physics of cancer cells.

These are but a few of hundreds of examples of young Reed graduates who are creating their futures, and in the process creating something new and powerful and magical. They are the stuff of Reed's future legends.

After giving my inaugural address nine years ago, some of my faculty colleagues questioned whether we can teach creativity. My reply was then, and still is: "Yes you can, and you are doing it." To be sure, we can't manufacture creativity, but we can produce the conditions in which it is most likely to flourish. We know from research that creativity requires two things: rigorous training and the practice of transformative skills.

For a hundred years Reed has been synonymous with rigorous training, and so it will continue. Reedies read voraciously, argue endlessly, debate vigorously, master complex analysis and intricate argument. Yes, when those silly college guides and websites do rankings on "Colleges that Kick Academic Butt," Reed will always be at the top of the list. Fear not. The faculty won't allow that to change. And certainly the students wouldn't stand for it.

But what is less appreciated is that Reed has also become synonymous with the practice of transformative skills. Sociologists site examples of such skills: the ability to approach problems in nonroutine ways using analogy and metaphor; conditional and abductive reasoning; (the skill to know what "abductive" means!); taking initiative in the face of ambiguity; welcoming feedback and revising, revising, revising; team-building to test and implement novel ideas; expressive agility to communicate in multiple media—verbal, oral, visual, and performative.

This is a description of what we do at Reed every day, as learning moves more and more into the practice and transformation of knowledge, beyond the classroom, beyond the library, into the laboratory, the studio, the physical world, and the virtual world. Every day students take the words and ideas and observations they encounter, and transform them into new creations. They write interpretive essays, solve unscripted problems, organize discussions, formulate and test hypotheses, locate and explore archives, bombard atoms, dissect tissues. They write code, operate complex instruments, paint, sculpt, sing, compose poems and music, design and produce sets, act, dance, perform. And as they create new knowledge, new ideas, new expressions, they create their future.

So too we as a college will practice those same arts of rigorous training and transformative skills to create our future. We will create a college that is just as new and transformative as the creations of its graduates, a college that is truly a beacon to higher education, a laboratory for learning unlike any other. People will understand that the evolutionary—and revolutionary—ideas of our forebears—the humanities program, the conference method, the senior thesis—are not quaint historical artifacts, but living, evolving models for the future of liberal education. And Reed will continue to provide new models for the art of education. We will lead in efforts to harness the promise of technology, not simply as a diversion or novelty, but as a fundamental instrument for enriching and customizing the learning experience of every student. Reed will serve as a leader for reaching out to students from all backgrounds, making it attractive and possible for them to participate fully in the academic experience. Reed will show the world how to establish a genuine community of scholars, animated by mutual care, genuine respect, and love of learning. And we will show the academic world that the honor principle is not simply a slogan, but rather a vital spirit that animates a learning community and illuminates the path to a truly fulfilling life.

So we begin tomorrow, in this, our one-hundred-first year, creating Reed's future, a future of startling and revolutionary ideas, designs, inventions, expressions, and discoveries.

But, you ask: How do we do that? Where do we seek inspiration? You know the answer: we must invoke our muse. Indeed, we must invoke the muse the way it has been done for three thousand years, the way that we Reedies have all learned at the foot of the master, Wally Englert . . . .

MAY-ay-nin. AH-ay-day-they-AH. pay-lay. ee-AH-diaow-a-kee-LAY-ee-os . . . .

That is how we invoke our muse!

Thank you all for joining us in this marvelous celebration of a truly great and unique American institution, and a special thanks to all who made it possible—our dancers and musicians and choristers, our speakers, and all those whose tireless work behind the scenes made this event possible.

Now I ask you to join us for a concert by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in the quad. Good night, and happy birthday, Reed!

Contact Us

Dawn Thompson
Executive Assistant to
the President

Telephone: 503/777-7500
Fax: 503/777-7701

Liz Colie Gadberry
Special Assistant to the President

President’s Office Hours for Students

Week of October 8–12

Thursday, October 11
10–11 a.m.
Eliot Hall, Room 312