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reed magazine logoSpring 2009

Coleman’s appointment brought the warring factions of the faculty together in common purpose to preserve what they considered the essential values of the college. They did so by invoking their rights under an innovative but underutilized constitution Foster had put in place in 1916.

The constitution appointed the president as chief executive officer of the faculty, and then placed the faculty in charge of educational matters. It established a council of nine faculty members to confer with the president on all personnel and budget matters, giving them power to vet all policy recommendations made by the president to the trustees. The regents had challenged the validity of the Faculty Council upon Scholz’s arrival at Reed, only to be pushed back by political science professor Charles McKinley, who accused them of relegating what he regarded as the college’s Magna Carta to “kangaroo status.”

No longer overshadowed by the visionary personalities of Scholz and Foster, a cadre of senior professors, led by McKinley, closed ranks and began invoking their powers.

The heart of the battle was the curriculum. In contrast to the revolutionary fervor of the first two presidents, the faculty approached curricular design as a conservative means of institutionalizing Reed’s founding ideals. The faculty maintained Foster’s emphasis on teaching, selective admissions, rigor, and the honor principle. It modified or even abandoned some of Scholz’s ideas, notably the study of contemporary problems and citizenship, but upheld the interdisciplinary divisions and a freshman curriculum grounded in history and literature (formally integrated with a study of art as the Humanities Course in 1943). As a catalog from the era indicated, “the elective principle is preserved, but it is made to subserve the synthetic idea of an interrelated and integrated curriculum.”

Charles McKinley

Rebel with a Cause
Political scientist Charles McKinley led the faculty revolt that set Reed’s course for the next century.

Throughout the process McKinley clashed repeatedly with Coleman, their conflict growing so intense, according to Reed historian Dorothy Johansen ’33, that it became a central theme of the Coleman era. At almost every turn, McKinley proved the winner. In 1927 Coleman launched a frontal assault against McKinley and the faculty, proposing a dramatic revision of the curriculum to the regents. The practical aspect of his plan was to add pre-professional programs to encourage more applicants at higher tuitions. The ulterior scheme was to fulfill what Coleman believed to be the original intentions of Amanda Reed’s will, which he felt had been violated by Scholz’s curriculum. Trustee president Kerr quickly shot Coleman’s proposal down, issuing a firm legal declaration attesting to the full compatibility of the Scholz design with Amanda Reed’s will.

Ultimately, Coleman was relegated primarily to fundraising and public relations, at which he proved successful, managing the college’s first large endowment program, adding faculty, and building Hauser Library. In 1934, he stepped down to return to full-time teaching at Reed. His successor, a New Deal economist named Dexter Merriam Keezer, sought, with the support of the regents, to shake up what he viewed as a bookish, over-intellectualized campus removed from the social problems of the day.

By that point, however, the faculty was firmly in control, and it was able to thwart Keezer in virtually every encounter. The professors’ ability to defend what they viewed to be the values of Foster and Scholz and the curriculum that embodied those values, rested not only in their convictions, but also in the constitutional tools they had at their disposal.

The faculty succeeded in solidifying Reed’s early promise and propelling it to new heights. Between 1925 and World War II, the college would blossom into what became later known as Reed’s “golden age.” During that period faculty would assert intellectual freedom and academic rigor as the college’s core values. They would steer the college away from the progressive activism of Foster and the responsible citizenship of Scholz to an uncompromising life of the mind, showing little interest in the lives of the students, local issues in Portland, or public opinion. The shift would further strengthen Reed’s early reputation for tough, iconoclastic intellectualism.

True to the non-conformist intention of the college’s launch, faculty control at Reed would mark a revolutionary development in American higher education. Unlike the bold visions of Foster and Scholz, it was largely a reactionary measure, a compromise for self-preservation. Given the unusual circumstances in which it occurred, it was not to be easily replicated elsewhere. Its outcome—a core curriculum revolving around the humanities—would continue to influence other forward-thinking efforts in higher education. Meiklejohn would go on to launch the innovative Experimental College in 1927 with a unified curriculum patterned after Reed’s. Robert Hutchins’ groundbreaking efforts at the University of Chicago, also mirroring many of the innovations at Reed, would follow in the 1930s.

Today, with rising tuition spurring anxiety about the costs and benefits of a liberal arts education, and with the humanities losing ground to science and technology, urgent questions about the meaning, relevance, and methods of the liberal arts are again being raised, just as they were at the time of Reed’s launch one hundred years ago. As to the issue of whether a college’s curriculum should have an instrumental purpose other than intellectual training, Reed’s answer has not changed. Just last summer, the faculty reaffirmed the college’s mission, succinctly described by the dean of the faculty, Peter Steinberger, as “education for the sake of education—anything else is a happy byproduct.”

reed magazine logoSpring 2009