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Arts & Culture

Oregon Experience: Reed

OPB | Sept. 27, 2011 6:29 a.m. | Updated: Dec. 5, 2013 11:15 a.m.

In 1911, a small liberal arts college was launched in Portland, Oregon with the overarching mission of promoting the life of the mind. Founded by a prominent minister and brought to life by a visionary young upstart president, Reed College soon became a well-regarded institution of higher learning nationally, but also something of a lightning rod for criticism from civic leaders locally.

The next OREGON EXPERIENCE, produced by Beth Harrington and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem, examines the history of a college striving to live up to its founders’ ideals while continually confronting a wide range of public opinion. Tune in to the stations of Oregon Public Broadcasting on Tuesday, October 11 at 9pm for an in-depth look at Reed College as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Reed has long been known for holding to the highest standards of academic rigor. But the school’s unofficial tongue-in-cheek motto – Atheism, Communism, Free Love – reflects an internal understanding that the college was perceived differently by the general public.

Just before the turn of the century, Thomas Lamb Eliot, a young minister in Portland, had a vision of creating a college in the growing city. He shared that dream with Simeon Reed, a wealthy friend and confidant. Reed, one of the founders of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, made a bequest in his will for the establishment of an institution of higher learning in Portland. His widow, Amanda, was determined to fulfill her husband’s wishes, but when she died, the convoluted terms of the will took years to unravel. In the end, it was decided that Reed would be a liberal arts college where students would come to learn “for the sake of learning.”

Its first young president, William Trufant Foster, was determined to make Reed an intellectual hot house of academic freedom. He recruited faculty from around the country. With an average age under 30, this new guard soon began to achieve renown.

From its early days, there was a complicated town/gown relationship between Reed and Portland. From radicalism to financial crises to unconventional teaching methods to experiments with co-ed living arrangements as early as the 1950s, there has been no shortage of controversy associated with Reed. But with the third highest percentage of students in the country going on to obtain their Ph.D. degrees, along with an extraordinary number of Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars and other honors, Reed is considered among the nation’s academic elites, even as it refuses to participate in the annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings study. And, unlike most of its peer institutions, Reed, with an enrollment of about 1,400 students, still has no varsity sports teams, fraternities or sororities.

The vision that William Foster put down to guide the college hasn’t been an easy one, but Reed continues to honor and carry forth that vision. It’s a work, as they say, in progress.

The story is richly woven together with interviews from Reed alumni from over the years, and photos and film from the archives of Reed College.

Watch OREGON EXPERIENCE: REED online anytime after the broadcast at watch.opb.org.

About OREGON EXPERIENCE

OREGON EXPERIENCE is an exciting history series on OPB TV that brings to life fascinating stories that help us understand who we are and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. The series, co-produced by the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), takes advantage of the extensive film, video and stills from the archives of OHS and OPB, and draws upon the expertise of OHS researchers and historians. Each half-hour show features captivating characters — both familiar and forgotten — who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. Funding for OREGON EXPERIENCE is provided in part by the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and Oregon Cultural Trust.

About OPB

OPB is the largest cultural and education institution in the region, delivering excellence in public broadcasting to 1.5 million people each week through television, radio and the Internet. Widely recognized as a national leader in the public broadcasting arena, OPB is a major contributor to the program schedule that serves the entire country. OPB is one of the most-used and most-supported public broadcasting services in the country and is generously supported by 120,000 contributors.

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