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reed magazine logoDecember 2010

Reed University

The Short Unhappy Life of the Great Experiment that Never Was

by Jim Kahan ’64

A good college resists the temptation to dissipate its energies by rambling and unwarranted ventures into university domains. —William Trufant Foster, 1911

It was a typical September afternoon in 1961, during a typical convocation address, that President Richard Sullivan [1956-67] fired the opening salvo in what was destined to become a furious struggle for the future of Reed.

Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the college’s founding, Sullivan proposed that Reed become a full-fledged university—a development, he argued, that was not as radical as might be perceived. “The first campus master plan included also provision for the graduate school,” he said. “The founders apparently envisaged the college of liberal arts and sciences as the initial step in the eventual development of a university.” 1

This dramatic proposal drew remarkably little attention. The Quest barely mentioned it, and there is no record of any faculty debate in the wake of Sullivan’s speech. Yet within two years, the issue of whether Reed should become a university—“Reed U”—would convulse the campus, polarize the faculty, and constitute a major institutional crisis.

Years later, the episode assumed almost mythic proportions. With Reed facing a financial crisis that threatened its very existence, the story goes, Sullivan hatched a grandiose scheme to drive up revenue through expansion. Students and faculty, fearing that Reed U would destroy everything they loved about the college, banded together to shut it down. Frustrated, Sullivan fled.

At least, that’s the myth. Like many myths, it contains some truth, but one of its central elements is completely backwards. The real story is both more complex and more intriguing.

Planting the Flag

President Sullivan arrived at Reed in 1956. Although his demeanor was not generally described as “visionary,” he made major contributions, such as affirming that the college would not be cowed by political pressure, establishing sabbatical leaves for faculty, doubling the size of the library, and striving to improve the quality of campus life.

However, Sullivan genuinely believed that Reed’s future lay in expansion. This belief was founded on two pillars. First, influenced by the strong opinions of Howard Vollum ’36 (trustee and prominent Portland innovator) and others, he believed that as the largest American city lacking a major university, Portland suffered in its ability to attract innovative commercial ventures.2, 3 Portland State College had not yet achieved university status and Oregon State College was only about to be promoted. Apart from the medical school on Pill Hill, there was no university between Eugene and Seattle.

The second pillar was his belief that “the independent liberal arts college may be close to its high water mark of significance and influence.”4 As he put it in his convocation address, “We all, I think, recognize that by joint and productive actions of school and college teachers we are now breaking down the traditional dividing line between secondary school and college.”

reed magazine logoDecember 2010