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Defender of the Citadel

Prof. Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94]

February 7, 2022, in Portland, following a period of illness.

Contributed by Chris Lydgate ’90

Prof. Marvin Levich was an iconic philosopher who left an indelible mark on Reed’s curriculum and culture. His perspective on intellectual rigor, academic freedom, and the nature of education itself—a perspective forged in the crucible of the McCarthy era—exerted profound influence on Reed in the decades that followed. During tumultuous debates on the faculty floor, he was the champion of the Old Guard, a cadre of senior professors who saw their mission as defending an educational tradition stretching back to Socrates against the Young Turks who wanted to make Reed more relevant—an idea they scorned.

Legendary for his relentless logic, fearsome syntax, and piercing blue gaze, Levich was a devastating adversary; he once demolished the conservative pundit William F. Buckley in a 1964 debate on civil liberties. But it was always Reed that stirred his deepest convictions: an insistence on academic rigor; a belief that the faculty should run the college; a refusal to “coddle” students in any way. Most of all, he was convinced that Reed could not be all things to all people. Its mission was to ground students in the fundamental disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences; everything else was a distraction. In one form or another, these ideas became mixed into the intellectual mortar of Reed, both to its benefit and to its cost.

Levich was born in 1925 and grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, in an impoverished family of Russian-Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. His first language was Yiddish. During World War II, he spent three years as a mortarman in the 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and saw action in the Battle of Anzio, contracting a severe case of malaria when the German defenders released swarms of mosquitoes onto the Allied beachhead.

After the war, he went to Morningside College in Sioux City on the G.I. Bill, where he met his wife, Laurie, and graduated in just two and a half years with four degrees—in psychology, history, sociology, and philosophy. To support his family, he got a job in a meat-packing plant, then won a scholarship to study philosophy at Columbia University. “It was in graduate school that I learned how to find a point, to defend a point, to work your way into an argument,” he later said.

Levich came to Reed in 1953, at the height of the anti-Communist “Red Scare” hysteria, and found himself in the middle of an epic struggle. Prof. Stanley Moore [philosophy 1948–54], a tenured philosophy professor, had been accused of being a Communist. Under immense public pressure, Reed’s board of trustees demanded that Moore tell them his political views. When he refused, the board fired him, over horrified objections of the faculty and students.

Levich was chagrined to discover that he had been selected to be Moore’s replacement and at first decided to refuse the appointment. But Moore called him and urged him to stay at Reed and fight for the principle of academic freedom.

The Moore affair devastated Reed. It convinced the faculty that neither the trustees nor the president nor the city of Portland could be trusted with the future of the institution. They engineered a vote of no confidence in the president, Duncan Ballantine [1952–54]. They asserted their control over campus life, forming committees to oversee functions such as admissions, fundraising, and student discipline. They doubled down on their commitment to academic rigor. And they vowed that Reed would henceforth adhere to a policy of strict political neutrality.

No professor was more passionate in these convictions than Levich, who championed the idea that the faculty were the true guardians of the college. Administrators—particularly presidents—were to be viewed with suspicion.

In the classroom, Levich earned a reputation for high standards. “I had more than a few outstanding teachers at Reed,” wrote Tom Shapiro ’63. “None is more memorable or had a more lasting influence on my ability to think logically, analyze an argument, and reason to a justifiable conclusion than Mr. Levich. After 50 years, the Humanities 11 course . . . and Mr. Levich remained in my memory the definition of my freshman year at Reed.”

In 1969, Levich won an award from the Danforth Foundation as one of the 10 best teacher-scholars in the nation. “It’s amazing how, if you expect the best from the students, how many of them will, in one way or another, fulfill your expectation,” he said.

In his essays and lectures, he focused on logical positivism, aesthetics, the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of computer science; generations of students were inspired by his insistence on treating them as intellectual peers. Levich identified strongly with Reed and believed that the true role of a professor was not only to teach but to protect the institution.

“The things that went on at Reed were part and parcel of what I thought about as a person,” he said later. “They were the things that mattered most to me in my life.”

By the late 1960s, however, higher education in the United States was in crisis. Campuses around the nation were imploding over Vietnam, racism, police brutality, and the power of the military-industrial complex. California governor Ronald Reagan called out the national guard to put down unrest at UC Berkeley. LSD guru Timothy Leary was exhorting students to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Students demanded classes that were relevant to contemporary issues such as civil rights,Vietnam, and the environment. “There really was a question about whether colleges in any recognizable form could continue,” Levich said.

The situation at Reed was particularly dire. The college was running a deficit of $400,000 a year. Attrition stood at 50%. The Old Guard saw this as a badge of honor—it meant the college had held fast to its standards. The Young Turks saw it as evidence that the college was failing its students. The Young Turks called for Reed to make its curriculum more relevant, both by breathing new life into Hum 110, encumbered (as they saw it) by musty medieval tomes, and by creating a Black studies program. Levich believed both ideas were misguided. The purpose of education, he argued in a 1969 paper titled “The Ideology of Relevance,” was not to chase fads but to produce people who could think.

“If [education] is successful, the students who pursue it learn what is true and what is not, and how to find it out, and learn further that there are different ways of finding it out according to subject-matter, and different degrees of certainty which, depending on the subject-matter, they can attach to their findings. If we think that society is the better for having in it people who have learned these things, then education is relevant to society.”

He had no objection to Black studies or Buddhist philosophy. The problem, he argued, was that Reed did not have the resources or the expertise to offer coherent programs in these areas. For once, his arguments did not prevail. In 1969, the faculty voted in favor of the Black studies program by a slender margin, 57–55. But the college never provided the program with the institutional support—or funding—that it needed; it was disbanded in 1975.

Moreover, the advent of President Paul Bragdon [1977–88] heralded a new era at Reed. Bragdon was able to stabilize Reed’s finances and hire professional administrators to take care of areas such as admissions, fundraising, and student life. For several years, Levich served as provost under Bragdon but resented what he saw as the shrinking of the faculty’s role and eventually returned to full-time teaching; his wife Laurie worked as a graphic designer in public affairs.

Levich retired in 1998 but continued to pursue ideas in the philosophy of history and the philosophy of computer science. He was associated with Reed’s Center for Advanced Computation. (For many years the center featured a sign reading “Parking for Prof. Levich only. All others will be towed.”) He published A Network Orange: Logic and Responsibility in the Computer Age, together with Prof. Richard Crandall, in 1998, and Defending the Citadel in 2012. Laurie developed dementia in the late 2010s; Marvin took care of her at home. After she died in 2018, he lived alone in their house on Southeast 41st Avenue, where he became a familiar figure in the neighborhood, walking to and fro with his distinctive slouch. He is survived by his children, Jacob Levich and Jenny Westberg. His daughter, Naomi, also preceded him in death. 

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2022

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