When it came time to get a photo for Reed’s website, Crystal Williams, Reed’s Dean for Institutional Diversity, invited students, faculty, and staff members engaged in diversity efforts across campus to join her in representing this community endeavor.

When it came time to get a photo for Reed’s website, Crystal Williams, Reed’s Dean for Institutional Diversity, invited students, faculty, and staff members engaged in diversity efforts across campus to join her in representing this community endeavor.

A Community in Progress: Diversity & Inclusion at Reed

By Crystal Ann Williams | December 1, 2012

“Our learning is impoverished when we are in a homogeneous group of like-minded individuals who share the same kinds of experiences, beliefs, and aspirations.”

—Tori Harding-Smith, president of Washington & Jefferson College

 “Throughout its history, Reed College has been dedicated to the notion that liberal education must free us from the constraints of ignorance and intolerance and lack of mutual understanding. This is possible only if we learn from each other, and we learn best when we encounter and embrace differences: differences of culture, background, life experience, capacity, affinity group, and viewpoint. Diversity and inclusion have never been merely slogans or add-ons at Reed.”

—Colin Diver, president emeritus, Reed College

Two weeks into classes in the fall of 2007, Anna Coleman [not her real name] found her way to my office.

Her multicolored hair was crashing into her face, and her hands moved anxiously from her lap to the desk and back as she sobbed over making “the biggest mistake” of her life. Reed was not for her. She felt acutely different, isolated, as if everyone was speaking another language—and everyone was wealthy! These were people unlike the people she loved and understood in her small, rural hometown in southern Oregon. She was here on significant financial aid; no one in her family had attended college, so she had no family member from whom to gain insight into how to integrate herself, much less thrive. She was not and would never be a Reedie, she declared, waving her arms and jamming a strand of hair behind her ear. She wanted to transfer out. But her financial aid package required that she remain at Reed for the rest of the semester. If she could just have one thing that made sense to her, something creative, until she could transfer to a different school, she’d be forever grateful. Please, please, would I admit her into my creative writing class? Please?!

So I admitted her—two weeks into the semester, something I almost never do—because I understood her despair. Differences between us abound. Most immediately, she is white and I am black. I am not the first in my family to graduate from college, or even the first in my family with a graduate degree. I was raised in urban environments, traveled extensively, and was a bilingual child. I am, for lack of a better phrase, the child of privilege. But during my academic career, I, too, have felt alienated, isolated, and as if I am “the only one,” which informs my deep respect for and appreciation of how valuable are the experiences, ideas, perceptions, and values of nondominant group members to any conversation, particularly the kind of conversations we engage in Reed’s venerable conference method.

In fact, Anna’s poetry continues to stand among the most powerful I have seen. Her ability and willingness to use the lenses of class, educational attainment, and geographic identity to create and investigate poetry deepened our conference discussions. She opened the door for all students to bring to the conference table their many lenses, experiences, and perceptions as valued and—importantly—openly identified components of the classroom endeavor.

I begin with a single student’s story for two reasons: (1) because like many students, staff, and faculty, Anna’s Reed experience was shaped by multiple conjoined identities that informed her sense of belonging, possibility, and her own capacity to thrive; and (2) I believe an individual’s success is inextricably linked to her or his community’s support. And at Reed, the Honor Principle overtly charges us with the care and welfare of our fellow community members. Indeed, as a professor, I have found time and again that our students have an exquisite penchant for looking after their peers that extends into the classroom, where I have watched them be generous beyond words with each other’s poetry, ways of thinking, modes of expression, and passions. Perhaps I have seen this development of community more acutely because of the nature of the courses I teach. But I don’t think so. The mother of a former student once told me that what she most admired about Reed is the profound “presence” or attentiveness everyone exhibited towards her child. This attentiveness is a rarity in higher education and something most Reed community members value. 

But that profound attentiveness is not just fashioned upon individuals. We also interrogate intensely, sometimes tenaciously, the very philosophies, rules, and traditions by which we coexist. The emphasis on creating a community as something with which each of us is charged is so strong that it should come as no surprise that the goals of inclusion and diversity have largely been driven by students, staff, and faculty.

In 2008, students drafted a preliminary version of the Reed College Diversity Statement because they believed that the college needed to articulate a formal position on the importance of diversity in relation to Reed’s institutional values. As with most endeavors of such import at Reed, the development of the statement was a robust community affair—at varying sta-ges it was edited and/or reviewed by the student senate, the student body (via the Quest and public forums), the community affairs committee, the committee on diversity, the faculty, and finally, the board of trustees—and was adopted in November 2009.  In part it reads:

“Reed College is a community dedicated to serious and open intellectual inquiry, one in which students, faculty, and staff can fully participate, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, socio-economic status, or disabilities. Reed embraces the inherent value of diversity. It is committed to attracting the best and brightest from every group, including those who have historically experienced discrimination and prejudice, for it recognizes that dialogue between people with different perspectives, values, and backgrounds enhances the possibilities for serious intellectual inquiry. The College is also committed to creating an environment that respects the dignity and civil rights of all persons, particularly those from groups that have experienced discrimination and persecution, for it recognizes that intolerance and prejudice diminish those possibilities.”

In 2011, Reed created an Office for Institutional Diversity with two central missions: to oversee the college’s commitment to being a diverse and inclusive environment for learning, teaching, and working; and to ensure that all aspects of college life reflect the fundamental principles of openness and equality espoused in the college’s founding documents, which over the years have been broadened to include people of many protected classes.

As dean for institutional diversity, I am asked to support, empower, inform, and challenge my colleagues to ensure that we recruit and retain intellectually talented members from a multiplicity of communities, and that once here, all members of the Reed community can thrive. In addition to providing strategic vision and leadership, we seek to develop guidelines, procedures, and recommendations to tac-kle aspects of the status quo which do not serve the college’s goal of becoming a more diverse and inclusive institution. Diversity includes not only people from historically underrepresented groups and/or protected classes, but also people from majority groups who add to and benefit from an inclusive campus climate. Diversity, in the modern sense, suggests that our identities are not static, nor are they singular. If you are a white female philosophy student from Port Harbor, an Asian faculty member from Chicago, a first-generation-to-college student, a Muslim, a Nepali theatre student, a person with an invisible disability or multiple disabilities, a gender-identity minority staff member, or a heterosexual, wealthy white male student from California, my office is charged with supporting your success and wellbeing at Reed. Simply put: we are responsible for helping create and perpetuate a healthy, inclusive, and vibrant campus climate—for every single Reed community member.

Like many elite liberal arts colleges, achieving racial/ethnic diversity continues to be one of our greatest challenges and therefore requires our consistent and careful attention. In this regard, we’ve been more successful in recruiting students than faculty and staff. While data show that all students who apply to Reed identify as intellectual and independent-minded, students from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups who meet our holistic and rigorous admission guidelines are also greatly sought out by other elite colleges and universities that offer many of them merit aid regardless of need—a practice Reed has historically rejected. This fact, coupled with our geographic region, small student body, liberal arts status, and reputation for being socially liberal, further complicates the undertaking, though ours is not a wholly insurmountable task. 

Indeed, the very challenge we experience because we are a small school may be what ultimately allows us to achieve success, which might be what one faculty member described as developing a critical mass of people such that a member of any group in the minority—people from underrepresented ethnic groups or women in certain fields, for example—is not the only person in the room with that identity. In support of that desire is social science research that suggests when critical mass is achieved, the members of the underrepresented group are more engaged, perform better, and are better able to voice their opinions as individuals as opposed to being cast as representatives of their group. Research finds that a critical mass of underrepresented populations stimulates and enhances critical thinking for all students. 

That said, we have been more successful at achieving certain kinds of diversity than others. For example, Reed admits a higher percentage of students from low-income backgrounds than many of our wealthier comparator schools. Approximately 50% of our students are on financial aid. And our average aid package exceeds $36,000 a year. Further, in any year, an average of 10% of our students are first in their family to attend a 4-year college. In this realm, we have made significant progress. 

Yet however successful we have been at recruiting students from low-income backgrounds, we’ve still a good deal of work to do to ensure that students feel entirely included and valued as equal members of the community once they arrive. This is something we failed to do early on with Anna, who stepped onto our campus and felt immediately—via the multitude of social cues she received—that not only was Reed not for her, but its campus culture was actively shunning her. Everyone, she surmised, looking at how readily people bought books, food, items for their dorm rooms, and essentials, must be wealthy. But given our admission data, there are many Annas. What we do to support them can make a tremendous difference to their academic success and the confidence with which they enter the world beyond Reed. So we are helping to develop programs to assist them, increasing faculty and staff awareness of the challenges that face working Reedies, and are working to develop additional financial support for high-need students who struggle with things as simple as printing fees or bus passes. The same is true for supporting sexual orientation and gender-identity minorities, students from underrepresented ethnic/racial groups, and students who are first in their family to attend college. Here, our collaborative work with individual faculty and staff is critically important. Equally important is the work we have undertaken to create programming to spark the adoption of more inclusive pedagogies, and to support faculty members from underrepresented groups who often move to Portland and find it intellectually and/or culturally isolating.

The way a person feels while at Reed—the exact “thing” my poetry student couldn’t name—is related to many factors, principal among them campus climate. In the spring we began developing a campus climate survey, which will seek to measure how students, staff, and faculty experience the social, academic, and working climate at Reed. Its results will provide us a baseline understanding of what we’re doing well and what can be improved upon. These data, along with other campus-wide assessments, will provide us with a great deal of evidence that will guide our work in diversity and inclusivity in the coming years.

In all, there is much work ahead. In many ways, Reed’s strong community ethos, that charge that fuels so many of us to work so intensively, is our greatest strength. I count myself very fortunate to be in a community where so many believe in and work towards ensuring that we have fewer and fewer Annas.  

Anna graduated from Reed speaking several languages and having spent time abroad; she is a young woman driven by her intellectual passions and moral compass. She is currently teaching low-income students in Teach for America and is applying to graduate school. Just before she left Portland, we met over coffee. During that going-away chat, she described her drive to be of service to others and give back to her community. It did not escape me that Anna’s definition of “her” community is based on her commonalities with people, not her differences, which tells me that we did something right in relation to how Anna thinks about community. Although we may not have anticipated all of the ways in which she needed our support, ultimately we supported, stretched, and challenged her enough that she is thriving today. 

But to my way of thinking, hers was too bumpy a start. I don’t want other Reed students, faculty, or staff members to feel that Reed isn’t the place for them or that their ability to participate in the academic endeavor is hampered by their social identity. As we increase the numbers of gender, class, ethnic, racial, religious, sexual orientation, gender-identity, and national minorities among us, we must make sure that we have fewer and fewer people who feel isolated, alienated, and as if they—with their beautiful, complicated, multifaceted identities—aren’t imperative to the excellence of this institution. They are.

Crystal Ann Williams is dean for institutional diversity and professor of creative writing at Reed.


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Tags: Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Campus Life, Institutional