Reed Welcomes Audrey Bilger in Times of Change
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a student enrolled in a Reed education must be in want of a change of administrative leadership. The start of the 2019–2020 school marks that change, a time of expectancy about what sort of president Audrey Bilger will be. Bilger, professor of English literature, Jane Austen scholar, and the sixteenth president of Reed College, arrived at Reed this fall from Pomona College, where she worked as vice president and dean of the college.
Bilger chose Reed because she saw it as “a place I could believe in.” She sees her role as a “narrator-in-chief” who is responsible for the story Reed tells about itself, and believing in Reed is important for her to do that. “That’s fundamental. I can’t tell that story if I don’t believe in it,” she said. “I don’t think the president makes up that story, that story comes from the community, comes from history, from where we are now.”
Selected by a year-long presidential search process following John Kroger’s departure at the end of the 2017–2018 academic year, Bilger is Reed’s first woman president. As a former professor, she brings years of experience teaching and working with students to this administrative position. Bilger received a B.A. in philosophy from Oklahoma State University before pursuing both her M.A. and PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia. She said that this experience established her belief in education as a “public good,” regardless of the discipline. “Education activates lives to become engaged with the world around them,” she said.
Bilger embraces smaller liberal arts schools because of their focus on teaching and students. As she told an audience of Peer Mentors, House Advisors, and Interconnect Mentors before the beginning of the semester, Bilger hopes to teach classes and advise theses in the years to come at Reed.
Part of her ability to connect with students will depend on rebuilding trust and faith in administration and administrators. “The connection I want to have with students is one of being accessible,” Bilger said. She will host regular office hours, and she plans to make a commitment to be active around campus so students have a chance to informally interact with her.
Stepping into the role of president, Bilger has also inherited a history of mistreatment of students of color by the administration, from the discriminatory disciplinary action initiated by Kroger during the Reedies Against Racism occupation of Eliot Hall to the discriminatory enforcement of the AOD policy. Retention rates for students of color are appreciably lower than Reed’s already low retention rate.
Bilger provided little specificity in her answers about changes she would like to make to support BIPOC on campus, saying, “It’s always been my thought that thinking about the concerns of students of color can never be afterthoughts.” Bilger sees her role as president as setting the tone at the leadership level for the work being done “on the ground” in campus offices.
As a professor of gender theory as well as literature, Bilger emphasized her background working on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Bilger was a student in gender and women’s studies in the 1980s when the field first emerged in academia. As a professor, Bilger advised multiple queer and women’s student organizations. “Working as the dean of the college at Pomona, my office worked very hard to think about how to think beyond just numbers in terms of diversity and think about what it really means to retain students and faculty and staff of color and we had a really good track record,” Bilger added.
The new presidency also begins at a time of high staff turnover at Reed as well, especially staff of color. Bilger kept her answers similarly short regarding this turnover and regarding recent unionization efforts by student and staff workers alike. “In my view Reed ought to be a good place to work… so it’s important to me to do the things [that] we need to do to ensure that that is the case for our staff as well as for our faculty and for our students too who work here as well.”
Among the changes Bilger is excited to see, student success and retention are high priorities for her. “Education doesn’t have to be miserable,” she said. She is excited to join and add to existing conversations driven by the ad hoc committee on student success, the Student Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (SCAPP), and the Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (CAPP).
“As we consider what resources students may find useful in their journeys at Reed, we’re also saying that everyone doesn’t necessarily come from the same background and that we can work together to ensure that all students have the tools to succeed,” she explained. Student success is especially important for Bilger given her own experience of “hunger for knowledge” as a student. “I know what it is to be cast down and blocked and feel like you’re not ever going to be able to write another sentence,” she said.
Bilger sees this as directly related to inclusivity. “Fostering inclusive excellence is something that has been a feature of my career, one I want to continue here at Reed. It’s something I think is already well under way at Reed. I also want to continue the conversations that say that rigor doesn’t have to be rigid, that there is no opposition between inclusivity and excellence. These things are necessary for one another.” Bilger believes this is possible because of Reed’s students, who, as she describes it, “dare to care.”
Bilger dares to care, as well, about anything from literature to music. Moving to Portland, Bilger and her wife Cheryl Pawelski have spent hours unpacking books into their new home. Among these are Bilger’s favorite Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. Though, as Bilger says, “The joke about Jane Austen among Austen lovers is ‘My favorite Jane Austen novel is the one I’m reading right now.’”
Pawelski, the founder of Omnivore Recordings, works in the music industry, so the shelves without books quickly fill with records. Bilger’s favorite of these records is Big Star’s Third. “For a long time I thought of it as a kind of secret handshake, and when I first met my wife, it was one of the records that we talked about in one of our earliest conversations. So we knew we were meant to be,” she said. I also asked Bilger what SU ball she would host if she could. “I realized that the answer was obvious,” she said. “It would have to be a Prince ball. Who wouldn’t want to come dance?”
Bilger has made her way to Reed through many schools, many classes, and many books. In all that time, her favorite theorist is bell hooks. She loves that hooks refuses to include footnotes in her writing, and the sort of intellectual practice this represents. In Bilger’s view, hooks emphasizes “the need for these ideas we have in the academy, particularly ideas about social justice, to find their way into the wider sphere. This is never about dumbing anything down. It’s about being able to have ideas that have the kind of resonance that we can talk to everyone and listen also, which is very key.”
Before she discovered her love of English literature, Bilger first studied philosophy. “I started out as a philosophy major. I gravitated toward philosophy because it was a place where I felt like we were asking the really big questions, the kind of why are we here questions. I was engaged first by existentialism and […] fascinated by the idea that everything we’ve been handed doesn’t have to be this way. We have to figure it out ourselves.”