foster image

Founding president William Trufant Foster.

Part One

The Radical Upstart, 1911-1920

Excerpt from Chapter Two: The Visionary

“The story of Reed College is fired with the zest of pioneers. We thought our adventures were bold and inspired. Fortunately so. We live by vision and by faith.”

—William Foster, president

“Foster painted the prospect in glowing colors—faculty houses, no fraternities, no intercollegiate athletics, small classes, real faculty government, and above all, a spirit of teamwork. A fine bill of goods!”  

—Arthur Wood, sociology professor

Reed’s founding president, William Foster, was the quintessential young man in a hurry. New England’s youngest full professor at twenty-seven and already a published authority on debate and argumentation, he was also the youngest college president in the country when appointed to Reed at thirty-one. His rapid rise in academia, coupled with his aversion to orthodoxy, tagged him as a brilliant upstart. The same reputation would soon be attributed to Reed, largely as the result of Foster’s gifted promotional efforts. In the compelling vision laid out by Foster, Reed College would bring new relevance to the liberal arts, revolutionize higher education, and become first rank among academic institutions. Foster’s exaggerated claims almost ensured a cocky start-up with unrealistic expectations.

William Foster, president 1910-1919: In June 1910, at the close of my nine months at Columbia University’s Teachers College working on my dissertation, I was asked by telegram to go to Portland, Oregon, to consider building a college from the ground up. That was the first time I heard of Reed College. I learned later that Charles W. Eliot, the former president of Harvard, where I had been an undergraduate, and Wallace Buttrick, head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board, had taken chances, independently, on recommending me.

I was excited. Traveling as far west as Oregon—to say nothing of staying there—seemed an adventure. I had been “West” only once, and then only as far as Chicago. In the venerable Boston Transcript I had seen a headline, “Far Away from Home but Doing Well,” which referred to the adventures of a Boston boy who had gone all the way to Worcester Massachusetts Academy. I laughed at that, yet I myself was as provincial as the Boston Transcript. I had some of the worst if not some of the best traits of proper Bostonians. To my wife, the frontier also seemed adventurous. She was also provincial, having always lived in Maine.

On arrival in that faraway town, I learned that the trustees had accepted from the Ladd Estate Company a gift of forty acres. Forty acres of land, five trustees, and one endowment estimated at three million dollars. That was all there was of Reed College.  Three million dollars now seems a trifle, but in that day it seemed like a lot of money. I was president of a college with no students, no faculty, no classrooms. Worse still, no grandstand and not even a college yell.

I climbed through the fence of the pasture and walked among the twenty-five blooded cows of the Ladd Farm. With tassels and blue ribbons they could have made a bovine show as colorful as an academic procession and as self-satisfied, though not perhaps as funny. I began to plan the building of a college there. In effect, the trustees had said to me, “You have been complaining loudly that colleges in the East are shackled by traditions. Here in the free and open West you can try out your theories. If they don’t work, blame only yourself.”

No traditions! How I rolled that morsel under my tongue. Reed College was to be neither hampered nor hallowed by traditions. A hundred colleges seemed to me to be hallowed by petrified errors. “Reed College,” David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s founding president, said at the laying of Reed’s cornerstone, “is the only college that has no graduates of whom it is ashamed, the only college which has made no mistakes.”

Promptly I made mistakes, so that distinction was gone. How should we use our freedom? Many colleges would gladly make radical changes were it not for their own history. Traditions are hard to cope with when they are glorified by graduates who wish to keep dear old Alma Mater exactly as it was in their youth and by professors who find that the easiest thing to do. During my first year I visited fully a hundred colleges across the country. Nearly everywhere was much discontent and little study. Could a college be built upon intellectual enthusiasm? If the worst influences were kept out, might not teachers and students study together with spontaneous delight? A naive fancy, some men surmised, born of inexperience and idealism.

The college pledged itself to make scholarship not only respectable but necessary, and not only necessary but attractive. Nothing whatever would be sacrificed in the interests of mere numbers. Intercollegiate athletics, fraternities, sororities, and most of the diversions that men are pleased to call “college life,” as distinguished from college work, would have no place in Reed College. Those whose dominant interests lie outside study should not apply for admission. Only those who wish to work and to work hard would be welcomed.

All this pioneering on paper would have stayed on paper had we not found men and women with the vision, enthusiasm, brains, and daring to try to make the dream come true. To find them was not difficult; the dream was attraction enough. With the average age well under thirty, the faculty was the youngest in the country, possibly the youngest in history. There were no leftovers, no teachers who had grown old and tired in one place because there was no other place to go. Before Reed College had graduated its fifth class, many men called us “cockeyed.” Other men called the teachers “rambunctious.” If the college were not “cockeyed,” it was at least cocky.

Unfortunately, I took with me to Oregon the good and the bad of my New England inheritance. Chiefly the bad, it sometimes seems. I was born a rebel. For many years I did not know what was the matter with me. Then I began to realize that my New England ancestors made me a cantankerous nonconformist, scowling at contented men and women, and warning them that whatever they were doing, they should be doing something else. To reform the world—and quickly—I mounted my horse, spear in hand, and rode forth in all directions at once. High medical costs, false medical advertising, degrees in dentistry awarded after three months of training, the conspiracy of silence in matters of sex, silly motion pictures, injustice to the unemployed, billboards on the Columbia River Highway, intercollegiate athletics, the chaos and waste of English spelling, the low level of so-called higher education—these were among my targets.

I mention the belligerent orator who shouted, “I want tax reform, I want suffrage reform, I want money reform.” And the heckler who cried, “You want chloroform!” I do not blame those who felt that way about me. I hoped, however, that Reed College would continue to stand staunchly—and if necessary, stand alone—for whatever Reed College considered right.

Ralph Hetzel, University of Oregon administrator: I happened to be fortunate enough to be one of a party, led by Dr. William Foster, that tramped across what seemed to me an endless lot of open country and finally arrived at a large pasture in Eastmoreland where a number of Mr. Ladd’s splendid cows were grazing. We climbed over fences and logs, shielding the ladies from vicious animals in the pasture. Under these very discouraging circumstances, Dr. Foster set forth in his very vivid style a vision of a beautiful campus, magnificent buildings, splendid faculty—an institution that would give out tremendously valuable service within the very near future. It seemed like a dream to me at the time. It was only the tremendous enthusiasm of Dr. Foster that made us believe that it was going to be a reality.

Victor Chittick, English professor 1921–1948: In 1910, I was a graduate student at Columbia and president of the English Graduate Club, when we invited William Trufant Foster, who was taking his Ph.D. at Teachers College, to the club to speak. I was fascinated by what he had to say and by his personality. He was the kind of a person in those days that we would call sharp. He had a reputation as a brilliant exponent of academic ideas, and his manuals on rhetoric and argumentation were widely used.

After he left Columbia that year, Foster went west to set up Reed. One of the first things he issued was a pamphlet that gave a short biography of the staff he had assembled. A copy of that came into my hands and impressed me tremendously. There was an evangelism about Foster’s ideals that appealed to me, a defiance of tradition and general sentiment about what should go on in the college, specifically that the level of scholarship should be high or the student shouldn’t be there.

A few years after that, I came out west to teach at the University of Washington. The university was celebrating its semicentennial and they had big shots from all over the American educational world assembled up on the platform. Among them was Foster. At thirty-one he looked so young that we called him the “boy president.” In the course of the remarks being made, he sat there with this head dropped in his hand, looking intensely bored. This visibly annoyed the oldsters. Then, when he got up to speak, Foster electrified everybody in talking about what Reed College was doing.

Frank Loxley “F.L.” Griffin, math professor 1911–1952, president 1954–1956: All   those old timers on the platform became infuriated. Foster was pointing out what a sham many of the pretenses commonly being given to intellectual matters in higher education were. The audience was deliriously happy. Someone said that his remarks came like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room.

William Foster, president: The first and often the only question asked about any college was, “How large is it?” Never how large is its vision, but always, how large is its student body? We thought there was no great need for one more college run on the assembly line, or loudspeaker, or sheep-dip method of education.