Faculty Power, Dissent, and the Secret History of Black Studies at Reed

Reed College will always celebrate its activists in hindsight. The popular history of Reed activism rarely acknowledges the bureaucratic opposition to activists that occurs behind closed doors, allowing the school to quietly silence dissenters even as it places them on promotional materials as champions of institutional progress. Any official statement regarding Reed in the 1960s will be quick to emphasize the success of the Black Student Union protests of 1968 and 1969 and highlight the peaceable establishment of the Black Studies Center in 1971. This narrative belies the powerful coalition of faculty and administrators who worked in opposition to the Center and played an active role in its collapse.

The stage was already set for a power struggle in 1964, when Reed received a Rockefeller grant of about $275,000 with the stipulation that Reed recruit a number of “minority students.” By 1968, Reed had reached a new peak enrollment of fifty-five black students. However, despite reaching out to successful black high school seniors across the country, the school neglected to provide any support system for these students once they arrived, and attrition rates began to spike. In the spring of 1968, following far-reaching incidences of local and national racist violence (including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), and public contention regarding black students’ discomfort with Reed’s introductory Humanities course, a critical majority banded together to form the Black Student Union (BSU). Several members of the BSU had backgrounds in activism, and they rallied behind a small list of demands. Their primary platform was the establishment of an independent Black Studies Center with a black director and all-black faculty.

Realizing that the retention of black students was vital to receiving a Rockefeller grant, President Victor G. Rosenblum voiced support for the Center almost immediately. The faculty, however, were less enthusiastic. Professor Marvin Levich of the Philosophy department was among the most vocally opposed to the Center. Citing questions of academic freedom, he would later claim that “the very nature of the term ‘Black Studies’ meant that [the program] was going to be politically determined.”

Levich, who was held in high esteem by other faculty members, rallied many of them against the BSU’s agenda and quickly became a figurehead of the opposition to Black Studies at Reed. His resistance was grounded in a grimly oppositionary view of student-faculty relations.

Levich, who had started teaching at Reed in 1953, was a self-styled champion of faculty autonomy and strongly opposed allowing students a hand in policy change. “To presume the students should be a controlling factor in an institution,” says Levich, “is ultimately to imply that [the faculty] have no significant business to do so.”

Levich himself spoke from a place of significant institutional leverage. The Faculty Advisory Committee (FAC)—an all-faculty voting body which presided over grades, tenure, and curriculum as well as guided the creation of new policy—held more power than any individual administrative body at Reed. Paul Bragdon, brought on as president in 1971, would later note that upon his arrival, "the strong view [on campus] was that the Faculty Advisory Committee ran the college.” The committee rarely spoke unanimously, but a handful of senior faculty members, Levich included, were seen to dominate discussions and voting processes.

Votes made by the committee were seen to be particularly subject to the preferences of certain faculty members over others. “There was, to my knowledge, no evidence that these elections were corrupt,” says Rosenblum, “[But I knew] that there were those perceptions.”

In 1968, meetings of the FAC were accessible only to faculty. The faculty also held a majority in Reed’s Community Senate, which consisted at that time of ten students and eleven faculty, one of whom served as chairman. The secrecy of faculty affairs was frequently challenged by students, who pushed a motion through the Community Senate in November of 1968 that student observers be permitted in FAC meetings. The motion went unaddressed for four months, and when a student senator moved in a meeting to acknowledge that the issue was being avoided, the chairman requested they discuss it in private. The motion was struck from the record.

The BSU acknowledged that the support of the FAC was instrumental to the college meeting their demands. Together with the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), the BSU and FAC formed a joint committee with one purpose: to draft a mutually satisfactory resolution to be submitted to the Community Senate at their meeting on December 2.

Negotiations moved slowly, and all parties realized that the divide between their visions was too large to be overcome by mere committee processes. BSU took the floor on December 2 as planned, but instead of presenting the joint committee’s findings, they restated their demands for an independent Black Studies center.

The FAC convened privately on December 11 to discuss whether the issue was beyond negotiation. BSU members demanded a student presence and stated that the meeting was in “open session.” Students who attended were barred from entry. Faculty emerged several hours later with a resolution accepting the basic terms of the Black Studies program, but nullifying the terms of its independence and the demand that its professors be black. “The grounds for rejecting [these] demands,” the faculty clarified, “rest on the deep commitment of the faculty to other principles, namely, academic freedom and the functioning of Reed as a community rather than as a collection of competing interest groups.”

BSU students, prepared for this move by the faculty, went about executing a series of actions they had planned weeks in advance. Black students barricaded themselves in the second floor of Eliot, blocking access to the President’s Office as well as the Registrar and many other vital administrative centers. Meanwhile, the ad hoc Radical Boycott Committee, formed by white students in support of the BSU, declared their intention to boycott classes until the BSU’s demands were met.

The Community Senate convened the next day and passed a long list of resolutions which “strongly condemned all the physical interference with classes and administration” and “urged those physically interfering with classes and administration to stop doing so.” However, the class boycott—led by white students during the BSU’s sit-in—was resolved to be “a matter of individual conscience.”

 Members of the Black Student Union in sleeping bags in Eliot Hall during the BSU takeover of the administrative offices in 1968 courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Members of the Black Student Union in sleeping bags in Eliot Hall during the BSU takeover of the administrative offices in 1968 courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

As Reed’s administrative functions continued to stall, the opposition to the Black Studies program grew more vocal. Faculty felt increasing pressure to come to a solution which would not require them to defer to the BSU’s demands, and on December 18 released a statement of support for the Black Studies Center. Decisions on hiring, advancement, and tenure for the Center, however, were to be made by the FAC.

Trustees approved the statement a few days later, but the BSU was unsatisfied. In early February, they released a statement calling the resolutions “unacceptable, evasive, and meaningless.” They reiterated the demand that the Black Studies program be autonomous.

Winter break did little more than foment the existing tensions on campus, and the issue began to dominate campus policy meetings. During these meetings, the first inklings of Reed’s Dissent Policy were introduced in the form of a repeated resolution to codify a formal relationship between the Honor Principle and Reed students’ right to engage in acts of on-campus resistance. While the intent to discuss this issue is clearly stated on meeting agendas, there remains no evidence of such discussion in the minutes of those meetings.

After holding an ad hoc meeting on February 25, 1969, to take care of less pressing business, the Community Senate convened on February 27. At this time, a group of white students were staging simultaneous sit-ins at the President’s office and at the Portland offices of multiple trustees, demanding a reaffirmation of the December 18 statement of support for Black Studies. Several students at one trustee’s office were arrested.

As the first order of business at their meeting on February 27, the Community Senate proposed and voted upon a resolution with phrasing almost identical to Reed’s current Dissent Policy. The resolution was brought forth by Samuel McCracken, an English professor whose tenure at Reed, while brief, was marked by an attitude that made him ideal for introducing the policy. Staunchly moderate in his leanings, McCracken was noted for having said of the 1968 Humanities 110 protests: “We might especially, here at Reed, consider whether or not there is danger of confrontations leading to mutual destruction, and whether or not the two confronters may after all have the same sort of common interest and common liability which would allow them to seek an accommodation.”

McCracken’s original phrasing was rather more severe than that statement would imply. In addition to laying out the basic wording of today’s Dissent Policy, he also moved that forms of protest which actively disrupt classes or the day-to-day operations of the college be seen to, “constitute as serious a violation of the Honor Principle as the Community is ever likely to see.” The proposition effectively held that any act of protest deemed disruptive could lead immediately to a Judicial Board case, a formal power not vested in any administrative body before that point. The Judicial Board at Reed recommends sanctions to a disciplinary authority, who operates within its recommendations as they see fit. Such cases normally require both parties to agree that mediation is impossible, but Dissent Policy assumes mediation to be impossible the moment someone can claim that the “orderly process” of the institution has been disrupted.

Once the resolution passed, the faculty wasted no time in leveraging it against protesters. “[The Senate] orders the students participating in this occupation to cease immediately or face judicial action,” moved Professor Maure Goldschmidt immediately after the resolution on dissent was passed. “It directs its Judicial Board to inform those students of its policy and to seek their compliance.” The movement failed, but the students participating in the occupation quickly took the message to heart, vacating Eliot within two days in order to prove their “good faith.”

On March 4, 1969, the FAC convened for the first time since the sit-ins. At this meeting, two resolutions of note were passed: the first approved a much more independent Black Studies Center which would not fall under the jurisdiction of the FAC. The second, to which no students bore witness, was the largely undisputed passage of the Senate’s resolution on dissent. The only point of discussion on the second resolution was whether or not the class boycotts organized by white students were considered under the policy. They were determined to be exempt. One professor quoted President Morris Abram of Brandeis, saying that “good intentions, openness, reform—none of these will satisfy a small student element and their faculty allies who thrive on disorder and disruption.”

The resolution on Black Studies passed with great fanfare, and the faculty immediately released an official statement of intent to win funding for the program. The statement made no mention of the second resolution.

Trustees convened on March 8 to approve and allocate funds to the new Black Studies Center, with the BSU’s assent. At the March 29 trustee meeting, called under the pretense of ratifying the Black Studies amendment, the trustees voted in favor of writing the dissent resolution into official school policy, and the power it vests in the faculty and administration stands unaltered today.

The following August, President Rosenblum sent out a memorandum to the entire community addressing the recently codified Dissent Policy and the progress towards funding the Black Studies Center.

“During the past academic year,” Rosenblum said, “Reed College had some experiences which led it to state more explicitly its long standing policy with respect to the expression of dissent on the campus...Subsequent to these developments, action was taken by the Community Senate of the College...it should be pointed out that the recent record of actions by the Senate makes it clear that, as the Senate resolution of February 27 would suggest, the Senate will take a most serious view of honor violations of the kind defined by the resolution.” The Community Senate, at that time, had final decision in all J-Board cases.

Regarding the Black Studies program, Rosenblum’s tone was largely optimistic, assuring students concerned about the program’s relatively small budget that “it would be realistic to look forward to larger budgets in ensuing years” and providing his assurance that, although a director had not been selected at that point, the proceedings were moving at pace and with minimal interference from the administration.

Levich and his cohort, however, had no desire to let the issue slide. Over the next few years, many younger faculty began to depart the college under mysterious circumstances. Some cite being driven out by older and more powerful faculty for their support of BSU. Ottomar Rudolf, German professor from 1963 to 1998, notes that the FAC was known for being particularly harsh on younger and more progressive professors. “Richard Jones in history was always voted in, as was [Levich]... They were good, but when it came to judgements on tenure, they were very tough on people.”

President Rosenblum, a former professor who maintained many ties to his old colleagues, often took faculty members out on drives to tell them when the FAC disapproved of their teaching methods. The faculty began holding secret meetings and private cabals, and were known to “slate” votes, coercing less powerful faculty members to vote a certain way.

“The conservative side was most adept at this,” says Nicolas Wheeler, physics professor from 1963 to 2010, “so [they] pretty effectively controlled elections at Reed.”

The secrecy of the FAC became an increasingly contentious issue for students, who demanded to be informed of what happened behind closed doors. Multiple minor protests were organized, but under the looming threat of the new Dissent Policy, new tactics had to be deployed. Some two hundred students thus announced a tuition boycott, refusing to pay the college its dues until demands for greater transparency were met. In an exhaustive series of personal meetings, Rosenblum was able to talk a significant number of students into staying, promising to enact the change they demanded. Nonetheless, 40 students departed the college at the end of the strike, having not paid tuition for the semester.

For this and other economic reasons, Rosenblum was removed from the Office of the President. In 1971, Levich, wasting no time, had himself placed on the search committee for the new president, Paul Bragdon. Levich established close personal ties to the new president, who proceeded to make Levich his vice president and promote him to the new position of Faculty Provost. Levich assumed control over many of the daily operations of the college on both the administrative and faculty fronts. According to Rudolf, Levich’s power was nearly undisputed on campus. “[Levich] and history professor Dick Jones worked hand-in-hand to undermine Paul Bragdon. They were both very powerful, and wanted to run the show. You couldn’t go against them, really.”

Bragdon quickly established himself as a much more active force in quashing student activism than his predecessor had been. The 1972 “Bragdon Memo” became the first to directly invoke Dissent Policy in order to raise a Judicial Board case against student protesters occupying Eliot.

“[Dissent Policy],” Bragdon explains, “was adopted by both the faculty and the Senate in contemplation of the possibility of precisely such actions as this occupation of Eliot Hall. The violation of principle is, therefore, unquestionable.”

Having gained leverage over the current wave of activists, Levich’s coalition went to work undoing the progress that the last wave had made. In a letter to President Bragdon on September 27, 1975, Levich (acting as chairman of the EPC) said: “The Educational Policy Committee came to the tentative conclusion last evening that it would recommend to the faculty that black studies not be considered an essential part of a liberal arts curriculum at Reed. In effect, the recommendation holds that black studies, while desirable, is not necessary.”

Levich’s opposition to the Black Studies Center was founded on much more than economic or even academic questions. His bitterness, by this point, took the form of personal disagreements with the new director of the Black Studies Center, William McClendon—a prominent black jazz musician and activist. “I think [he] would have to be agreed to be academically incompetent,” Levich said, citing a perceived lack of rigor in McClendon’s curriculum.

Levich was threat enough to Black Studies, but he was far from the only faculty member working against it. According to Martin White ‘69, “although the Black Studies Center was established...there were faculty members who worked to undercut its effectiveness; for instance, not allowing credits that were earned in Black Studies courses to fulfill a history requirement, and they wouldn’t recognize the validity of courses that were taught by teachers that were hired outside of the normal procedures instituted by the FAC.” Dick Jones, a senior professor in the History department and a long-time friend of Levich, shared many of his grievances regarding academic freedom and faculty leverage at Reed.

This long series of blows to the sustained autonomy of the Black Studies Center eventually took their toll. In 1975, Black Studies was cut in a budget meeting by the faculty. Rosenblum, in a retrospective, claims that “the institution...needed to look to other sources in order to be able to continue the operation...[and] schools like Reed were not in the position to get those other sources.” For his part, Levich says, “the Black Studies program just kind of collapsed of its own weight. History dictated what principle did not.”

Although Black Studies was a fleeting victory, Dissent Policy remains. The 1968 to 1969 protests are construed in institutional memory as a victory for social justice at Reed and a triumph of Reed’s supposedly ‘liberal’ politics. They may have been exactly the opposite: a front for faculty to quietly implement policy it would use to bully and censor students of color for decades to come, while quietly encouraging a backslide into the status quo when progress ceases to be profitable.

 

Cover photo: Students protesting the lack of a Black Studies Department in front of the main entrance to Eliot Hall, 1968 courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.