Opinion: Reed Unions in a Time of National Division

From the period of 1963 to 1973 the college held twenty one Reed Unions; from 2010 to 2020, the college held five. Reed Unions were originally envisioned by a first year student in the 1940s as a ceremonial way to have a meal as a community and discuss some topic of import. Topics for these unions were at points more philosophical, such as  “How do you define the good man and the good society in principle?,” and more practical questions of “Labor Legislation and the National Economy with Special Reference to the Wagner Act.” Both of these Reed Unions were held in 1947, and their proximity to one another represents the early fervor the college had for Reed Unions. 

In 1999, a staff, faculty, and student Reed Union Committee (RUC) formed out a community legislative process as a response to student’s lack of familiarity with the format—in order to give deference to the original student foundings of Reed Unions, a student would remain the chair. In 2007, 60 years after the first unions were held, and eight years after RUC was established, the college found itself once again unfamiliar with the nature of a Reed Union. RUC noted that their function had been taken up in other places, namely Honor Council, particularly in regards to discussing diversity on campus. In response to this shift in campus culture, RUC decided to turn Reed Unions away from a focus on campus issues and towards a national one. Since 2007, Honor Council has shifted focus, and as Reed Unions focus on Reed’s interaction with nationally important topics students find themselves turning to missed connections, graffiti, Quest Opinion articles, and weathergrams to display their feelings about the most salient campus matters. 

Of the most modern unions, five exist in easily accessible recorded form. These modern unions focused mostly on the ongoing climate crisis, the specific themes were “Climate Change: Policy, Advocacy, Science” in March 2013, “Sustainability at Reed Now” in December 2013, and most recently “Community Responsibility in a Time of Climate Crisis” on February 6, 2020. Each union of the last decade has been recorded and is on the Reed website on the Office of the Dean of the Faculty page. President Audrey Bilger’s most recent community message announces a definitive advancement along with the college’s sustainability mission statement to “[meet] the resource needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This is not the first step the college has taken towards advancing its sustainability goals since the most recent Reed Union. 

Less than a week after the 2020 Reed Union, Bilger released a message to the community about potential areas of investigation for progress towards a more sustainable college. One of these was the potential for a staff sustainability coordinator position to be established, and the other was alternative bike storage. The newly added gunmetal boxes next to Commons, behind Eliot, and near Physical Plant are part of a pilot program hoping to make bike storage on campus more accessible, and secure. As per Bilger’s February 12 communication, the staff sustainability coordinator was slated for hiring in early 2020-21 school year, but given the voracity of the pandemic we could not have predicted a year before its genesis, it seems the position has gone unfilled and unsearched for without much fanfare.

Reed’s sustainability statement recognizes our impact on the city of Portland, the Pacific Northwest as a region, and the entirety of the planet. As a college, we seem less able to realize the precise ways that those things impact us. How our ability to be together has been damaged, not just by a pandemic, but by the toxic political climate generated by a political apparatus sustained by its own uselessness. The questions of how Reed Unions are used in a post pandemic environment, how we communicate and begin to know ourselves better in a turbulent media environment, and navigate an increasingly diverse student body with a faculty that isn’t as alacritous in addressing those changes are not solved. How we define harm, safety, and compare protection to paternalism are problems we keep not solving. None of these questions are easy ones, but there was a time when we strove to answer hard questions. 

There is an old way Reed used to talk about students and itself. Reed, as a college, sought “to accomplish this by developing their powers of self-direction, by teaching to form judgments upon the basis of the fullest available information, and by interesting them in the common problems and common resources of the American people and the whole family of nations.” These words are almost a century old, appearing in the 1925 catalog, and at the end of a 2009 piece on Reed Unions as their goal. In a world that seems bleaker by the column inch, if that pursuit can be achieved anywhere, it’s the same place those words were written about. 

Much of this article is based on the online resources compiled by Brain Radzinsky, a former student senator. He has our thanks.

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