Reed College – 2016-2017

Student group protests humanities class, demands hiring of minority professors

Portland, OR

Reedies Against Racism (RAR), a student group at Reed College, has staged numerous protests in an effort to promote racial justice and inclusion on campus. The protests began in September 2016, focusing especially on Humanities 110, a mandatory classics course for freshmen. The group has also criticized the college’s relationship with Wells Fargo, a financial services firm that they claim has ties to the private prison industry.

Key Players

Reed College President John R. Kroger, former attorney general of Oregon, has sought to address the concerns of RAR while criticizing the student group’s protest tactics. Though he commended a review of Hum 110’s syllabus, he asked students to “refrain from any further disruption in the classroom” and discouraged “ad hominem attacks against faculty members for teaching ancient Mediterranean texts…” When students staged a “peaceful sit-in outside [his] office,” Kroger wrote in a letter to students and faculty that he had “no objection” to it. He continued, “The meeting area outside my office is a place of symbolic power, and thus a reasonable place to express one’s political views.” However, he condemned “tactics that prevent the college from operating or subject our faculty, staff, and students to inappropriate or intimidating conduct.”

Lucía Martínez Valdivia is an assistant professor at Reed. She has urged students to refrain from protesting Hum 110 and instead “say yes to the text.” When student protests caused her Hum 110 lecture to be cancelled in September 2017, Reed Magazine published her planned remarks. Within her prepared lecture, she argued that students “should read things in good faith, understanding the distance, the strangeness from our own historical moment. If we get distracted by Plato’s misogyny or Lucretius’ imperfect mastery of physics, we miss the point, the bigger pictures of these works — the way Plato structures his arguments, for example, or the fact that Lucretius was driven to theorize about the nature of the physical world when that just wasn’t something people did.”

Further Details

In September 2016, students at Reed formed RAR, an organization dedicated to creating a more welcoming and just campus environment. Initially inspired by actor Isaiah Washington’s call to protest police violence against African Americans by staying home on September 26, 2016, RAR organized a boycott of all classes on that day. Concurrently, the group issued 25 demands, reported The Atlantic. They ranged from “[t]ransparency and long-term reform regarding Reed’s… investment in companies… that profit from the incarceration of black and brown people” to “the hiring of more tenure-track black faculty.”

One of RAR’s demands took aim at a humanities course called Hum 110. This course is the “foundation of the Reed College curriculum,” according to professor Peter Steinberger. In an article for Reed Magazine, he explained that Hum 110 is “an intensive, year-long course required of all first-year students,” meant to engage students in “the study of archaic and classical Greece, focusing on Homer, Hesiod, the lyric poets, the plastic arts (including vase painting, sculpture and architecture), Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle.”

In its list of demands, RAR called for Hum 110 to be “reformed to represent the voices of people of color… There should be an articulated understanding that ‘foundational texts’ are subjective and that the importance of the course is to foster student’s (sic) abilities to read, write, and listen/respond. Before this is accomplished, Hum 110 should be conscious of the power it gives to already privileged ideas and welcome critique of that use of power.” Specifically, RAR urged administrators to alter the mandatory nature of the course until reforms in the syllabus are made.

Hum 110, which has been taught at Reed since 1943, undergoes a curriculum review every 10 years, reported Inside Higher Ed. However, Reed faculty responded to RAR’s demands by agreeing to review the course ahead of the normal schedule. The special review began in September 2016. Reed faculty also agreed to conduct a series of meetings between Hum 110 professors and RAR-affiliated students. These meetings “ended when RAR members stopped coming,” according to The Atlantic. Some RAR students complained via Facebook of being “forced to sit in hours of fruitless meetings listening to full-grown adults cry about Aristotle.”

RAR-affiliated students regularly protested Hum 110 courses throughout the 2016-2017 school year. The protests usually entailed “RAR supporters position[ing] themselves alongside the professor and quietly hold[ing] signs reading ‘We demand space for students of color,’ ‘We cannot be erased,’ ‘Fuck Hum 110,’ ‘Stop silencing black and brown voices; the rest of society is already standing on their necks,’ and so on. The signs are often accompanied by photos of black Americans killed by police,” reported The Atlantic. In August 2017, RAR announced that students would continue to protest Hum 110 lectures and requested that protesters be provided class time to introduce themselves, reported Inside Higher Ed. Faculty leaders denied this request and cancelled the first Hum 110 lecture of the year when protesters disrupted it.

Many professors permitted the protests, adhering to a “general understanding… that the protesters would be allowed to continue as long as they didn’t interfere in the lecture period,” according to Inside Higher Ed. Others were less tolerant of the disruption. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a professor of religion and humanities at Reed, declined to lecture while students held signs denouncing the course. He explained to Inside Higher Ed that this was “a personal decision for me. I felt I owed my colleagues and students in the course an explanation and shared my reasoning with them, but I never intended it to go further than that.” Lucia Martínez Valdivia, an assistant professor at Reed, says she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In November 2016, she asked students not to protest during her class, doubting “her ability to deliver the lecture in the face of their opposition,” The Economist reported. “At first, demonstrators announced they would change tactics and sit quietly in the audience, wearing black. After her speech, a number of them berated her, bringing her to tears.” In October 2017, Valdivia authored an article for The Washington Post in which she claimed that “the right to speak freely is not the same as the right to rob others of their voices.” She noted that student protesters had silenced many of her colleagues and contended that “university life — along with civic life — dies without the free exchange of ideas.”

Some students, particularly freshmen, have been critical of RAR’s in-class disruptions. One student, “a low-income, first-generation American person of color,” anonymously wrote in a student magazine, “I want to be able to go to Hum lecture without having people holding pictures of dead children in my face.” In one telling incident, recounted by The Atlantic, RAR protesters disrupted Professor Ann Delehanty’s lecture on The Iliad with a “noise parade.” When Delehanty left the room to deliver her lecture in a different classroom, many students followed her instead of listening to a RAR demonstrator discuss Reed’s investment portfolio.

RAR’s protests extended beyond Hum 110 lectures. In October 2017, students affiliated with RAR staged a sit-in in President Kroger’s office in Eliot Hall. According to Kroger, the students demanded “that Reed terminate its relationship with Wells Fargo bank because of the bank’s alleged ties to the private prison industry, the Keystone natural gas pipeline, and, in the words of the student petition, ‘Israeli occupation crimes.’” When the protest spread to the treasurer’s office, also located in Eliot Hall, some students were issued a no-contact order following a confrontation with a staff member. While students who violated the order risked being referred to local police, they were still permitted to camp out in Kroger’s office, according to Oregon Live.

The sit-in, which lasted many weeks, eventually spread to the admissions office, too. There, students responded to vandalism that was discovered in the bathrooms of the college’s library. The vandalism advanced white supremacy and Nazi ideology, prompting RAR to make four demands related to inclusion on campus. They included “mak[ing] Reed a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants” and “edit[ing] the school’s missions statement so that it is anti-racist.”

On December 19, 2017, Reed’s Investment Committee declined to divest from Wells Fargo. The committee announced in a statement, “We have carefully considered the students’ request and have concluded that divestment for these reasons would violate the college’s Operating Principles and Investment Responsibility Policy, which are based on a deep commitment to academic freedom.”

Outcome

Student protest inside administrative building ends

On December 20, 2017, RAR announced via Facebook that the protest inside Eliot Hall had ended. The sit-in lasted many weeks, with students camping out in the offices of the president, the treasurer, and admissions.

Revision of the Hum 110 Syllabus is Likely

On September 13, 2017, a group of professors who teach Hum 110 proposed a revised syllabus that organizes the course “around four separate but related themes,” according to the chair of Hum 110. Another proposal involves adding “4th century North Africa and the rise of Islam” to the syllabus. As of October 2017, both proposals were under consideration by faculty.

President Kroger steps down

In February 2018, Kroger announced he would step down in the summer of 2018 after serving six years as president of Reed. In a statement announcing his decision, he cited “build[ing] a more diverse, healthy, and inclusive community” as one of his administration’s top priorities during his tenure as president.

External References

Reedies Against Racism’s Demands

The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country, The Atlantic

Professors like me can’t stay silent about this extremist moment on campuses, The Washington Post

What Hum 110 Is All About, Reed Magazine

Occupation of Hum 110, Inside Higher Ed

Reed students have been camped out in the president’s office for 9 days, Oregon Live

A Message from President Kroger – Wells Fargo Protests

President’s Statement on Campus Protests

Update on Hum 110 Course Review, Reed Magazine

Investment Committee Issues Statement on Wells Fargo, Reed Magazine

Hum 110: The Lost Lecture, Reed Magazine

Arguments over free speech on campus are not left v right, The Economist

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

Uploaded on January 15, 2018

Updated on February 12, 2018