Reed U: No Pillow Fight

For Reed magazine to publish Mr. Kahan’s entirely un-researched and highly opinionated view on the “grad school” struggle can only be described as execrable journalism or slick propaganda. The editor failed to double-check sources or seek more authoritative information (written and oral) and is ultimately responsible for turning turmoil, hot and sweaty, into a pillow fight, or chili into pablum.

This is what Kahan’s article does. And it concerns a critical turning point in the college’s history. Given the outcome of that struggle, the years slipping into relative mediocrity under at least its recent and current history may justify the distortion. As a professional historian, however, now is now, then was then, and “now” never can be legitimated by a misleading description of “then.” “Now” was and is never the over-determined outcome of Reed’s fairly conflict ridden ’60s and ’70s. History also belongs [to] the “losers”—those of us who believed then, and believe now, that the college’s structure, personnel, budget, and planning must strive for Excellence (cf. Oxford English Dictionary).

In the particular case of the “grad school” struggle, the losers won and the story could be seen as a model for the college’s revitalization (a return to the “quest” for the very highest academic standards in the liberal arts, as propounded in the C[c?]onstitution, the honor code, and the stewardships of our best presidents) in the proximate future. Each “win” for that vision should be celebrated. Each loss should be a source of pain.

The Reed of Marvin Levich [philosophy, 1953–94], Howard Jolly [sociology, 1949–70], Gail Kelly [’55, anthropology, 1960–2000], Charley Rine [Rhyne? art history, 1960–97], and Lloyd Reynolds [English & art, 1929–69] stood its ground until, finally, mediocrity established its dominance. But history says—if it “says” anything—that change is the only constant and that future and struggle could bring back Excellence: a willingness by students, trustees, and some truly passionate teachers among the faculty to take stock of Reed’s current eclipse and to fight for a better, even the best, liberal arts college in America.

The “grad school” war was but the beginning of a conformist deviation of Reed’s development of its current status as a small college of moderate difficulty, attracting (and coddling) only the wealthiest elite of a distorted society.

But, it was a victory—however temporary—of those within our community who fought for quality and outstanding education against the constant pressure of materialism, group-think, disinterest in Big Ideas (and Ideals) that continues to characterize American “culture”: pop, middle brow, and college-university. The most obvious result is the fastidious, self-defeating censorship of the “F” word in describing the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, FoxNews, and Sarah Palin: Fascism: a mass movement organized by economic elites to prevent the possibility (even the theorizing) of basic social justice and human rights through the threat or exercise of violence, generally—but not always—supported by institutions of the State. Based on super-patriotism, militaristic values, mobilization (willy-nilly) of individuals into a paramilitary set of formations, eclipsing free association trade unions, democratic political practices, guarantees of due process, etc.

Reed, overwhelmingly white and wealthy, has become only one small cog in an educational machine, training future rulers, and imbuing them with a false sense of superiority over the less privileged. Had the college followed the narrower paths of Swarthmore, St. Johns, UC Santa Cruz, and Evergreen, this would not have been the net result.

The “grad school” struggle is instructive for any “agents of change” in the community, those with the willingness, and sometimes the means, to reverse these trends. Some of them, still directly associated with Reed, were active participants in this victory, now probably forgotten by the actors themselves due to the pressures of “real life,” however unreal it may be from the ethical and analytic standpoints we learned at Reed.

Such individuals would, should they dispel the fuzziness of memory and the compromises they have made, remember that. President Sullivan’s negotiations and maneuvers toward a grad school were secret. Only when he felt that it was almost a fait accompli did he publicly announce his intentions; that, student leaders—myself included—called the entire student body into extraordinary emergency session to enter community government, adopt its, as yet, imperfect constitution (despite my efforts—see Quest) to amend it in our favor, accepted ungracefully by President Sullivan;

  • that the student council and president, morphed into a delegation to the student/faculty commitment to joint deliberations as a “community senate”—50/50 by law—and with easily developed solidarity stood with the faculty majority against the grad school;
  • that THE issue was NOT becoming a research center locus, but the inevitability of graduate assistants replacing the faculty as conference leaders, severing the specificity of Reed’s student-faculty partnership in tutorials, conferences, and lectures;
  • that, given the sudden acceleration of U.S. commitment to South Vietnam under LBJ, research could be oriented to “defense contracts,” stringing out the college on Pentagon injections of money;
  • that the board itself, as a whole, was as much taken without warming by the Sullivan Attack as were the faculty and students, or an expansion of presidential power beyond the college’s tradition (almost a coup d’état) within the Reed community;
  • that the Quest and college archives—especially the community senate—amply document the ferocity of each side, precipitated by Sullivan’s provocation;
  • that despite massive faculty and student resistance to his initiative, Sullivan persisted in seeking (and amply rewarded) “collaborators” inside the faculty and the student leadership;
  • that, by Christmas, financing (often personal) was concentrated on an unprecedented letter sounding the alarm to all alumni and alumnae in a mass mailing requiring days and nights of effort by Mike Rothschild [’63], Jan Conway [Shapin ’65], and yours truly from New York;
  • that the potential “honor violation” or illegal acts of direct approaches by students to trustees to plead our case and provide full information on Sullivan’s maneuvers went on throughout Christmas vacation;
  • that “sweet reason,” however convincing, was backed up by declared and prepared levels of direct nonviolent mass action ranging from pickets lines to the occupation of the administrative offices to “flying columns” of nonviolent protestors to President Sullivan’s home, those of trustees, and the governor’s mansion.

All this, which led to his “surrender,” under his direct threat of various kinds of retribution against faculty and student leaders, many carried out without shaking us from our position: we were solidarity itself, even though the collaborators reaped significant rewards, including the Rhodes scholarship and support from Sullivan for professional and graduate studies at prestigious schools. Soon, thereafter, Sullivan was fired by the board after a unique demonstration of his irascible, racist nature.

These latter rewards remain the structural bond of corruption between the administration, a new, subservient faculty, and student leaders: bait for students and faculty of dishonorable character (under an honor system). Some were “outed” as CIA agents, all opponents of the student leadership at the time. Some pursued “distinguished” careers and board membership through private sector companies close to the Pentagon.

So it was and is.

Of course, I write as a participant/observer. But Reed magazine owes its reader due diligence in searching readily available records before publishing this amazingly misleading “history.” I am particularly motivated to write, since it shows that from mid-1962 to end 1965, the “good guys” could triumph on many issues; including some assumed as “their” due by today’s students:

  • 24-hour cohabitation in the dorms;
  • maintenance of primary responsibility for student discipline by students;
  • a system of governance offering students and faculty broad powers in determining the college’s future;
  • the right to free speech and expression with no in loco parentis vested in deans or the president;
  • the right to experiment lifestyles and rhythms, within the terms of the Honor Principle, at all levels and angles (vertical or horizontal);
  • the right to admissions and academic success in a multicultural, multiracial environment.

Not all survive in practice, but all exist as options, as a compass for the future.

Tom Forstenzer ’65

Vannes, France

Editor's Note: In the printed magazine, we published only the opening salvo of Tom’s letter; here readers can find the exhaustive, unexpurgated version. In response, I must note that Jim Kahan ’64, the author of the original article, spent many hours poring over documents and interviewing sources; calling his piece “entirely unresearched” is untrue and unfair. Furthermore, Jim made several attempts to interview Tom, even offering to meet him in Paris, but received no reply.