John Kroger: Leading from Within
“Have you read Foucault?” asks John Kroger.
Reed College’s new President is explaining his reluctance to have an interview recorded on digital audio file. The idea reminds him of “Discipline and Punish,” the French philosopher’s treatment of the modern penal system. But then he gives himself a second guess: “Is that irrational?”
Kroger, who most recently served as Oregon’s attorney general and who is a former Lewis and Clark law professor, an ex-U.S. Marine, and a Harvard Law graduate, is eager to show that he is committed to the liberal arts and to Reed’s mission.
Kroger says he is enjoying settling in. “I love the fact that the library and not a football stadium is the center of community life,” he says. And what does he like least so far? “Nothing yet.”
Leading within the framework
As Reed’s President, Kroger will serve more as a facilitator to campus conversations than as a visionary, as the college negotiates a changing campus culture, a likely expansion of the curriculum, and potential threats to its core identity.
In a document released at the beginning of the presidential search process last year, the search committee, led by the Board of Trustees, made clear its vision for the college and its intention to hire a President who would uphold it. “They set the agenda, not him,” says Chris Lydgate. Lydgate, editor of Reed’s alumni magazine, who works in the public affairs office, qualified that he was expressing his own opinion, not that of the administration.
Kroger embraces the role as leader within the framework of the broader administration and the faculty. “My goal as President is less to come in with an agenda and make it happen than to facilitate a conversation about the future of Reed,” he says.
“I’m a real big believer in collective decision making,” Kroger says. “I don’t think my opinion is worth that much at this point.”
At Yale, where Kroger was called “The Krog” or “Kroger,” but never “John,” fellow students frequently predicted Kroger would eventually become President of the United States, says German professor Jan Mieszkowski, who has been friends with Kroger since they were undergraduates together at Yale University. (Mieszkowski was on the search committee that hired Kroger, but he recused himself from all considerations involving Kroger.)
At least one trustee did not support Kroger’s appointment, though. “I was surprised that an ambitious politician, whose health issues clouded his future, would be interested in the job, let alone considered seriously,” trustee Tim Boyle told The Willamette Week in June, referencing an illness Kroger cited as a reason for his leaving the Department of Justice. Kroger has not publicly discussed the illness. The Week also reported that trustee Brett Wilcox did not support Kroger’s appointment, according to unnamed sources.
“My goal this first year is to learn as much about Reed as I can,” Kroger says. To achieve this, Kroger is taking Hum 110, for which he will join a different conference every week. He looks forward most to the readings on Persia and Egypt, the newest material to him as well as to the Hum syllabus.
Mieszkowski says Kroger understands Reed’s liberal-arts mission in a “visceral” way. “The simplest thing I can tell you is that John is a lot like you guys,” says Mieszkowski.
Kroger has a lot to say about Reed’s mission. He attended a weeklong seminar for new college Presidents at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education this summer, and while he saw other colleges facing “crisis of confidence in their mission and their values,” he says, “Reed is in really good shape.”
“The things we admire are fierce intellectual independence, and creativity, and a critical attitude,” says Kroger.
What’s not integral to Reed’s identity? According to Kroger, one thing it has nothing to do with is how campus regulates alcohol and drug use. “It would be kind of sad for me if (that were) what’s special about Reed,” he says. He plans to continue the approach of his predecessor, Colin Diver.
The challenges to Reed’s identity, Kroger says, are mostly “bigger, societal, long-term issues,” rather than any “short-term” threats. The two main ones are the general role of liberal arts in society, and access for less privileged students to a Reed education.
This will play out most prominently in the likely capital campaign to be conducted in about five years, says Kroger. Choices for allocation of new funds will be made between improvements to Reed’s curriculum, the physical plant, and financial aid, among others.
In the case of curricular development, Kroger says possible additions to the curriculum include more traditional liberal-arts topics like ethnic studies and more focus on late antiquity and the medieval period, as well as more job-oriented subjects like geology and computer science. A task force will be working on a proposal for this in the coming year, says Kroger.
“I think this is one of the big questions we’re going to have to address as an institution in the next two to five years,” says Kroger. “I’m hoping next year that we will have a formal process to talk about what our priorities are.”
He also wants to continue what he says was Diver’s highly successful drive to improve the quality of student life on campus, an effort Diver told The Quest last semester was one of his proudest accomplishments. Kroger plans to continue to make investing in campus services a priority. “I think Reed ought to be fun,” he says.
The difficult questions of managing a liberal arts college aren’t the biggest Kroger has faced, though. As a prosecutor, and to a lesser extent as attorney general, Kroger recalls finding himself exercising a “brute force” over others “that can change you as a human being,” dealing with plea bargains and long sentences that change a person’s entire life. He wrote in his memoir, Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves that “sometimes it is impossible to be both a great prosecutor and a good human being.”
But the same “moral quandaries” do not apply to being a college president, he says. “The moral stakes of being a prosecutor are extraordinarily high,” he says. As a college president, “you’re not exercising power over people in the same way you do as a prosecutor.”
Kroger plans to stay on as president for “as long as it’s productive for me and Reed.” Unlike Diver, who declared at the beginning of his term that he would stay for about a decade (he stayed for 10 years), Kroger has not declared a duration he intends to stay, but he says his tenure will be “definitely long term.” College presidents usually stay at their job for around seven to eight years, says Kroger.
“I worry that if you stay at a job for more than 10 years you can grow a little stale,” he says.
Kroger is confident about the school’s prospects even as it faces some long-term challenges. Reed, he says, perhaps unlike some other schools, shouldn’t be concerned about any potential grand failure.
“I’m not worried about Reed,” he says. “It’s a question of whether we live up to our fullest potential or not.”