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reed magazine logoSpring 2009
William T. Foster

Reed’s first president, William T. Foster, was a brilliant upstart who sought to revolutionize higher education in America.

Foster’s impatience with tradition and his zeal for experiment were further marked by a pragmatist’s preoccupation with the present. Much as Socrates avoided books for fear that they short-circuited active, critical understanding, Foster maintained that classical curriculum made professors lazy and students passive in “meeting old situations in prescribed ways.” He employed what he called a “here and now” philosophy, establishing a free elective curriculum to better capture students’ intellectual enthusiasm. Foster was equally critical of the university’s emphasis on vocational and specialized studies, insisting that no field of knowledge can be understood except in relation to other fields. To insure that students “specialize in the humanities,” he imposed a number of curricular hurdles, including the senior thesis, senior orals exam, a comprehensive exam (formalized in 1921 as the Junior Qualifying Examination), a faculty advisory system, and an innovative standard for measuring quality work. To instill self-discipline and discourage students from working for grades instead of learning, after 1915 no grades were given out except on request after graduation. To stress democracy and inclusiveness, fraternities and sororities were banned, as were the sideshow amusements of intercollegiate sports. Professors were supposed to focus on teaching, not research. Scholarship was not an end in itself, but a means by which socially useful ends could be achieved. For Foster and Eliot, this was the essence of establishing a new relevance for the liberal arts college.

Accordingly, social service became a strong component of the college’s early self-image. Declaring Reed to be a “city-wide campus,” Foster and his hand-picked faculty—recruited primarily from the east coast—hit the streets of Portland with evangelist zeal. Instituting a series of free extension classes around Portland, by 1917 they were enrolling 55,000 citizens annually. They also served on art commissions, committees of the public library, health bureaus, city planning commissions, and good-government organizations that addressed vice, delinquency, and sexual hygiene. Supporting organized labor, they advocated for the eight-hour work day, minimum wage laws, and unemployment insurance. Meanwhile, Reed students probed the sores of the city, investigating the moral impact of movies and vaudeville shows on the young, filing their reports with the mayor. Unlike Eliot who had carefully woven himself into the social fabric of the city, Foster and his band of reformers descended upon provincial Portland like foreign crusaders, quickly developing a reputation in conservative quarters for their arrogant self-righteousness and radical social reforms.

Nationally, the college was an academic success. It quickly rocketed into the top tier of higher education as a promising new model for the liberal arts. But a financial reversal undermined its initial promise, as the endowment, mostly held in property and rents, plummeted to half its value during the Northwest recession of the mid-1910s. Foster’s outspoken opposition to America’s entry into World War I in 1917 further eroded financial support for the college. The local press branded Reed a hotbed of sedition and socialism. The war itself provided the final blow, dramatically reducing student enrollment and diminishing the faculty to a skeleton staff.

To attract students, Foster was forced to eliminate humanities courses and replace them with vocational subjects considered more useful to particular professions.

Confronting an intractable financial crisis, failing personal health, student discontent, and a lack of confidence among the trustees, Foster resigned from office in 1919, leaving the future of the college hanging by a thread.

reed magazine logoSpring 2009