A Courageous Experiment

No matter where you come from or where you stand, this semester has been an intense one. Political tensions over issues such as institutional racism, a disturbingly divisive election season, and sustained demonstrations on campus have scattered the community and made it difficult to keep track of events and their nuances. At The Grail we believe it’s critical to do our part in reestablishing constructive dialogue and making sure a variety of voices and perspectives are represented and heard. How have this semester’s political events, demonstrations, and tensions shaped our community? We asked student protest organizers, staff, faculty, administrators, and students currently taking Hum 110 in an attempt to find an answer.


Student activism is nothing new at Reed. Faculty members and administrators who have witnessed several instances of student dissent during their time here report that these kinds of conflicts and demonstrations have been a consistent feature of the college as an institution for decades. The list is long: civil rights protests in 1968 remain burned into campus lore; 1970s president Paul Bragdon often had his house occupied by angry students; student activism in the 1990s resulted in the founding of Reed’s Multicultural Resource Center; Department of Education decisions regarding Title IX sparked controversy and activism in 2011. Students have always had important things to say.

Despite this precedent for activism, humanities professor Kris Cohen admits that this semester’s protests have been the most persistent and had the largest “matrix of critique” he’s seen in recent history. Unlike past protests, this year’s movements against institutional racism, for the reform of the Hum syllabus, and pressing for the creation of an ethnic studies program have established a committed and sustained campus presence. The September 26th boycott made the community at large pay attention to marginalized voices on campus, and led to the founding of Reedies Against Racism. RAR has protested every Hum lecture since the boycott, and, accompanied by other concerned studies and allies, occupied the admissions office in Eliot Hall in response to hateful graffiti and student discontent regarding how the administration was dealing with student safety concerns. These demonstrations caused clashes between students, faculty, and administrators, as well as difficulty communicating and frustration on all sides. Meanwhile, national events such as an election cycle fuming with divisive rhetoric and leading to the election of Donald Trump fanned the flames of existing tensions on campus.

September 26th Boycott and Eliot Sit-In

On September 26th, student organizers held an open mic and invited students of color to stand up on the Commons porch and speak their minds. “It was weird to ask people of color to say things to a crowd of white people,” said Addison Bates, an organizer with RAR. “It felt voyeuristic, like we were asking them to be exhibitionists. But we did talk, and it felt really important, really incredible, to just speak my truth.” This forum became a powerful space where people of color shared grievances and needs. Addison said, “It felt like a radical moment of self love, to claim my power and space and say things to people who I had felt didn’t want to listen to me and never made space for that.” Shortly after the open mic, student protesters occupied President John Kroger’s office with a list of demands to the administration. However, the deeply dispersed and interconnected power structure of the college limits the speed at which demands can be processed. Physics Professor and Dean for Institutional Diversity Mary James noted, “The students are about the change, and agents of the institution have to be about the how. Given our shared government structure, there’s no one person who can snap their fingers and make x, y or z happen.” Because of this, the “how” of fulfilling demands from September 26 has been slow, to the great frustration and disappointment of student protestors and their allies.

On November 8th, votes were counted across the country. In a matter of hours, public perception of the election flipped as Donald Trump secured victory. The election itself had profound effect on the Reed community. John Kroger recalls, “The morning of the election, a group of staff and faculty women all wearing pantsuits got together to get photographed in front of Eliot Hall because the nation’s first woman president was going to be elected. I had this indelible image about how excited these women must have been and how disappointed they must have been when it did not come through.” John described conversations with students who were reconsidering their careers and missions in life following the election, questioning if their dreams of becoming teachers and diplomats made sense any more.

The tense post-election mood on campus erupted when xenophobic graffiti appeared in the library. Students demanded a response from the administration that would address fears for their safety, and when they did not receive it, protesters occupied the admissions office and presented another list of demands. Addison described the Eliot sit-in with pride in her peers: “It was beautiful to see so many people sleep on the floor to help us be heard, to see how many people who come from privilege came and were sleeping on the floor with us... it was also really sad: do I really have to sleep on the floor to be heard?” The demonstration was met with approval from many members of the student body, skepticism from students concerned about the magnitude of the sit-in, and disapproval from admissions staff and administrators, who believed it was unfair for students to disrupt college operations by interrupting visits by prospective students and their parents. The sit-in continued as days passed and tensions rose. John Kroger stated in an email that the administration may “ultimately need to file an honor case if the sit-in continues to disrupt college operations.” This statement was deemed inappropriate by the Honor Council and the student body at large. Addison exclaimed, “It was incredible that honor council stepped up for us and encouraged Kroger to take that back. It was incredible to see the figurehead of our college try to use our judiciary system against us and then have Honor Council refuse to take part in that.” Honor Council’s formal response both reinforced the dynamic nature of the Honor Principle and intensified the growing divide between students and the administration.

Ema Chomsky, a current freshman who grew up in Mexico City, believed that the claims of the Eliot Hall protesters were out of proportion. “During the sit-ins and after the graffiti, people were saying that they didn’t feel safe and that their lives were being threatened. Then, I saw a video of a hospital in Aleppo—it was a children’s hospital—being hit with chlorine gas. There also was a video going viral in Mexico for a while about teachers having students hide under tables during drug [cartel] shootouts... These students feared for their safety in a more immediate way.” Ema brought up an example of her friend who was kidnapped “by a policeman not in his uniform. They got into the car, the policeman threatened to vanish him, took him to the courthouse. Many other students came and protested in front of the building...

“Their danger is very different from the danger students talk about here,” Ema said.

In this context, the demands regarding student safety at Reed struck Ema as a mark of the school’s privilege, outrageous compared to the life threatening danger students in other parts of the world face. “Reed is just a school. It’s a really small part of a bigger picture, and our time here is really short, so we should be trying to make our changes here be for the long run and things we can take with us outside.” Ema expressed her concerns in a political cartoon titled “Students Fear of Their Safety” (opposite page). Ema emphasizes, “We are not in immediate physical danger here, and violence is not good, and anger is not good. It’s important to defend yourself, but to do so in proportion to the received attack.”

While Ema felt that the sit-in was out of proportion, for those participating, the sit-in carried significance beyond demanding more safety measures. Addison was very proud of the solidarity she witnessed throughout the sit-in. “I’ve seen so much bravery from my peers. I’ve seen them really fight, really put their names on the line this semester. I’ve never seen that at Reed before. It speaks to how close to people’s hearts these issues are.” For students involved, the sit-in became a demonstration of determination in insisting on change and demanding action in the face of what seemed like sluggish responses from the institution on a majority of the demands presented a month and a half earlier. “For people who aren’t against what we’re asking for, this is so important,” Addison said. “If you don’t believe in our downfall, if you don’t think we should be excluded or honor cased, it’s really important that you take a stance that says you care. If you’re not working toward what you’re talking about, you’re saying that our comfort and place at this school is not worth your time.”

The sit-ins came to a close when the short-term demands of the Eliot protesters were met. John officially declared Reed College a sanctuary school, a symbolic gesture publicly stating open admissions practices and a declaration of non-cooperation with immigrations officials that were already part of the college’s policies. Shortly after the sit-in’s conclusion, students, faculty, and administrators came together in a consensus session to help negotiate the conflicting views that fed the conflict.

Hum 110

The question of whether Hum 110 should change and how can create heated discussions between just about anyone. Hum is so ingrained into the college’s ethos that it is difficult to avoid. According to Mary James, colleges and universities are engaged in “a very courageous experiment: bringing 18-year olds from incredibly segregated K-12 educational environments all together in a purposeful way, not only studying together but living together, so that their whole lives revolve around one another.” This experiment creates problematic discourse: without having had exposure to tools for how to talk about it, students find themselves unprepared to confront issues of race for themselves and with others. Mary emphasized that because race is considered taboo in the United States , the problem becomes even more urgent because individuals and institutions are reluctant to address it directly. So how can we discuss race and ethnicity productively? What does it mean to have a truly inclusive pedagogy that provides students of all backgrounds with ways to consider their own biases and privileges and discuss them with each other in a constructive way?

Out of this challenging atmosphere comes a communicative lapse that is related to the increasingly urgent demands for reform of Hum 110, from specific alterations to its syllabus to drastic changes in its goals and content as an introductory course. The 24th demand presented at the September 26th boycott was a reform of Hum.

Students are far from unified on their opinions about Hum. The mere fact that every Reedie must take Hum makes its very purpose and significance controversial. When asked what she would tell freshmen about why changing Hum is important, Addison replied: “It’s really telling that the first class we take here is about Europe, though people come up with all kinds of critiques and excuses about what to call it; Rome and Greece, the ancient mediterranean, ‘the West.’” These terms have all come under criticism as names for the societies we study in Hum.” Addison, doing her own research into the topic, came across a term that encompassed all the societies included in the Hum syllabus: caucasoids. “In that ideology, which is super racist, there were caucasoids, negroids and mongoloids. And the negroids and mongoloids were considered inferior races, subhuman. So the first thing you’re introduced to as a Reed student is a group of people who have been written as the superior folk for thousands of years.” Addison believes Hum should strive to resist and refute these supremacy narratives and seek out a fresher, more critical view of societies and the role of oppression. “Why would we not try to study the people who have been written as inferior, study things that have been hidden and silenced by the superiors? This is where we get progress, when we lift these people up: that’s how we get out of the complexes that have been built to keep the caucasoids up for thousands of years.”

A first-year transfer student who wished to remain anonymous and will be referred to as Simeon in this article has a very different outlook on the value of Hum. He is in favor  of Hum 110’s focus on ancient Greece and Rome, and has been discouraged by the way the syllabus has come under such harsh criticism. “I think that the tradition of intellectualism that [studying Greece and Rome] represents, I think there’s agreat deal of value in this notion of intellectualism—it’s one of the principles this school stands on... But not only do students want to introduce other texts to the curriculum, they kind of reject the stuff that’s presently there, intentionally or not, because they feel so antipathetic towards this course.” Simeon believes that students taking Hum, whether they are simply indifferent to the course or are actively protesting against it, are missing out on its beauty.

Beautiful as the ancient texts covered in the syllabus may be, other students strongly believe that the course does not fulfill its purpose as an introductory course. Yurel Watson, a RAR member and organizer, explained: “Hum as it is doesn’t implicate people in the project that is the humanities, and we don’t consider the stakes when we teach a course like that. What we’re calling ancient Greece and Rome is based on information that survived for thousands of years because it was passed down by people in power. It’s like a game of telephone, and it’s problematic to use those societies as cultural capital now.”

Reed has named increasing diveristy as a goal, but what does that goal mean in practical terms? According to Humanities Professor Kris Cohen, a syllabus and class need to be actively antiracist, antihomophobic, and antisexist: the syllabi need to work a lot harder, rather than just thinking of themselves as inclusive. Along similar lines, Yurel described the importance of actively challenging dominant modes of thought as individuals and as an institution: “It’s hard to see when you’re a part of it, but there are a lot of fucked up things that we just accept as part of our culture, I think because we don’t have the tools to analyze ourselves without being exposed to any counternarratives.” Beyond proposed reforms to include more counternarratives or critical readings in the Hum syllabus, one possible source of such texts could be an ethnic studies program, seen by many as a necessary resource that many liberal arts colleges offer but that Reed lacks.

Student groups and activists have urged the creation of an ethnic studies program for decades, through individual suggestions, protests, and the Student Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (SCAPP). When asked what she thought it would take for an ethnic studies program to be created at Reed, Addison said: “It would mean that the school would have to accept race as something valuable to study. If you care about Reed, you care about why it has the majors it has. An ethnic studies program would mean all members of the community would have to understand that race permeates everything, even the walls of this small liberal arts school.”

Despite disliking the way Hum is being criticized this year, Simeon is not against reform or recognition of oppressive systems in the education Reed provides. “Dealing with how this form of education has been bound up in perpetuating certain forms of oppression—it’s necessary to address that, to build on it, to take a new direction, but I think it’s a mistake to get caught up too much in pettiness, in bitterness, instead of moving beyond that.” Simeon commented that he believes Hum has become cripplingly self-conscious while going through so much controversy, undermining the study of the cultures currently in the syllabus and making the course difficult to engage with.

In response to the vehement student protests of Hum, “The faculty is not unified at all,” said Kris. According to him, many faculty members who have listened closely to students’ denunciations of the syllabus feel particularly shaken this year by the way protests have forced them to see the course. “No one has been able to ignore it, I’ll say that. And that’s probably a good thing,” Kris said.

In response to the September 26th demands to reform Hum, a committee of faculty and student organizers holds weekly meetings about the future of Hum. “Those have been very productive,” Yurel said, citing the committee as one of the most positive things to come out of the activism this semester. “There’s been a lot of listening and genuine curiosity for looking outside one’s own perspective. I’m very confident in the people who compose that group.”

Communication and Inclusivity

Mary’s research as Dean for Institutional Diversity has involved examining inclusive pedagogical practices and student retention. To persist in education, a student needs three criteria to be met. First there is capacity, or academic progress. A student also needs interest, and if a student’s capacity is drilled too hard, their interest may be damaged. The third criterion is belongingness, an actual technical term that boils down to the question, “Can I imagine myself as a participant in this activity, as a practitioner of this discipline?” If belongingness is lacking, a student’s ability to persist suffers. This phenomenon is what administrators believe underlies Reed’s low retention rates for marginalized groups. “If you don’t have the belongingness, it is very hard to maintain the motivation to do the hard work,” Mary says.

Inclusivity, then, is an important part of the demands called for by the sit-ins and Hum protests that may be underrated in its importance to the issues at hand. Indeed, the clashes between groups calling for inclusivity in the Hum syllabus and elsewhere with those prioritizing established ideals have lead to a stalemate in discourse, only worsened by the fact that race is a taboo subject in American culture. “As a society, we don’t have the tools to talk about race, and we don’t have the tools on this campus because we are part of this society. To expect people to walk in with these tools in hand is wishful thinking,” said Mary. She continued, “My expectation is for every student who graduates from this college to be comfortable and able to talk about power and privilege, and the responsibilities that come with power and privilege.”

Though perspectives and points of view may differ between groups of students, faculty, and administrators, everyone seems to agree that a lack of communication has been a key element in the escalating tensions this semester. Yurel expressed frustration that the burden of starting important conversations about race is almost always placed on marginalized students. “The amount of labor put on students is unjust. It demands so much on students while [the administration is] not reaching out in this conversation, which is what needs to be happening here.” The administrators agree. John Kroger believes that “being able to handle controversial subjects with civility and integrity and deep commitment to facts is so important.” But civility is more unidirectional than it may seem, because it is so intricately intertwined with power and authority. Vice President for Student Services Mike Brody noted, “I’ve come to realize as part of my job this semester that as a white male in a position of authority on campus, it's easy for me to talk about civility because I’m not under siege. I’m still trying to figure out my relationship to this notion of civility.” The mismatch in power and understanding of urgency in the situation has made respectful, calm communication between students and administrators extremely difficult.

Yurel emphasized the importance of authority figures taking a moment to step aside from their preconceptions and consider what students were saying: “Anyone who has a position of authority needs to sit down and remove that from the situation, to engage with us as equals and listen instead of trying to hear what they want to hear. I try to do one-on-one conversations, it makes parsing out the power dynamic better. It’s problematic, it’s loaded; having a discussion that’s charged like that isn’t so simple when there’s many eyes and factors in play. I think one-on-one is best.”

As a strategy for deescalating these loaded dynamics, on November 20th, 20 students, 12 faculty, and 8 administrators came together in a mediated discourse session to reestablish communication and learn to build consensus. The college brought in professional consensus facilitators and held a 7-hour training to unite together community viewpoints regarding the issues raised by the protesters. The first four hours were spent doing listening exercises; only in the last hour was anything substantive said. “People have very mixed reactions to the day,” Mary reported. “Someone said to me they were discouraged by the amount of time spent doing all those exercises. But, really, some of the things said in the last hour would have locked us down at the beginning. Something happened in those exercises” This consensus making process was arduous, but ultimately led to a resolution where before there was a stalemate. “You can’t argue with people about how they feel. They will feel how they will feel.”

Mike said, “We need to have an open mind to what we're hearing, to be generous, especially when we disagree.” Many believe that there has been a rampant fraying of trust and respect on campus. Lena Lenček, Russian literature and humanities professor, expressed her dismay at how the discourse between faculty and students was conducted: “I am distressed because the use of abusive and disrespectful language suggests that there is a lack of trust, and also it degrades trust and is not productive.” Students agree that respectful and thoughtful communication has been seriously lacking. Yurel said, “People don’t know how to interact in a racialized conversation. People will use the voices of people of color who disagree with what RAR does to legitimize their own views. It goes back to hearing what you want to hear from someone without considering the context.”

Lack of trust also leads to alienation of incongruent points of view. Kris noted that he is “painfully aware of shame in the classroom and how much students feel that people in class are the source of shaming. It’s not always right and does not always correlate with people’s intentions.” Simeon, too, feels a sense of alienation and a threat of shaming from his peers, to the point of wanting to remain anonymous. “I openly share these opinions with anyone in a one-on-one conversation, but I don’t want to risk being publicly villainized for a politically incorrect misstep. Because I’ve seen how easily and unfairly that happens.”

Fortunately, communication between these various groups seems to be on the mend. Dean of Students Bruce Smith said, “We are learning not only to manage distrust, but to trust people more.” Addressing the unrest on campus in classes has helped foster constructive discourse. Lena’s Hum conference has “actually been positive, and they have brought us together in the sense that we are able to talk about, reflect, debate, and draw closer together.”

Real change is ultimately being driven by these communication efforts; by students, faculty and administrators alike listening to each other. Bruce explained, “Some of the challenge is understanding students’ experience. Part of that is increasing our empathy and wanting to listen to people's stories, and refraining from the ‘we’re already working on that’ answer and thinking critically about how what we are already doing is not meeting students needs. And admitting that.”

Where do we go from here?

A defining feature of this semester’s activism has been its focus on specific demands. So what is the status of all the demands made during the September 26th boycott and Eliot sit-in? What progress has been made so far in addressing them?

According to a list presented at the panel hosted by RAR on Tuesday, November 29th, accomplishments and demands that are currently underway include officially declaring Reed a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, an apology from Kroger for grouping protest activities with the hateful graffiti the weekend after the election in an email to parents, plans to expand the Night Owl program to increase campus safety, free rides from CSOs for students living off campus, the hiring of a new staff member for the MRC, hosting the next big review of Hum a semester earlier than was originally scheduled, and more transparency on reporting AOD demographics, among others.

The posters announcing the September 26th boycott featured the statistic that only half of black students at Reed graduate. Bruce addressed this issue and how the institution can make progress in retaining more black students as well as other students of color. “When we talk about graduation retention for students of color, jumping to academic support is a mistake. In most cases it is not academic performance that is lacking, but a sense of belonging. Students have been talking about their experience here and how they feel here, and that is what we need to pay attention to.”

A primary concern of the Eliot sit-in was student safety in the wake of the hateful graffiti that appeared in the library bathrooms and on a Google document containing information about individual activists. When asked what he would say to a student who felt afraid for their safety, Mike responded: “I would ask them to tell me more. But I’d be careful to make it not sound like I’m asking them to ‘prove it’. Please, if you're willing and able, help me understand what's going on.” Community Safety has been working on addressing student concerns, especially concerns related to getting home safely, by offering free rides, starting an investigation on the perpetrators of the library graffiti, and increasing security at large events. Mike continued, “There are a lot of programs and resources we can put into place, but students need to know that if they feel unsafe, we are listening.”

The political tensions and events this semester have had a tremendous influence on Reedies from all walks of campus, but they seem especially influential for students for whom the conflicts are happening during their first semester at Reed. Ema said, “[The protests and activism] made me think a lot about the fact that action needs to happen, and also that I want to be really careful before I act to make sure that my actions do more good than they do harm.” While being committed to the idea of acting on personal beliefs to incite change, Ema does not agree with every demand presented by RAR or every aspect of how demonstrations have been carried out on campus. “A lot of students are calling out for safe spaces and for accommodations to minorities like they give for disabilities. If we want coddling, it seems that what we’re doing is effective. I’m not sure if this is effective for structural changes in the school.”

Simeon, whose first experiences at Reed have also been formed in these tense times, was not on board either with many aspects of the demonstrations, while agreeing with the need to address issues of racism and oppression. “I appreciate social alienation from my own experience as a very real form of suffering, but I just wish students were not so exclusively preoccupied with things going on here when things are so much worse elsewhere, even in the broader Portland community. I’d like to see this radical enthusiasm diverted to issues outside of Reed.”

The student demonstrations and other political events have had wide ranging effects on not only first year students, but on how faculty members and administrators view their roles in the community. When asked how this semester’s events have changed how he did his job and prioritized initiatives, John Kroger said they had “reinforced a sense of urgency. Many of us who spent a lot of time with the students in September around the days of the protest found that to be a deeply moving experience. Particularly if you are a white male, you may theoretically know about some of people of colors’ concerns, but to listen to the passion and the anguish was really powerful.” Mary added, “For me it’s been a lot about helping students be aware of what we are already doing. One way I describe my diversity and inclusion goals at Reed is to get diversity and inclusiveness into our DNA. Some like it, some don’t.” Mary is well aware of the phenomenon in which passionate individuals drive diversity and inclusion initiatives, and how these movements often don’t last. “People are passionate about these issues, but they get tired, they go on sabbatical, they graduate, and the effort dies out. My mission is for our students to thrive as intellectuals, and to make diversity and inclusion so integrated into the structure of our institution that they don’t depend on any single person or group.”

So how can we improve the way issues of racism are addressed at Reed, as individuals and as a community? “Be curious, ask a lot of questions, support one another,” said Dayspring Mattole, Assistant Dean of Students for Inclusive Community. “Be respectful to your professors,” said Lena. “In any conflict, good manners are essential.” Simeon said, “I just hope students will care about [Hum], whatever it ends up being. I hope they’ll care about these things beyond just being forced to take the class.” By actively showing respect and curiosity toward class material, faculty, and ideas that may be unfamiliar, students can participate in the creation of a community where ideas are shared, generated, and integrated. This goes for listening to and supporting marginalized groups as well.

In response to being asked what he would tell a Reedie who feels uninvolved or as if the issues being discussed aren’t particularly relevant to them, Yurel said: “If you want to be a better intellectual, a better human being, you need to get involved. This institution has failed you in a big way if you feel these discussions are not pertinent to your place at Reed or in the United States. If you feel you don’t have a stake in this situation, then I feel you’re wrong. That’s really why we’re doing all this.”

While RAR counts with several committed members willing to put themselves on the line for their beliefs, the position is not lacking in doubt. “Is a predominantly white, elitist institution in Portland the place to give all my energy in this fight?” Addison wondered. “I think a lot of people’s answers to that will be no. The amount of leaves of absence I’ve seen people of color take just this semester... it’s sad. But maybe things will change, one little step in the bigger fight to be uplifted, the fight for my uplifting.”

Mike Brody and Mary James discussed institutional slogans and how to implement them, beyond just being words on posters. “Open mind, generous heart. We’ve got to live those words right now,” Mary said. And we mustn’t forget the classic note scribbled on post-its in the library and on sidewalks during orientation: Love Reed. “Because if not,” Mike said, “I’m not sure what the point is. A great deal of what I love about Reed is its potential, what it’s capable of as a place and as a community. We need to have an open mind to what we’re hearing, to be generous, especially when we disagree, and to channel our love into making this a better place.”

The struggle to improve Reed and to decide what that means for the community as a whole is far from simple. With so many perspectives and opinions on what should happen next, on what is worth fighting to keep or to change, the main point of agreement is that communication between individuals and groups on campus needs to be improved and remedied in order for constructive discussion and decision making to take place.

“As gloomy as I feel sometimes, and as I isolated as I feel sometimes, I see hope in that there is a good handful of students who are willing to put everything into fighting for their dignity and representation,” Addison said. “I personally feel very compelled to fight as a black woman to be treasured and appreciated for my blackness and not in spite of it.” She sighed. “There’s something nice about the fact that I’m not alone in feeling like there’s no other option.”

“I don’t know if we can return to business as usual,” said Yurel. “I guess we could, and that’s scary. But this conversation is here now.”

There’s no questioning that these are uncertain times on campus, in the nation, and in the world. In a sea of unknowns and possibilities for change, perhaps only one thing is for sure: the conversation is far from over.