Colin S. Diver’s speeches, letters, and articles
September 8, 2011
Dear alumni, parents, and friends,
As we begin Reed College’s official centennial year, and as I begin my tenth—and final—year as president, I have been reflecting a great deal on the notion of community. It is a word that gets used so often on this campus that I think it’s useful to pause and ask what it really means and why it is so important to us.
William Trufant Foster, the college’s founding president, adopted the phrase “comrades of the quest” to describe the institution he built. With that phrase he meant to convey an essential fact about the ends and means of the college: its end is the quest for knowledge, and its means is the collective, interactive process of inquiry, discussion, debate, and collaboration. We are not a group of isolated monks in our cells, wrestling only with our intellects or our gods. We are a community of scholars, engaged in the give-and-take of intellectual exploration. Scientists pursue a model of knowledge dependent on transparency, replicable results, and falsifiability. Writers and artists “workshop” their creations, to hone and refine them. Humanists present, debate, and defend their work. Knowledge builds incrementally, in fits and starts, by trial and error, but always by collaborative effort.
This helps explain central features of Reed’s educational program: the conference method of discussion, the hypothesis-testing method of scientific inquiry, the thesis tutorial and the thesis oral, the emphasis on providing substantive feedback on student work in lieu of a simple letter grade, and the insistence in every discipline on learning by doing and learning by producing.
But it also explains why community is so important to our mission outside of the immediate realm of classroom, laboratory, or studio. The process of intellectual exchange so essential to learning depends on three characteristics of the surrounding environment: interaction, trust, and diversity. Taken together, these three conditions explain the need for community and define its character:
- Opportunity for interaction: The classroom and the laboratory are the focal points for learning, but they are hardly its boundaries. Ideas require time for gestation and absorption. Insights, questions, and critiques arise at unexpected moments, in unexpected places. A true learning community is one that offers multiple opportunities for unplanned and unstructured debate and discussion, at almost any time of day or night, in every corner of campus.
- Development of trust: A learning community requires a high level of mutual trust and respect. Questioning another’s assertions or scholarly work is always risky, fraught with the danger of scorn or social rejection. Students need a safe zone in which to share their views without submitting themselves to personal judgment.
- Diversity of perspective: We learn from difference, not sameness. Unstated and unexamined assumptions must be challenged and confronted. A genuine community of learners requires not an echo chamber of like-mindedness but a cauldron of clashing arguments, populated by people from multiple backgrounds and holding multiple perspectives.
To be authentic, community must grow organically from the soil of an institution; it cannot be decreed or engineered. But steps can be taken to create preconditions for its development and growth. Much of my attention over the past nine years has been devoted to doing just that. For example:
- A residential community: It is of course true that generations of Reed students have successfully pursued their educations living at home or in off-campus apartments. But on-campus living affords greater opportunities for both structured and unstructured intellectual interactions. With that in mind, over the past decade we have added 216 new beds to the stock of campus housing (a 30 percent increase). Our official goal of housing 75 percent of students on campus means that the average Reed student can count on spending three of her four years living and learning in close community.
- Multicultural diversity: Thanks to expanded admission recruitment and growing resources to support financial aid, Reed has significantly diversified its student body along multiple dimensions. In the past decade we have increased the percentage of American students of color from 10 percent to 23 percent. During the same time, the number of international students on campus has grown by 44 percent, and we’re proud that first-generation college students have continued to represent 11 percent of our incoming class each year. Over that period we have created a standing committee on diversity, increased outreach to attract a more diverse faculty, and expanded the global reach and cultural richness of the curriculum. Just this year we created a staff position of Dean for Institutional Diversity to help orchestrate the college’s many initiatives in this area, and we appointed Crystal Williams, associate professor of creative writing, as the position’s first occupant.
- Student wellness: Unhealthy behavior not only detracts directly from academic performance, but it also undermines community by preventing the formation of healthy and trusting relationships. In recent years we have mounted a sustained and comprehensive effort to combat misuse of drugs and alcohol and to prevent sexual misconduct and other forms of abusive relationships. We have significantly expanded the range and accessibility of programs to promote healthy choices, and we have greatly strengthened educational, preventive, and therapeutic resources. And we have made it clear, by consistently applied actions, that we will not tolerate dangerous and destructive behavior.
- Communities of interest: By offering and supporting opportunities for collaborative engagement in projects of mutual interest, we enrich the soil for community-building. A wonderful example is the nuclear research reactor, which provides an unparalleled opportunity for students—by becoming licensed reactor operators—to participate collaboratively in the operation of a complex scientific facility. Another important illustration is our recent investment in the performing arts, including the commitment to build an integrated, state-of-the-art facility for theatre, dance, and music. Artistic performance in those disciplines offers rich possibilities for self-expression and teamwork. We are very grateful for the generosity and leadership of many donors in bringing this project to fruition.
- The centennial: The centennial provides us with a unique opportunity both to celebrate and to kindle the bonds of affection that connect us to each other and to the college. In June of this year we launched the centennial with a hugely successful alumni reunion, and in a few weeks we will stage a two-day celebration for the entire on-campus community as well as for our Portland neighbors. But the centennial is more than an arbitrary milestone or an excuse to throw a party. It has been an occasion for deep and sustained reflection on the qualities that have distinguished Reed and for celebrating Reed’s unique place in American higher education. And it has been an occasion to strengthen the college so as to ensure Reed’s continuing greatness for its second century. A central component of that agenda has been to strengthen community in the ways that I have described, so that Reed can fully achieve its lofty academic ambitions. Every day—as I walk around campus, visit the Paradox, attend a play, share a meal with students, audit a class—I see the fruits of those efforts. And I see something else: the fruits of an amazing outpouring of generosity by alumni, parents, and friends who believe in this institution. The community-building programs I have described all require the investment of resources, and through the Centennial Campaign, Reed’s expanded family has answered the call for those resources. The campaign has generated unprecedented financial support for community with $104 million contributed to the endowment, a 25 percent increase in the Annual Fund, and more than $53 million given to scholarship aid, allowing us to be ever more generous to students in need of assistance. More than that, the campaign has itself manifested community in the most direct sense. Last year, more than 275 current students contributed to a fund to provide a scholarship to a future Reedie. The number of fundraising volunteers has doubled. Attendance at Reunions more than tripled between 2010 and 2011.
As I begin a busy final year of my service to the college, and the first year of its second century, I feel profound gratitude to all of you who are making Reed a community of scholars without peer.
Colin S. Diver