President Diver: The Exit Interview

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | June 1, 2012

When Colin Diver arrived at Reed in October 2002, Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq, Google was not yet a verb, and no one had heard of toxic assets.

As Diver moved into the president’s office on the third floor of Eliot Hall, he could not have predicted the extraordinary events that would change the world over the next decade, from the Arab Spring to the advent of the iPhone.

The changes at Reed have been less tumultuous, but no less significant. Nonetheless, with the premise of a liberal arts education coming under fire in an era preoccupied with vocational training, Diver insisted that Reed stay true to its mission: intellectual passion, academic rigor, and creative ferment.

Diver has been an active and engaged president, serving as thesis adviser, teaching a class in constitutional law, eating in commons, and even riding in a horse and buggy disguised as Simeon Reed, with his wife, Joan, as Amanda. The thesis parade now regularly wends its way through his office, where he receives sweaty hugs from delirious seniors as they celebrate turning in their theses. Indeed, Diver has remained remarkably popular with students, who have bestowed upon him the nickname “C-Divvy.”

Diver has also demonstrated a knack for a certain kind of offbeat pageantry. Garbed in a ceremonial gown of unrelenting fuchsia, he has regaled audiences with memorable one-liners. At Convocation 2009, for example, he proclaimed “the creed that generations of Reed students have embraced: Capitalism, Faith, and Sexual Abstinence . . . or something like that.” Celebrating Reed’s centennial in September 2011, he led a chorus of thousands in chanting the first line of the Iliad.

In the final months of his reign, we caught up with Diver to take stock and contemplate the challenges ahead. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What’s your proudest achievement?

Far and away the most important is the improvements we’ve made to students’ health and well-being. The most obvious statistic is the improvement in the graduation rate. That’s hugely important. I’m very proud of that, although I’m not sure how much credit I deserve for it. I believe that the old approach of “trial by fire” is not sustainable—that’s a controversial belief, by the way. When I got here, some people were proud of the fact that Reed was about the survival of the fittest.

Lurking behind that statistic [improved graduation rate] are a whole bunch of things. We beefed up academic support—things like the DoJo, the sports center, the health and counseling center. The utilization rates of these resources are just off the charts, and I believe that’s a great thing.

How would you respond to people who say Reed should focus on “the life of the mind” and let students figure out the other stuff on their own?

Even if I accepted that proposition—which I don’t—the mind is connected to a body and is profoundly influenced by physical life, emotional life, and I would add, spiritual life. It is a scientifically demonstrated fact that 17–22-year-olds are still maturing. They may reach their cognitive peak early, but their emotional development takes much longer. Reed is a residential community, and our philosophy of education is highly interactive. Students are not like monks in a cloister copying scrolls. We treat them as scholars in a community of scholars. Part of our job is to help them make the transition from dependence to independence.

You’ve been a big advocate of the performing arts. Why?

I believe that the fully educated person needs to be capable of creative work, inquiry, exploration, teamwork, and to be able to turn their knowledge into some kind of product—an essay, an experiment, an artistic creation, or a performance. These are all key elements of the performing arts, and when I got here I thought that those disciplines were some of the least well supported academically. 

I wouldn’t have expected that from a lawyer. Have you ever been onstage as a performer? 

I used to sing in a choral ensemble and do a little cameo acting. But you know, if you’re a college president, or even a law school professor, you are a performer. It’s part of your job. My dad was a technical photographer and loved classical music. He used to take me to shows when I was growing up. When I was in law school, I can remember seeing Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Met. It was just electrifying. I also saw Pavarotti perform before he became a household name. I’ve always enjoyed carpentry, fixing up old houses. I’ve always felt that creating things was a central part of my life.

I also felt that every college that aspires to be a genuine community has got to provide collective endeavors that create a school spirit. We don’t have fraternities or sororities. We don’t have varsity athletics. So the performing arts have a special role to play at Reed.

What about Renn Fayre?

I feel that Renn Fayre has become distorted from its original purpose. If we can return Renn Fayre to its roots as a true community-wide celebration, and channel it in the right direction, I think it can serve a valuable function. But on this campus, you can’t just wave a wand and decree things, no matter how much you might want to. 

OK, if you had a magic wand . . .

The most obvious example is addressing illegal drug and alcohol use. It’s emphatically a legal obligation. I think it’s a moral one, too. I came to Reed knowing this was a community that had a lot of expectations about student autonomy, self-reliance, and an ingrained suspicion of authority. I’ve discovered that there is actually a very powerful authority on campus—the faculty—but only in their academic role. That’s part of the social contract here. Students accept that they are academic apprentices to the faculty. But that’s the extent of it. The faculty retain their authority because they guard it very carefully. The rest of us do not have a lot of intrinsic authority. We have to earn it. That’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge to have. You need to be able to say to yourself, do I have a good reason for my beliefs and actions and does it resonate with Reed’s mission? And, if you don’t have a good answer, it’s probably time to take a step back.

What about the endowment?

We have built a first-rate development operation. It’s a powerful and professional group. To have raised $199 million in the worst economic downturn since the great depression is just remarkable. And the good news for the future is that three-quarters of what we have raised has gone straight into the endowment. As for management of the endowment, for 30 years Reed benefited from the investment genius of our alumnus and board member Walter Mintz ’50. After he died early in my tenure, we went through a difficult transition, but I am happy that our investment returns have been getting steadily better.

You have overseen a lot of physical expansion.

I’m proud of the dorms we’ve built. We’re not quite at our goal of having enough space for 75% of our students to live on campus, but we’re close. Dorms—good dorms, at least—are expensive. We are building a first-class performing arts building. We also expanded the campus footprint. We bought the old hospital and the farm. That will give us a little more breathing room.

Is Reed diverse enough?

Diversity is still a work in progress. We made a lot of progress in admission, and we have not used merit aid. But we still struggle to attract African American students. Maybe it’s my earlier involvement with civil rights issues in Boston, but I still think that the biggest piece of unfinished business in America is the position of African Americans in our society. We need to do better. I am also frustrated at the slow progress of hiring faculty of color. We have a genuine institutional commitment to diversity. That’s great. We’ve made the cake. Now we have to bake it.

What’s the biggest piece of unfinished business?

We are not fully need blind. We want to be able to admit every applicant without regard to his or her financial capacity. To get there, we need to do two things: increase our appeal to the most talented applicants who can afford full tuition, and increase our endowment for financial aid to support those who cannot. We have made good progress on both fronts, and I hope that Reed can get to the goal of becoming need blind in the next decade. The fact that we are not yet need-blind is not to say, by the way, that we are any less generous than our peers. If you look at other schools that are need-blind, we look pretty good. We have over 50% of the students on financial aid, with an average package of $34,000 a year. About 18% of our students are on Pell grants.

Another issue is the challenge of continuing to recruit top-quality faculty in certain disciplines, such as economics and some of the sciences. Reed has a very strong tradition of pay equity for faculty across disciplines. Preserving that tradition is very important to the faculty. But I worry that growing salary differentials among disciplines within the academic marketplace will make it harder and harder for us to recruit without either offering differential compensation in some fields or significantly raising salary levels for the entire faculty.

There’s also the ongoing struggle to combat substance abuse. We’ve made a lot of progress. We’re in good shape. But this takes time and a strong, sustained effort to change a culture. It takes 10 years to accomplish. And we didn’t get serious about it until about five years ago. We have turned the corner but we have to sustain the effort.

Is Reed too expensive?

Tuition is too high for many families—but we are able to help them with financial aid. I’m proud of the fact that all our financial aid is based wholly on need. Unlike many schools, we do not give discounts for wealthy  kids. But there’s a difference between price and cost. We are producing something special here—an elaborate package of services. It’s an artisanal product tailor-made to each student. The whole idea is that every student is the object of attention. So it’s expensive—it’s inherently expensive. Small classes taught by full-time professional educators. The facilities, IT, library, labs are all top of the line. We’re proud of it. That’s our trademark. Yes, you can do it cheaper. You can have huge lectures, distance learning, lots of adjuncts. 

Since you’ve been president, the internet has made incalculable amounts of information available to anyone with a high-speed connection. Has that diminished the value of a Reed education?

No. But I think the biggest long-term challenge to higher education comes from the information revolution. Once upon a time, you got your news, your sports, weather, and your recipes from your newspaper—that’s the prix fixe model. But we are now living in an à la carte world. People can get their weather from the weather channel and their sports from ESPN—why should they buy a newspaper? The same thing is happening in education. You can get a first-class physics course online from MIT. You can get statistics from Carnegie Mellon. How does Reed compete in that world? We have to be the best integrator in the business. In a way, we’ve got a built-in advantage—we already have a pretty integrated curriculum. My advice to Reed is to figure out a science-and-math equivalent of Hum 110 and to reinforce its identity as a community of scholars. Because no online course can replicate the experience of living in such a community.

Has the Honor Principle outlived its usefulness?

I think it’s fair to say the Honor Principle has never lived up to its potential. People need to accept responsibility for their behavior and understand that the Honor Principle is not about license. You can’t have a community of honor if everyone has their own view of honor. Democratically approved policies are part of the Honor Principle. So the Honor Principle is not unwritten—it is written. There are difficult practical issues in implementing the Honor Principle, but the concept of honor, I think that’s a fantastic idea. I hope Reed never gives up on it.

Tags: Institutional, Reed History