Reed curriculum battle erupts

A battle brewing over Reed’s classics curriculum reflects activism underway at colleges nationwide.

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PORTLAND — A tense meeting between Reed College professors and minority students who view the school’s longstanding humanities course as “racist, white supremacist, texts of domination” has erupted into a battle that now has one professor publicly accusing the administration of “abandoning its Hum 110 faculty.” 

In a strongly worded letter emailed to Reed faculty, Steven Wasserstrom, professor of Judaic Studies and Humanities, complained that professors were “ambushed” by the students’ list of “demands, concerns and derogations …” 

“While the faculty were ‘allowed’ to speak, the bind into which we were forced was inescapable: we were there to be flayed publically, so to speak,” Wasserstrom wrote. He declined to comment further for this article. 

Like many liberal arts colleges, Reed has a tradition of teaching a classics humanities course that focuses on a white male pantheon: e.g., Aristotle.  However, as detailed in a previous Oregon Business article, the college finds itself in an increasingly tense stand off between the “old guard,” who aim to maintain traditional curriculum, and a “new guard,” who want the school to be more welcoming to millennials and minorities. 


Tension came to a head in late September, when students boycotted classes to protest police mistreatment of African Americans in solidarity with the #StayatHomeSept262016 movement.

That boycott led to a series of demands from Reed’s students of color and a meeting with Reed College President John Kroger. Students reportedly singled out the school’s humanities course as needing massive changes, according to a faculty member who asked not to be named. 

Kroger’s sit down with students appears to have led to the meeting between students and faculty that sparked the letter from Wasserstrom. The letter details the challenges facing professors who object to altering the curriculum.

“Are the Hum 110 faculty to spend the remaining (almost entirety) of this school year 2016-2017 sitting in classroom affirming as fact that Hum 110 is — as the charges against us have it — racist, white supremacist, texts of domination, expressions of ‘the master?'” Wasserstrom asked in the letter. 

Similar curriculum battles are occurring nationwide — with serious repurcussions for administrators and faculty. For example, in June, Seattle University placed a humanities dean on leave after a three-week long sit in in which students accused the dean of racism.

The dean, Jodi Kelly, has since been replaced with an interim dean, pending review of the complaints lodged with the school’s equity office.