Not-So-Sketchy Alums

Chances are you’ve heard rumors or complaints about “sketchy alums” hanging around on campus. But who are they, and how does their presence affect alumni-student relations in a wider sense? Are sketchy alums a thing of the past? How do alumni contribute to campus life?

These were some of the questions I sought to answer after hearing complaints from fellow students that did not match the alumni I knew. Amanda*, a Reedie who just graduated in spring 2015, explained the label. “The term ‘sketchy alum’ comes from alumni who continue going to Reed parties and events and try to sleep with people way younger than them. This is a very small percentage of alumni, and I don't even know anyone who is like this anymore.”

Chris Lydgate ’90 editor of Reed Magazine, was also familiar with the concept of sketchy alums. “Students have this idea of people who maybe graduated or maybe didn’t, alumni who hang around on campus and go to parties. But overall, the influence of alumni on campus is way more positive.”

Sarah Kliegman ’02, a chemistry professor, gave her perspective on the concept of ‘sketchy alums’: “Back in my day, there’d be weird alums at dances in the SU, and CSOs would just ask them to leave so it wasn’t a big deal. But when they’re on Facebook and in your phone it’s more invasive.”

In addition to the bad reputation of alumni hanging around on campus, recent controversies on the Reed Facebook page have created animosity between alumni and current students. A combination of sensitive issues and dishonorable conduct in online forums has emphasized discord between current students and alumni, particularly disagreements about content warnings and support systems within the Reed community.

Some of these disagreements can be attributed to generational misunderstandings: alumni may still feel like students on the inside, and have more perspective on the Reed experience in the context of their whole lives. Meanwhile, current students feel like the alumni they’re arguing with are disconnected from campus life and have a poor understanding of current issues.

Alumni-student relations have become increasingly complex in the digital age as multiple generations of Reedies interact online. A particularly thorny series of conflicts on the Reed Facebook page in December of 2014 is a prime example. According to Lydgate, the Reed Facebook page was originally created by an alum to discuss “Comrades of the Quest,” a book documenting Reed’s institutional history. As time passed, the page became a message board about the college in general, and current students began to join what was primarily an alumni-dominated forum.

As the composition of members shifted from mostly alumni to mostly current students, controversial issues became divisive, including topics of political correctness, non-gender binary issues, and academic freedom. The conversation quickly grew toxic; students saw alumni at their worst and vice versa. The group now includes more than three thousand members, and due to misunderstandings and negative interactions, current students’ perceptions of alumni have suffered as a result.

However, many alumni are still very much an integral part of the current on-campus community. According to Reed’s data, sixty-four alumni currently work on campus, making up about ten percent of Reed’s total employees. Alumni who work on campus are often able to contribute in special ways, since they are familiar with the Reed experience and community norms. “We were here,” says Lydgate. “We get Reed, and we want the best for the students who go here.” Kliegman recalled her time as a student fondly. “My experience here was wonderful. It gave me the skills and opportunities that led to the rest of my life.”

Besides the alumni who currently work at Reed, the college also depends on alumni contributions to maintain Reed financially. “In a very real sense, Reed wouldn’t exist without [alumni],” explained Chris Lydgate. In addition to making Reed possible by contributing to the college’s endowment, donations from alumni make a notable portion of financial aid for students.

Another key contribution is the guidance and networking opportunities available to students via alumni and the Center for Life Beyond Reed. Becoming acquainted and making connections with past Reedies can be a huge benefit to students, especially as they prepare to leave campus and begin careers. “Just being part of the Reed community gives you access to so much information and so many opportunities,” Amanda said. The wider Reed community has played a significant role in helping her establish post-graduation life. “Rely on your community at Reed,” she advised. “Rely on alumni, rely on Portland in general. My professors are helping me with grad school, I've found work relevant to my major within the Portland school system, and I've been getting a lot of advice from alumni.”

Alumni who continue to be involved in campus life all seem to have something in common: their experience at this college was an essential part of their lives, and they want to give back to the community and the students who are currently in the midst of their own Reed experience. “I’ve always liked Reed,” Kliegman said. “The community can be lovely and welcoming, and after being here so long it kind of feels like family. But family can be complicated.”

Despite caring about and contributing to campus life, there are still heated points of contention between many alumni and the student body, especially in terms of newer campus support systems. “[Many alumni] think Reed was perfect when they were here, and don’t understand the reasons to make changes,” said Lydgate. “They are extremely proud of making it through Reed, and think the college coddles today’s students too much.”

Major changes have been made in the past couple decades to establish more support services and improve students’ experiences at Reed. “Reed can be hard and alienating. You kind of have to have a thick skin,” Kliegman commented. For students who are struggling academically or with other difficulties in their lives, having resources like the DoJo and the HCC can help them stay on track and get the most out of their education.

These efforts to create, expand, and staff support programs strive to provide an environment where all students can thrive and take advantage of their time at Reed, as well as a strategy to increase the formerly low graduation rate. According to Lydgate, this is a significant shift in campus structure and culture. “One of the best things about Reed today is that we’re committed to our students. We make a deal: ‘Okay, you come here and work hard, and we’ll do everything we can to support you and help you succeed.’ That didn’t exist when I went here.”

On the other hand, alumni who are proud of surviving the trials and rigors of “Olde Reed” don’t want it to become too easy. The situation is not unlike having an older relative tell you they had to walk to school and back uphill both ways. If Reed isn’t as brutal and challenging as it was when alumni were students, then they think something’s not right. In the seventies and early eighties, Reed’s four-year graduation rate was below thirty percent. The graduation rate hit an all-time high of seventy percent in 2011, and now about two-thirds of Reedies graduate in four years.

“You can understand,” Lydgate explained as he pointed at a graph of graduation rates, “the people who made it when Reed was like that have a sort of survivor mentality.” According to him, the increase in support staff and other resources for students who run into trouble is a huge improvement. “Admissions has also become more selective, and makes more of a case to identify and admit students who can flourish here,” he added. Reed’s admissions selectivity has increased significantly in the recent past, shrinking from a sixty-eight percent admission rate in 2000 to only forty-eight percent in 2013.

When asked whether Reed had prepared her for the ‘real world’ Amanda replied, “The whole reason I went to Reed was so I could explode my brain. I never felt it was the responsibility of Reed to prepare me for some kind of ‘practical’ job. Reed gives you most of the tools you'll need, but it's up to you to hone them and apply them.”

Lydgate also emphasized how the skills he gained at Reed influenced him, despite not using his psychology degree directly as a journalist for the alumni magazine. “My thesis was one of the most productive things I’ve done in my life. It taught me how to complete a big project and solve my own problems.” Even though Reed can be grueling, many alumni seem convinced that the experience was well worth the effort, and plenty of them are excited to return to Reed and participate in the community in a new way. Kliegman smiled as she recounted her story of joining Reed’s faculty. “Returning to Reed and becoming a professor was like a dream of going to the moon. I never had it as a concrete goal, but then the opportunity presented itself right as I was looking for a job. I had to take it, and then I got it.” Reed’s close-knit community and demanding environment make a huge impact in alumni’s lives; perhaps this is why so many of them return to work here or are otherwise eager to stay involved, even if they don’t necessarily agree with changing norms on campus.

“After you graduate from Reed, the time you spent and the people you meet here will become some of the most important in your life,” Lydgate said. “Time changes your perspective on things, and the experiences can become even more important to you the older you get. You realize the value of all those hard hours in the library, and maybe you forget about some of the bad or boring moments.” It’s no surprise that alumni who feel this way about their time as undergraduates become fiercely protective of the institution as they remember it. This is where ‘At Reed’ emails and Reed Magazine come in. “That’s one reason why the college spends so much time and energy on alumni relations. You have to go deeper than Facebook. Reed means a lot to the people who went here, and we want to make sure to explain the changes we’re making and how they’ll make Reed a better place.”

Sometimes it can be hard to understand that alumni and current students are essentially on the same side. Rumor mills and scandals about changes being made on campus can be enormously detrimental to the community, even more so on the internet where there are more people, less information, and little accountability. “Rumors fly further, faster, and cause more damage than they did twenty years ago,” Lydgate said solemnly.

So are sketchy alums a thing of the past, or have they transformed into a more elusive specter of dishonorable conduct online? Amanda dismissed the idea. “We hold ourselves accountable to the rules of the community, and we are as much a part of the community as anyone else,” she said of alumni and recent grads in particular. This seems to be true most of the time, especially for alumni who are employees directly involved in campus life. Even when dishonorable conduct online pits students and alumni against each other, it’s important to remember that current students are trying to make campus a more supportive place where students can grow and thrive, while also remembering to respect the aspects of Reed that make alumni’s memories of their experience here so powerful.

When asked what the most significant cultural change on campus has been in recent years, Lydgate smiled and looked out the window. “I’m astounded by how little the essence of Reed has changed. Some things change—hair and clothes styles change. But. . . students are excited about the same kinds of things. Sometimes I’ll see someone in Commons or walking in the canyon, and think it’s one of my classmates from thirty years ago.”

Despite different opinions on what should change or stay the same, on how and why Reed might add new services and networks to help current students while maintaining the challenge it’s known for, there’s one thing we all have in common.

“Alumni are proud of Reed,” Lydgate said. “They want it to stay special, and different. And so do the students.”