I wish I could stay away from this subject, but I cannot. Something has gone seriously wrong when a professor and dean of the faculty – a classics professor no less – at Reed College can be so dishonest, he drags down the reputation of his school and everyone associated with it.
Having started with a statement like that, I have to add two qualifiers. First, Reedies Against Racism brought disgrace and infamy to the school, not Dean of the Faculty Nigel Nicholson. College administrators’ response to RAR – from former President John Kroger and Dean Nicholson in particular – compounded this disgrace. John Kroger has to find a new job. Nicholson apparently keeps his job as dean.
The second qualifier is a little more difficult to state, as I cannot tell from Nicholson’s statements whether his defense of the school derives from a set of fluid moral commitments that enables him to be slippery whenever it suits him, or if he willfully wants to present himself in the wrong on this issue. Either way, his defense casts ugly campus protests over two years as part of the college’s natural growth, where it tries to teach freshman students “skills of critical reading, analysis, and respectful discussion.”
You cannot imagine the specious ring of these words, unless you read accounts of what actually happened at Reed during this period. Nicholson focuses only on the content of the revised core humanities course, with a claim that curricular changes “do not pick a side in any culture wars.” Nicholson bases his defense on a completely irrelevant point: course content. Course content counts only if Reed’s constitution as a faculty-led community for free inquiry remains intact. What happened at Reed is indefensible, no matter what books wind up on the reading list for Humanities 110.
What did happen? Reedies Against Racism invaded classrooms while class was in session, intimidated professors, and used every tactic they could find to shut the freshman humanities course down. President Kroger and Dean of the Faculty Nicholson did nothing effective to end this thuggish behavior. We know that because it continued for about two years, until RAR triumphed. Kroger and Nicholson tut-tutted about inappropriate behavior, rather than promptly expel students who violated Reed’s unwritten constitution. Administrators should never have allowed any student who invades a classroom to do it a second time.
President and dean missed this important principle of time and tradition: many faculty spend their careers at the college. Students spend only four years, at the most. All the college’s traditions rest with faculty members: they develop and nurture the curriculum, standards of excellence, freedom of academic inquiry and speech, as well as pedagogical methods that support all the rest. Students come to study at the school because they appreciate what faculty have created there. All benefit from the amazing care and attention faculty give to their college and its students.
President and dean have a number of jobs to perform as college leaders. By far their most important contribution is to sustain and inspire a community where faculty can do their jobs, and where students can learn and develop as a result. In these basic requirements, president and dean utterly failed professors who thought they worked in a community where college leaders would protect their classrooms from immoral, destructive intimidation. Turns out, college leaders had no idea why they were there.
Free speech for students does not include depriving anyone else of the same freedom. The first time RAR shuts down a classroom, Dean Nicholson should have called RAR leaders into his office, one by one, to tell them they are out of there. Stop by the bursar’s office to pick up your tuition refund. And here’s a letter you can show your parents, to tell them why you don’t attend Reed anymore. The second time RAR shuts down a classroom, show the entire group to the door. Make sure to slam it.
Moreover, ensure word gets around. That is, explain why you have expelled the students. Clearly explain how this policy protects faculty in their teaching roles. Students can advocate for change in any way that does not interfere with other people’s freedom: freedom of thought and action for faculty, students, and administrators. Violation of these traditions, which includes norms of hospitality to be shown toward campus guests, will earn you a visit to the dean’s office, and a letter of expulsion.
Reedies Against Racism undertook a mutiny, and succeeded. Consequently, they destroyed in twenty-four months, a set of traditions that developed over more than a century. They turned a respected college into a symbol of shame. College leaders could have stopped the mutiny, but they did not. No measure they took prevented the disaster. Even now, they do not recognize what a serious mistake they made.
These articles show how protesters managed to focus discussion on course content, just as Dean Nicholson does. RAR’s activities do not primarily concern course content. They concern power. Class invaders won because no one – except other students – stood up to them. Campus leaders with authority to act effectively, to expel invaders from classrooms and campus, decided to go to the washroom.
For more articles, search The Jeffersonian for Reed and related keywords, to find numerous pieces about free speech at Reed and other colleges.