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President Diver Reflects on His Decade at Reed

How is President Colin Diver feeling now that his final semester at Reed is coming to an end? “Mixed emotions,” he says. It “almost depends on which hour or which minute you ask the question.”  On one hand, he is sometimes “very nostalgic and sad . . . I’m going to miss the people here, and the spirit of Reed.”  On the other hand, he says, “I’m not having second thoughts.”

Over his time in office, according to Diver, many things have improved: Reedies are “taking care of themselves better,” academics are “richer and deeper,” and fundraising is much stronger. Despite these changes, however, Diver argues that “the biggest thing about Reed hasn’t changed . . . that almost fierce, obsessive commitment to the life of the mind and to scholarly inquiry.”  As he sees it, “that’s what has made Reed great.”

Rising graduation rates certainly suggest that things have gotten better for students: The last class to graduate before Diver’s arrival in 2002 had a four-year graduation rate of 49%, while freshmen entering Reed in 2002 had a rate of 60%. More recently, 70% of freshmen entering Reed in 2007 graduated within four years. “Of all the statistical measures of my era,” Diver says, he is “the proudest about” the increase in the graduation rate.

What this rising graduation rate means is that “we’re supporting the students better outside the classroom, so that they can excel in the classroom,” according to Diver. This support has come through greatly expanded student services, including a doubling in size of the health and counseling program. Faculty members have played an important role in “a system of . . . early warning” to alert Student Services to students with problems. One payoff that Diver has seen is a much stronger sense of on-campus community.

While students of color have doubled during his time in office, Diver believes that progress in student diversity is still needed, especially with more African-American students. Diversity among the faculty and staff has made less progress, Diver estimates, but he notes the recent hiring of Crystal Williams as the Dean of Institutional Diversity and the development of procedures to increase faculty diversity in future hiring.

Another area in which Diver says progress is needed is the goal of need-blind admission. The college’s endowment would need about $80 million more to provide enough financial aid to meet this goal. Four years ago, the college estimated that about 8% of the entering class would have been different under need-blind admission, and Diver believes that the rate is the same now. “I would strongly encourage my successor,” Diver says, to attempt to raise this $80 million through a future fundraising campaign.

Reaching the goal of need-blind admission may be “politically easy but financially difficult,” but there are also goals that are less expensive but “politically challenging, or operationally challenging,” in Diver’s view. One example is the conflict between Diver and members of the faculty over the issue of faculty pay equality. Some faculty, according to him, believe that pay equality should be preserved even if “it’s really, really hard to hire in certain disciplines.” Diver is in favor of relaxing pay equality to allow wages to reflect market forces, and argues that “our goal as an institution is to provide equality of instruction in every discipline.”

Diver criticized the local media for their coverage of Reed, calling them “more unfair than fair.” According to him, “if there’s a student death at . . . Portland State University, it doesn’t get covered by The Oregonian or by the Willamette Week. If there’s a student death at Reed, we immediately get a call from them saying, ‘Was it an overdose?’” The bias in the local media “a source of enormous frustration,” Diver says. He links this to Reed’s local “long-standing reputation as a hotbed of troublemakers and rebels.”

As for mistakes that he has made as President, Diver regrets not tackling the issue of drugs three or four years earlier. “I thought that maybe emphasizing the positive and calling upon people to respond to their better angels would solve the problem,” he says, but instead “it allowed a subculture of tolerance for . . . dangerous drug-doing on this campus to persist.”

Though this has long been an issue for Reed’s public image and reputation, Diver believes they have improved during his time in office. However, he thinks that they must “be watched carefully.” Reed is “heavily regulated” by the State of Oregon and the federal government, he notes, and it is “in and of the City of Portland.” The college’s reputation also matters greatly for attracting faculty and students, he emphasizes.

This is one of the main reasons for Diver’s stand on college policy on alcohol and other drugs (AOD), which has become an important point of conflict between students and the administration during Diver’s tenure. Diver expresses sympathy for students who were taken by surprise by the changes in AOD policy enforcement, but he also asserts that “I’m absolutely convinced that it’s the right thing to do” because of the danger of many of these drugs. In addition, he says, “I don’t have a choice. It’s not as though I am simply, out of puritanical zeal, deciding that I hate these drugs. It’s that there are state and federal laws that not only make it illegal for the students to do these things, but make it illegal for me as the president, and the board of trustees, to tolerate these things.”

Diver says that he understands the view that marijuana is “if anything, less harmful than alcohol” and that it may eventually “be sold, over the counter in grocery stores.” However, “in the meantime, the marijuana trade is linked to guns and gangs and cartels. And if students think there’s no relationship between the armed robberies that occurred on this campus and drug gangs, they’re kidding themselves,” he says. “There are drug gangs operating in southeastern Portland.”

Another regret Diver expresses is the college’s delayed response to the problem of sexual assault. He notes that he saw the problem through the Judicial Board cases for which he assigned sanctions, and therefore thought “we’re doing a good job,” but “we all know that focusing on the visible part of the iceberg is a mistake.” Diver also regrets that the college has not tackled tobacco use among students. “That’s a real problem here. . . . There are students all over this campus who are slowly killing themselves.”

If he returns in 10 years, Diver “hope(s) to find Reed College is still regarded as the purest, best undergraduate liberal arts education in the country, that is a beacon for all of higher education. I think it is now, but I’m not sure it’s as universally recognized for that as it should be.”

3 Responses to “President Diver Reflects on His Decade at Reed”
  1. C says:

    Some faculty, according to him, believe that pay equality should be preserved even if “it’s really, really hard to hire in certain disciplines.

    Some faculty, or all of the faculty except the Econ department?

  2. A junior says:

    Assuming that this remark is correct in the first place (which, having spoken with at least one humanities professor who acknowledges the argument for differential pay, I find doubtful), I wonder if these faculty members would believe the same thing if it weren’t so difficult for someone with a Ph.D. in the humanities or social sciences to find a tenure-track job at an intellectually vibrant college in the first place—which is to say, if higher salaries, rewarding teaching experiences and research opportunities were more abundant. The faculty who oppose elements of differential pay can certainly kid themselves into thinking that their positions at Reed haven’t been determined, to some extent, by the wider academic job market, but that doesn’t mean that such is the case. Although I’m sure that many of them believe strongly in the egalitarian values on which having a system of equal pay stands, it’s easy for them to hold such ideals since their jobs exist in a context of extremely limited choice. They defend these beliefs secure in the tenure that graduates with Ph.D.s in English Literature or Political Science fail to achieve year after year.

    Reed professors are undoubtedly wonderfully devoted teachers and vibrant scholars. The critics of differential pay among them are, by extension, ill-at-ease over the fact that potential professors of economics respond to opportunities in terms of the social and economic circumstances that they face, which are exceedingly more favorable than those faced by candidates in many other disciplines. All the while they themselves occupy positions to which they were attracted within a completely different context of choice.

    What I find completely problematic about their argumentative framework relates to their claim that equality of pay is necessary for the equal treatment of academic disciplines. I’d like to know what their rubric is for judging this “equal treatment”? Would the college be treating a particular department (students and faculty) equally if a tenure-track post were given to anyone other than the candidate who is most intellectually and pedagogically qualified and most fitting in terms of other collegiate goals (such as faculty diversity)? How would one balance the former with the latter if we decide that equality of pay is an inalienable collegiate goal? Would the college be treating a particular department equally if its policies encouraged a certain level of faculty turnover and instability that doesn’t affect other department ?

    Given the “overabundance” of tenure-seeking Ph.D.-holders in the humanities and social sciences from the perspective of the labor market, it is not difficult for universities to attract highly qualified candidates in these disciplines to occupy the very few available posts that exist in attractive cities like Portland. I believe that the Political Science department, for instance, has rejected hundreds of candidates over the past few years. Does the Economics department have such a luxury? Are the best candidates turning out for these positions? If they aren’t, is that fair to the college as an intellectual community? These sorts of decisions that are all the more important in the context of something as hard-and-fast as tenure.

    If the issue isn’t being discussed on the basis of appreciable and agreed-upon understanding of concepts like “equal treatment” (maybe it is?), what is it based upon? Is there a group of faculty members who see that they won’t benefit from a change to college policy while other professors will, leading the former to decide that what they had foregoing the change is no longer good enough? If such is that case, wouldn’t that just suggest that they, like candidates for professorships in economics, respond to the economic contexts in which they find themselves?

    Those are just some thoughts that I would like to respectfully submit. I don’t think that the question driving this debate has been problematized sufficiently in public discussions.

  3. Anne Insider says:

    The run-in with the faculty was more about Diver’s imperious and autocratic style, trying to force his decision down the faculty’s collective throat, than about the underlying issue.

    That said, John Kroger? Really?

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