New president John Kroger (coffee cup glued to hand) and Reed students Torrey Payne ’14, Amzar Faiz ’13, Eugenia Plascencia ’13, and Anna Schneider ’14 amble through the GCC Quad discussing Solzhenitsyn and The Smiths.
Photo by Leah Nash
John Kroger is not exactly your garden-variety academic.
As befits a president of Reed, he boasts a formidable intellectual pedigree—magna cum laude at Yale and Harvard. Scholarly articles on the history of the Supreme Court and the foundations of Roman law. He taught political science at Yale and legal philosophy at Lewis & Clark.
But his wardrobe contains more than tweed. He also served in the Marines, battled mobsters and narcotics traffickers as a federal prosecutor, argued two cases before the Supreme Court (won both), and served as attorney general of Oregon.
Kroger’s experience as an advocate may come in handy. He takes office at a time when the liberal arts are coming under fire. In the aftermath of the worst downturn since the Great Depression, many Americans view higher education as vocational training. Colleges around the country are cutting back classics, theatre, and foreign languages. Against this backdrop, the trustees want the new president’s top priority to be “articulat[ing] Reed’s message and mission.”
Kroger got the job not just because he has taught the liberal arts, but also because he has been shaped by the liberal arts. When he speaks about the transformative power of the humanities, he speaks from his own experience.
To understand that transformation, dial your time machine to 1983. Kroger was 16 years old, a teenage rebel in ragged t-shirts and cutoff jeans who patterned himself after Jeff Spicoli, the laidback surfer dude played by Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Kroger and a high-school buddy were cruising through the streets of Austin, Texas, in a beat-up Ford Mustang with a case of Bud and a jug of pre-mixed screwdrivers when they spotted another Mustang parked on a sidestreet with an authentic set of hubcaps. They hopped out, pried off three of the hubcaps with a crowbar, and were working on the fourth when the police showed up. It turned out the parked Mustang belonged to a state senator.
Unfortunately, the incident was part of a pattern. By his senior year in high school, he was drinking several times a week and got himself kicked out of AP math.
Kroger’s metamorphosis is vividly retold in his autobiography, Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves, an engaging account of his adventures as an assistant U.S. attorney, for which he won the Oregon Book Award in 2009.
After the hubcap caper, Kroger’s father gave him an ultimatum to clear out of the house within 48 hours of getting his high school diploma. A few months later, on his 17th birthday, with no job and no prospects, he did “what any red-blooded Texas boy would do” and enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Kroger’s three years as a Marine, serving in Recon, the corps’ elite intelligence and special operations unit, taught him the value of discipline, a sense of duty, and how to be a crack shot with an M-16, but it did not provide much of a moral compass. Hungry for a sense of purpose, he applied to Yale, won a scholarship, and became the only veteran in a freshman class of 1,300. There he received what he was later to describe as an “immense gift”—an education in philosophy.
One of Kroger’s first assignments at Yale was Plato’s Meno, a Socratic dialogue that explores the nature of arête (virtue), the paradox of learning, and the question of whether knowledge is innate. He fell in love with the discipline, plundering bits and pieces from various thinkers to apply to his own life:
From Aristotle, the importance of forming good habits, of keeping one’s life in balance, of friendship and the life of the mind; from Kant, the value of honesty, a virtue I lacked as a child; from Nietzsche, the importance of rigorous, independent critical thinking; from Aquinas, the value of analytic clarity.
Together with his roommate, future Reed professor Jan Mieszkowski [German 1997–], Kroger also founded a literary magazine, Lovetrain, inspired by the O’Jays soul classic. “We sold it for a buck a copy and gave the money to a homeless shelter,” he says.
Most of all, Kroger was influenced by the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who argued that actions should be judged by their utility—that is, the greatest good for the greatest number.
By the time he graduated from Yale in 1990 with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in philosophy, he was a firm believer in utilitarianism. He quit drinking and traced a rapid trajectory, first as an aide to Representative Chuck Schumer of New York, and then as deputy policy director for presidential candidate Bill Clinton, whom he advised on domestic policy. “My time working with Clinton was priceless because I got to learn about American politics at the side of a master,” he later wrote. “Watching him work a crowd, I saw firsthand the source of his power, a matchless ability to forge an instant emotional bond with each person in a cheering crowd.”
Nonetheless, after Clinton’s victory, Kroger soured on Washington politics. “The higher my position, it seemed, the less it had to do with helping real people, the more with manipulating voters and the press,” he wrote. “I found myself hungering to do something more practical, to find a job with positive real-world results.”
Kroger went to Harvard Law School and graduated in 1996. Two years later, he was standing in a Brooklyn courtroom face to face with one of the most notorious mobsters in New York City.
Gregory Scarpa Jr. owned the streets of Brooklyn. His father, Gregory Scarpa Sr., was a capo in the Columbo crime family and died while serving life in prison for several murders. Greg Jr. grew up in “the life” and followed in his father’s footsteps. The infamous Scarpa Crew ran numbers rackets, executed bank heists, and trafficked in marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, pulling off a string of brutal murders along the way. One of the victims, a car thief known as Sal “The Hammerhead” Cardaci, was buried in the basement of Mike’s Candy, a convenience store. Scarpa drove a fancy Mercedes, lived in a mansion, and owned the nightclub On The Rocks.
By the time Kroger, then a junior prosecutor, was assigned to the case in 1998, a tangle of government agencies, including the NYPD, the DEA, and the FBI, had been tracking Scarpa for a dozen years. The investigation had produced masses of evidence—wiretaps, tax records, transcripts, and even some human bones—stored in a vault known as the “war room.” When Kroger and his coprosecutor, Sung-Hee Suh, first visited the vault, they could barely budge the door because so many file boxes were stacked against it.
I forced the door open with my shoulder, causing a minor avalanche of boxes inside, and quickly learned that we had inherited a total mess. File cabinets and boxes had been packed so deeply against the walls that I could not even locate a light switch. They rose in perilous piles all the way to the ceiling. The room smelled pervasively of old cardboard and ancient, calcified masking tape, the scent of despair. Sung-Hee and I looked at each other and our hearts sank. We quickly retreated to Starbucks for coffee.
Kroger’s account of the trial makes a gripping courtroom drama. But it also provides deep insights into the history of the mafia; how it was in a sense midwived by Prohibition; how it thrived because of the unwillingness of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to acknowledge its existence; and why the government was unable to score major victories against it for so long.
Woven into Kroger’s analysis is an even more surprising thread. At the start of his legal career, he believed prosecuting criminals like Scarpa was an unquestionable social good. But as every philosophy student knows, there are two ways to express Bentham’s classic moral principle. The optimistic version is the greatest good for the greatest number. The other version is less attractive, but more powerful: The ends justify the means.
As the courtroom victories piled up, he began to see the “darker side” of his work.
Most mafia investigations rely on informants whose cooperation is secured through plea bargaining. Typically, investigators nab underlings, flip them, and use their testimony to build a case against a bigger crook. An inevitable byproduct is that witnesses who are guilty of serious crimes sometimes get away with light or even nonexistent sentences.
Most people—certainly most utilitarians—are willing to accept this if it is the price of putting a mafia boss behind bars. But real life gets more complicated. For many years during his reign as a mafia capo, Scarpa Sr. was actually an FBI informant. On several occasions, his FBI handler intervened with other government agencies to protect him.
Scarpa Jr. raised this defense at his trial, arguing that he and his father worked for the FBI and that their actions had the tacit approval of the agency. Rather than admit the connection, Kroger made no comment, hoping that the jury would conclude it was simply too far-fetched to be true. In this case, the utilitarian in Kroger was willing to ignore an indisputable fact (that Scarpa’s father was an informer) in order to secure a conviction.
A minor sin, perhaps. But others followed. Kroger became an expert at flipping suspects, sometimes cajoling them into co-operation even when by doing so they put their own lives at risk. In 2000, for example, he persuaded small time crook Manuel to wear a wire to obtain evidence against a gang of violent drug dealers in Bushwick. Thanks to Manuel’s bravery, the police were able to arrest several drug traffickers. But the arrests barely dented the flow of narcotics onto the streets. Was it worth risking a man’s life to nab a few mid-level dealers?
Over time, Kroger began to reconsider his Benthamite outlook.
Gradually I saw what Kant had been driving at. Kant’s demand that we treat people with reverence and that we view them as ends in themselves, not as tools to be used to achieve some preferred social outcome, seemed much more relevant than I thought. Kant’s goal was not just to avoid turning persons into victims. He also wanted to protect persons like me. For when an interrogator deceives and manipulates, it does moral damage not just to his target but to himself.
That summer, Kroger took a few weeks’ vacation, bought a Trek hybrid bicycle for $350, and pedaled solo from Brooklyn to Niagara Falls to Glacier National Park and finally arrived in Oregon, where he saw for the first time the towering Douglas firs. His companions were Hemingway, Trollope, and Slocum. During the trip, his misgivings about his work hardened into resolve. Concluding that “sometimes it is impossible to be both a great prosecutor and a good human being,” he trained his sights on another kind of public service: teaching.
Kroger taught throughout his career: at Harvard Law School, he served as a teaching assistant to undergrads in philosophy. As a prosecutor, he led a political science seminar at Yale, taking the Metroliner to New Haven and often not getting home to Brooklyn until two a.m. “Teaching is probably my favorite thing in life besides reading,” he says.
In 2002, Kroger got a job as an associate professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, specializing in criminal law and jurisprudence. (After his first semester, he took a leave of absence to prosecute top Enron executives.) He proved a popular professor at Lewis & Clark, earning the Levenson Award for Excellence in 2004, 2007, and 2008. “He was my favorite professor there,” says Andy McLain ’92. “He loved philosophical inquiry. It was a real delight to be in class with him talking about big ideas.”
In 2008, in keeping with his belief that “politics is a form of civic education,” Kroger ran for Oregon Attorney General on a platform of upholding civil rights, protecting consumers, and cracking down on pollution, mortgage fraud, and white-collar crime. He prevailed in a hard-fought Democratic primary and won the Republican primary as a write-in candidate.
Once in office, he helped create (and later chaired) the state’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, which brings a multidisciplinary approach to the alphabet soup of government agencies whose clients are affected by addiction (be they homeless children, teenage mothers, or hardened felons). As a recovering alcoholic, Kroger has put special emphasis on treatment and prevention. “John has really delved into this,” says the commission’s director, Mary Ellen Glynn. “He is truly dedicated to this issue.”
Meanwhile, the AG’s office took action against multinational corporations like Philip Morris, Pfizer, and Bank of America; tripled the number of women in senior management positions; prosecuted environmental crimes; blocked liquid natural gas projects that threatened the state’s waterways; and cut its budget by $9 million.
Without question, Kroger ruffled some feathers in Salem. Some business interests believed he was too zealous about enforcing environmental regulations. Some agencies resisted what they saw as incursions into their turf. “I’m okay with that,” he says. “I joined government because I wanted to do things. Change is really hard. There are a lot of vested interests who want to fight change. The biggest fights I had were over civil rights and the environment. If that’s not worth fighting about, I don’t know what is.”
Even in the heat of political battle, Kroger continued to teach night classes at Lewis & Clark. “If you’ve got a job where you’re caught up in a lot of conflict, there’s nothing more restorative than stepping into a classroom and attempting to get at the truth rather than engaging in power struggles,” he says.
Kroger first heard about Reed in 1997, when Mieszkowski sent back glowing reports of undergrads who cared more about their subjects than their grades and who actually did the reading. “My image of Reed was a place of immense intellectual purpose,” he says.
Since then, his impression has only deepened. “Over the course of my life, I have worked for and been associated with many outstanding organizations and institutions,” he wrote in a campus email on his first day in Eliot Hall. “But I have never been more happy and more proud than today, joining you at Reed. For over 100 years, Reed has pursued an independent and courageous course, carving out a unique place in American higher education as our nation’s most intellectual college. Reed possesses an unparalleled commitment to the life of the mind. For that reason, today feels like coming home.”
Indeed, if you watch Kroger talking with professors on the Commons breezeway or hanging out with students in the Paradox Café, a cup of coffee seemingly welded to his hand, you can almost sense a philosophical kinship. “John had many attributes the [search] committee admired, but one of the things that really clinched it for us was that he went to Yale on scholarship,” says Professor Gerry Ondrizek [art 1994–]. “He reminded us so much of the brilliant students we get at Reed. His education transformed his life. It made him such a believer in the type of education Reed provides.”
A prosecutor who quotes Aristotle. A politician who takes on Big Tobacco. A president proud of Reed’s independent streak. Welcome home, John Kroger—sounds like you’re one of us.
In the age of social media, rumors flourish with a profusion that would have made Pepys blush. The hiring of a new president has sparked some fascinating conspiracy theories. Here we list some examples and assess their plausibility.—Ed.
Theory #1. Kroger was hired by his former Yale roommate, German professor Jan Mieszkowski, in a bid to annex the Russian department.
What we know: Professor Mieszkowski [German 1997–] was indeed Kroger’s roommate at Yale and did indeed serve on the search committee. However, after Kroger was nominated, Mieszkowski recused himself from all deliberation and votes involving Kroger, says committee chair Anna Levin [trustee 2005–]. Rumors that the German department is eying the Russian department’s meeting room have proven difficult to verify.
Plausibility: 2 owls out of 10.
Theory #2. Kroger faked a health condition to get out of having to campaign for re-election. Theory #2a. Kroger is deathly ill and liable to keel over at any moment.
What we know: In October 2011, Kroger announced that he would not seek reelection as attorney general due to an unspecified health condition. The statement was intended to protect his privacy, but had the opposite effect. Some reporters speculated that Kroger, a recovering alcoholic, had fallen off the wagon. Others suggested that the illness was manufactured to duck a tough reelection campaign. Neither claim holds up. Kroger has not taken a drink since 1991. Moreover, the condition was anything but imaginary. He underwent extensive treatment, including surgery, and is now back on his feet. Most political observers think he would have easily won reelection. Anyone who has seen him bounding up the stairs of Eliot Hall would find it hard to entertain doubts about his vitality.
Plausibility. 1 owl out of 10.
Theory #3. Kroger is the reincarnation of Genghis Khan.
What we know: Marines and Mongols both favor swords. No one has ever seen Kroger and Khan in the same room together. Trustees have a longstanding obsession with landlocked steppes.
Plausibility. 10 owls out of 10.
Born in Ohio 1966. Grew up in Houston, Texas. Signed up with the Marines on his 17th birthday. Served with elite Recon unit.
Graduated magna cum laude from Yale in 1990 with both a BA and an MA. Thesis title: “Being as Primordial Temporality in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit.” Harry S Truman Scholar, National Endowment for the Humanities Younger Scholar.
Served as senior policy advisor to Clinton–Gore presidential campaign.
Graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1996. Mark DeWolfe Howe Fellow in Anglo-American Legal History. Kaufman Public Interest Law Fellow.
Won first major case as an assistant United States attorney in 1998 against prison guards who had been bribed by the Mafia. Case is nicknamed “Badfellas.”
Cycled across the country from New York City to Portland in 2000.
Joined faculty at Lewis & Clark Law School in 2002. Won Levenson Award for teaching excellence three times.
Called to work as a special prosecutor on the Enron case in 2002.
Elected Oregon’s attorney general in 2008 with 73% of the vote.
Married to Michele Toppe, dean of student life at Portland State University. Their son Isaiah (technically Kroger’s stepson) is 13 years old.
Named a Rodel Fellow of the Aspen Institute in 2010.
Has run the Hood-to-Coast relay seven times.
Author of Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008); Enron and Multi-Jurisdictional Fraud (Cardozo Law Review, 2007); Enron, Fraud and Securities Reform: An Enron Prosecutor’s Perspective (University Of Colorado Law Review, 2005); The Philosophical Foundations of Roman Law: Aristotle, The Stoics, and Roman Theories of Natural Law (Wisconsin Law Review, 2004); Supreme Court Equity, 1789–1835, and the History of American Judging. (Houston Law Review, 1998); The Confrontation Waiver Rule (Boston University Law Review, 1996). The Politics of Crime (coauthored) (Harvard Journal On Legislation, 1996).
Miles Bryan ’13 contributed reporting to this article.