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Feature Story
reed magazine logoWinter 2009

Defending the Citadel by Laura Ross

In the late 1960s, Reed was embroiled in an intense debate over the core curriculum. The struggle polarized the campus, split the faculty, and shaped the college’s identity for decades to come.

In late November 1969, assistant professor of English Jon Roush headed to Eliot Hall for a meeting of the Faculty Advisory Committee—the key committee that made all faculty personnel decisions. At that particular meeting, the ten elected members of the FAC would vote whether to grant tenure to his friend Kirk Thompson, assistant professor of political science.


President Victor Rosenblum (1968–70) was unable to heal the deepening rifts over the curriculum.

Several of Roush’s friends had been denied tenure or a contract renewal in recent weeks, and in every case, the vote was 9–1. Roush understood that some of them did not get tenure because they were not suitable for Reed. “But some of these people were tremendously qualified,” he says. “It was highly political. I just got home and felt like throwing up, meeting after meeting.”

Roush felt that Thompson was the most promising of them all. A slender young man with thick black hair and a black beard, Thompson held a doctorate in political science from UC Berkeley. Roush was convinced that Thompson’s grounding in classical political philosophy, combined with his strong teaching ability, was a good match for Reed, and he was determined to make sure Thompson got a fair hearing.

But more was at stake in the fall of 1969 than academic politics. Reed was in crisis. The attrition rate was an astonishing 50 percent. The student health center was flooded with complaints of “Reed Syndrome,” a combination of depression and fatigue. Many students felt stifled by the college’s classical curriculum. The college was running a budget deficit of $400,000. The new president, Victor Rosenblum, was popular, but was also seen as averse to confrontation and unable to halt the maelstrom. A small cadre of senior professors had guided the college through previous crises, but some people on campus believed those professors were woefully out of touch with the times.

The Reed faculty was increasingly split between two rival camps: the Young Turks and the Old Guard. Both felt that the college had reached a critical point. The progressives believed Reed must make painful, even radical changes in order to survive. The traditionalists believed those changes would destroy the very things that made Reed worth saving.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009