Happy Birthday, MALS!

Reed’s unique master’s program celebrates fifty years.

June 1, 2016

One of Portland’s hidden gems—Reed’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program—celebrates five decades this year.

In contrast to the national trend of offering master’s degrees in increasingly specialized fields, MALS was born as a sort of intellectual deepening—but for teachers.

Formally established on December 6, 1966, MALS was originally intended to complement Reed’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. While the MAT was designed to prepare college grads to teach high school, MALS was aimed at people who already had a teaching certificate and at least one year of teaching experience. The program was designed to a) increase mastery of subject matter in their teaching field and b) promote greater professional competence through the study of education and provide a broader background in the liberal arts and sciences. 

The MALS program was launched with the support of the National Science Foundation, the Danforth Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, and attracted a strong cohort of students. From 1968 to 1972 there were 91 MALS grads.

In the early ’70s, however, the Ford and Danforth Foundations pulled out of the program, for reasons that remain unclear. Without this financial support, Reed stopped actively recruiting students and relegated the program to the back burner. Enrollment dwindled: from 1973 to 1982 there were only 32 MALS grads. Interestingly, however, the program was beginning to draw students from outside the teaching profession. 

 A faculty committee, chaired by Prof. Gail Kelly ’55 [anthropology 1960–2000], was asked to review the program, and, on February 14, 1980, submitted a memorandum to President Paul Bragdon that stated, “The MALS program was and it remains, in principle, a legitimate and desirable undertaking of the College.” The committee was cognizant that the most recent participants of the MALS program had not necessarily been teachers, as was the case earlier, and that “whatever the future of the program, it should be mindful of the new demands and interests that will be represented by a more diverse constituency.” The committee concluded with the observation that

There appears to be a need for a post-baccalaureate program in the Portland area, one which does not have a specific vocational or professional orientation, which is flexible and which provides students with an opportunity to develop new goals, prepare for new courses in the most general way, and to enlarge their intellectual horizons in the same way that the liberal arts education serves to educate undergraduates.

To carry out these goals, the college formed a new committee on graduate studies, chaired by Prof. John Leadley [math 1956–93], in 1982. Toinette Menashe [MALS ’72] was appointed director of the program—a position in which she served until her retirement in January 1995, at which time Barbara Amen took over the directorship.

Last year, the college engaged outside reviewers to assess the program. The reviewers praised MALS as “a robust and important” program in a city with very few similar offerings.

“Many of the outstanding processes and practices that are in place at Reed College have been adapted to the graduate program to excellent effect,” the reviewers continued, citing Reed’s conference style, student advising, intensive degree paper, and the rigorous oral examination. “Overall, such thoughtful engagement with students’ educations is the Reed tradition, an attitude and an accomplishment in which faculty excel, and that distinguishes the undergraduate and this graduate program.”

The MALS program today models the essence of a liberal arts education with its interdisciplinary approach and focus on the development of critical thinking, writing, and speaking skills. As such, the program expands Reed’s academic mission to an adult population of lifelong learners.

All MALS courses are accessible to the generalist and have no prerequisites. The most fundamental and abiding characteristic of students in the program is the desire to learn for its own sake. While the MALS degree does not lead explicitly to professional development, certification, or a specific career direction, it can prepare students for a range of career options and further study. At base, the program has the potential to alter students’ lives significantly as they develop confidence in their intellectual strengths, hone their analytic and communication skills, and develop their powers of reflection and judgment in a supportive atmosphere of critical response and exchange.


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Wendy Herrin MALS ’15
High School English Teacher


“Reed is the perfect place to widen your world view and soak up knowledge. The professors are incredibly knowledgeable and I have benefitted greatly from class discussions with other MALS students, who come from diverse backgrounds and specialties. Reed transports me out of my day-to-day stressful commitments and the  intellectual stimulation is exhilarating.”


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Neil Ramiller MALS ’17
Professor of Management, PSU School of business


“For perhaps obvious reasons, rather narrow, instrumental thinking tends to dominate pretty much everything in my professional
world. However, I believe this also characterizes our modern culture more broadly. And that’s a serious problem. In Reed College’s
MALS program I have had the opportunity to re-envision scholarship as a practice that engages in a broad range of values and a refreshing diversity of questions. Thanks to conversations
in conference classes with truly insightful classmates and incredibly gifted teachers, I’m enjoying what is nothing short of a personal intellectual renaissance.” 

Tags: Academics, Campus Life