Kroger, Reedies Discuss Paideia Censorship at Community Forum
Students, faculty, and alumni filled the SU at 4 PM on Friday to discuss the controversy surrounding President John Kroger’s recent cancellation of two Paideia classes and censoring of a third over content relating to drugs and alcohol. Over a hundred Reed community members gather to hear Kroger speak, ask him questions, and express their opinions of Kroger’s decision in the hopes of preventing similar controversies in the future.
“I made what I thought was the best decision I could make.”
Student Body President Ari Galper ’14 opened the forum by reading a letter from Senate addressed to Kroger. Galper then gave the floor to Kroger, who asked the audience to put themselves in his shoes. Kroger cited both personal and legal concern for students’ health and safety as his reasons for canceling the classes. In the seven months Kroger has been President of Reed, he has seen several students “go to the hospital on stretchers,” he said. Kroger added that Reed could have faced a negligence suit if a student who attended a class on “tripping” later took hallucinogens and got hurt. “I made what I thought was the best decision I could make,” he said.
A pivotal moment in the discussion came when Michael Zhao ’14 asked Kroger whether he would change the way he handled things if he had to go back and do it over again. Kroger responded, “The thing I would do completely differently is find out what Paideia is in October,” stressing that time constraints had not allowed him to engage in a dialogue. “But given the roughly three or four days before Paideia I had? No,” he said. As far as Austin Weisgrau’s ’15 Paideia class on fermentation, Kroger said of the alcohol fermentation component, “If we had a week, we might have gotten a yes on that.”
Eight days before his Paideia class, on January 14, Weisgrau received an email from Paideia Czar Julia Selker ’15 informing him that, at Kroger’s insistence, he would have to drop the alcohol portion of his fermentation class. When Weisgrau subsequently emailed Kroger asking to discuss the issue in person, Kroger forwarded his emails first to Student Activities Director Kristin Holmberg and then to Dean of Student Services Mike Brody.
At the forum, Kroger said that he didn’t have the time to become involved in a discussion and wanted Brody or Holmberg to engage Weisgrau in a dialogue. “I can’t have all the dialogue myself. I was kind of half-hoping we were having the dialogue,” he said, referring to his staff’s correspondence with Weisgrau.
Five days before the class, after another email from Weisgrau, Kroger emailed saying that the class needed to be taught “in a manner that is safe and legal.”
Weisgrau then called Brody. At the time of his conversation with Weisgrau, Brody was away attending to a family emergency. In an email to The Quest, Weisgrau said that Brody “told me that John Kroger was too busy to speak with me, and that Brody himself was not in a position to change John’s decision to censor my class, and so I should have to comply without an explanation of the decision or a possibility of defending my class.”
Weisgrau dropped the alcohol fermentation component of his class.
During the forum, Selker said that if Kroger had better used the existing process for reviewing Paideia classes, he might have avoided having to make last-minute decisions. She also noted that Kroger never communicated with her directly after he insisted that the classes be canceled and altered. Selker said that she did not seek support from Senate on the matter because she “didn’t know it would be useful.” Later, Kroger also said that he “should have thought about calling [Galper] to talk about it.”
At 5:30, Kroger left the SU for a prior engagement, and a majority of the crowd left the SU. The conversation continued. Selker revealed some details of the phone conversation she had with Holmberg after Kroger made his decision. According to Holmberg, Selker said, Kroger had wanted to cancel more classes initially, but some of Reed’s Vice Presidents counseled him against doing so.
Questions of constitutionality
Senate’s letter to Kroger raised a complaint that several students repeated throughout the forum. The letter, which “reflects broadly the sentiments shared by a majority of the Student Body Senate,” expresses confidence that Kroger’s “actions were born out of a concern for the health and safety of the Student Body,” but criticizes Kroger for having unilaterally made the decision to cancel the Paideia classes without discussing the matter with anyone else.
The letter also claims that Kroger violated Article VI Section 1 of the Community Constitution.
During the forum, ex-Senator Sarah Carlisle ’13 also claimed that Kroger violated Article VI Section I of the Community Constitution, as well as the first Operating Principle of Reed College, and asked him if he considered those documents in making his decision. “Yes, I specifically thought about the Community Constitution before I did what I did,” Kroger said.
Article VI of the Community Constitution states, “Publications, exhibitions, public lectures, and public performances under the sponsorship of the College or of recognized organizations within the Reed Community shall not be subject to institutional censorship.” Kroger questioned whether that section of the Constitution included the classroom and said, “I was assuming that it did not.” Kroger also argued that the first Operating Principle of Reed College, which calls the use of censorship “intolerable” at Reed, is “not absolute.”
Dialogue, censorship, and the definition of Paideia
Several students raised concerns that there had been no discussion over whether the classes would be cancelled, and that Kroger’s unilateral decision went against the spirit of Reed. As Amy Egerton-Wiley ’13 put it, “What makes Reed so different from the other places is its dialogue.”
The discussion veered toward the content of the classes themselves. Johannes Harkin ’14 expressed a sentiment that was repeated throughout the meeting. “My main concern has to do with a class that seems like information rather than action,” he said, referring to Adroit Anticipation of Altered Awesome Adventures, a cancelled class about reducing risk when taking hallucinogens. Harkin added that, as a Renn Fayre Czar, he would soon have to give a similar talk to freshman about drug safety at Renn Fayre.
Later, Spenser Silbey ’15 stood up to sarcastically express his agreement with the administration and said he wished the administration had gone further. He then held up four books from Reed’s library—Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia, Mon docteur le vin, Handbook of Psychoactive Herbs, and Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience—and facetiously declared them to be a danger to students before exiting the SU to laughter and applause.
Cat Holtz ’13, who explained that she came to Reed in 2005 and has taken some time off, said that she noticed a “marked change in the culture of Reed.” She added, “I do not like the sense that I go to a college where I’m babysat.” She explained that while students going to the hospital may be a cause for concern, “it’s also part of being an adult.” Holtz’s remarks received some of the loudest applause of the meeting.
Tony Fisher ’80 was also present at the forum. At one point, Fisher stood up to admonish Reedies to think about outside perceptions of the college and said he’d been working to overcome Reed’s “everything goes” reputation. He praised Kroger’s decision, saying it wasn’t easy, but was necessary.
The forum also touched on people’s conceptions of what, exactly, Paideia is. In Kroger’s view, Paideia makes up Reed’s “winter term,” and therefore classes that take place during Paideia are inherently sponsored by Reed.
Noah Muldavin ’13, who was Paideia Czar two years ago, disagreed with Kroger’s assessment of the nature of Paideia. “For the last fifteen years,” he explained, “Paideia has been run and operated by students. It is very much not part of the curriculum.” Muldavin’s comment was echoed by several other students.
Kroger emphasized that he considered the controversy part of his learning process as Reed’s president and said that future mistakes are likely. “It’s going to happen every few months, frankly.”
After Kroger left, Senator John Iselin said that he had “no doubt that President Kroger cares about Reed.” But not everyone felt sure of Kroger’s commitment to Reedies. Near the end of the meeting, Zhao said of Kroger, “He learned about us, but he didn’t learn from us.”
The article has been updated to reflect the following correction: A previous version of the article stated that Spenser Silbey ’15 held up three books and that one of the books was about brewing techniques in Sumeria. He actually held up four books, and one of them was about brewing techniques in ancient Mesopotamia, not just Sumeria.