An Intervention at Reed

The president of Reed College was summoned on Thursday to a meeting at a federal courthouse in Oregon where federal and state authorities told him that the college must shut down drug use and distribution at the college -- starting with an all-campus party that will take place this coming weekend.

April 26, 2010

The president of Reed College was summoned on Thursday to a meeting at a federal courthouse in Oregon where federal and state authorities told him that the college must shut down drug use and distribution at the college -- starting with an all-campus party that will take place this coming weekend.

While law enforcement officials periodically call on colleges to do more to combat drug use by their students, the meeting was highly unusual in that officials warned Colin Diver, the president, that Reed could face a cutoff of federal funds -- including student loans -- if it is not deemed to be taking "adequate steps to combat illegal drug activity." The meeting with Diver was attended by the U.S. attorney for Oregon, the chief of the narcotics section of the U.S. attorney's office, the county district attorney and the county's deputy D.A.

The authorities told Diver -- and he told the campus on Friday -- that undercover agents would be attending Renn Fayre, the student-organized weekend of parties that starts on Friday (and that once referred to a Renaissance fair, but has moved to other themes). The authorities told Diver that they believed drug dealers planned to attend Renn Fayre to sell to students, and that the college needed to take a more assertive stance against drugs. In the last two years, two Reed students have died of heroin overdoses. (Enrollment is about 1,400.)

Last week's meeting has set off an intense debate at the college and in Portland. While some say that Reed badly needs a change in culture on student tolerance of drugs, others say that Reed is a convenient scapegoat for law enforcement and is being portrayed and treated unfairly. Reed has long been respected for its commitment to the liberal arts and rigorous academics -- Renn Fayre in fact starts as seniors turn in their theses. But the college also has a countercultural (and druggie) reputation that, true or exaggerated, complicates its relationship with local officials.

"There's always a market here for a 'Reed is strange and weird' story," said Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Reed alumnus, one-time director of Renn Fayre, and Portland criminal lawyer whose name is passed by Reed students to those who might need legal help. He said he was glad that the authorities warned Reed that they were about to use undercover cops, but he said that it would not help the situation at all.

"I think it's going to scare students using drugs to be more underground. I think it's going to discourage students from seeking help for drug problems. It's a waste of resources on what is a tiny fingernail clipping in the drug problem," he said. "It's show boating."

'Do Not Use Illegal Drugs'

For its part, the college is doing as the authorities asked.

Reed has asked more faculty and staff members to attend Renn Fayre activities and has stated that officials will not look the other way when it comes to drug use. The college bars everyone but students, alumni and invited guests from the campus during the party and will step up enforcement. Diver sent all Reed students an e-mail Friday in which he said: "My message regarding drug use at Renn Fayre 2010 is very simple: do not use illegal drugs. That means no marijuana, hallucinogens, designer drugs, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, or other illegal substances."

On Saturday, Reed forwarded a message to all students from the U.S. attorney and the county D.A. The message opened with a specific reference to the two overdoses. "Your world has been shaken by the deaths of Sam Tepper and Alejandro Lluch. We are deeply sorry for your loss. For such talent and promise to be abruptly cut off by pointless death is an unspeakable tragedy," they wrote.

They went on to argue that the drug industry in Portland isn't about counterculture. "The illegal drug trade has changed radically since the days when giants like Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder '51 roamed campus here. The fact is that the drug trade is now fueled by one of the most potent forces in the West: greed," they wrote. (Ginsberg, while not an alumnus, did spend a lot of time at Reed, and the college has the earliest known recording of "Howl." And while the law enforcement authorities were clearly trying to reach Reed students by citing the college's history, Reedies will probably be quick to note that Ginsberg's first name was spelled Allen.)

According to the authorities' letter, drug dealers have focused on Reed because its "middle class and wealthier kids" are "an unexploited market with more cash and less guns" than traditional markets. And the authorities wrote that the drugs being pushed are much more powerful than those used in the past. "The results are obvious -- from heroin to marijuana, drug potency has increased exponentially in the last decade. This is precisely why Sam Tepper died -- shockingly potent heroin caused his body to simply shut down."

While praising Reed administrators for responding favorably to the meeting, they added: "It is time for the Reed community to embrace the notion that drug use is not safe and it will not be tolerated -- without fine print, without provisos, and without conditions."

Whether Reed has a substance problem that is worse than those of other colleges is the subject of much debate there. Mike Brody, vice president and dean of students at Reed, said that he hasn't "been spending much time or energy thinking about whether this is fair or unfair," but has rather focused on how to make sure the events on campus are safe. In past years, he said, the greatest number of students seek health care during Renn Fayre have been those who hurt their feet running around on the grass or who (in sunny years) became dehydrated. At the same time, he acknowledged that others have sought help because of substance abuse and said he was "proud" that students felt they could come forward and seek care.

The problem with the current discussions, he said, is their emphasis on enforcement only. "Enforcement is a very important part of any drug or alcohol implementation, but I do not think any campus or community has shown success with enforcement alone," he said. It is important to to stress that Reed still wants to use education and counseling, not just enforcement.

In recent years, Reed has steadily increased its efforts to combat substance abuse. "What we really have at Reed is very clearly a reputation for a permissive stance on drug use, and our policies and implementation are not substantially different from a lot of other colleges that don't have that reputation," he said. Further he said, a big part of the campus reaction comes from a tradition that "our student culture values autonomy and culture in a very intense way."

As a result, Brody said, "many of the students who are most vociferous in their declarations about not having heavy-handed enforcement at Reed College don't use drugs. They just don't want people telling them what to do." If the college may have been lax, Brody said, it was in letting students think "that the only thing we care about is harm reduction." He said he supports such efforts but "balanced with a clear understanding that Reed College does not condone illegal or dangerous drug use."

The two heroin deaths have prompted considerable local press coverage -- notably major articles in the alt weekly Willamette Week in 2008 and 2009 that angered Reed students by describing student newspaper articles offering advice on drug use during Renn Fayre, widespread availability of a variety of drugs, and a laissez-faire attitude toward substance abuse. Both articles feature numerous comments from Reed students and alumni accusing the newspaper of using some drug use to imply that Reed is drug-infused and that Renn Fayre is some kind of massive drug party.

One Reed senior who asked not to be identified told Inside Higher Ed that "most people here don't do drugs, and if they do, they do them infrequently because they are spending all of their time studying."

She said that it is true that many Reed students don't object to others using drugs, but she said that doesn't have to do with drugs so much as a general ethos at the college. "Reedies are a very tolerant group of people," she said, and that includes awareness that "people make different choices in their lives, and some of them are more dangerous than others."

Right now, she said, there are many people who are concerned about what will happen this weekend, and who are angry that what should be "a celebration of students" has turned into something else. "The idea of undercover cops is very scary," she said.

Many students, she said, were hurt by the way the letter from authorities talked specifically about the two students who died. "Many of us are friends with those who died, and people are upset that their friends are being used to target the college."

Renn Fayre vs. Other Spring Parties

As Reed students are quick to note, their college is not the only one with raucous end-of-the-academic-year parties. Officials at James Madison University say that a party there this month turned into a riot. At the University of Connecticut this weekend, 37 students were arrested.

Is Renn Fayre different? Reed students and alumni tend to insist that outsiders can never understand the experience there. But YouTube videos and online photographs of Renn Fayre suggest that Renn Fayre isn't more rowdy or out-of-control than spring parties at other campuses. There appears to be more public nudity, but also more intellectual activity -- with human chess as one regular activity, and some videos suggesting that those in togas are actually trying to be Roman figures, not Bluto Blutarsky. One of the big traditions involves the burning of notes used to draft the senior theses. (Of course those posting videos of these activities may not be those who are doing drugs.)

Wilner-Nugent is among the alumni who return each year for one of the traditions, in which alumni roast meat for "The Feast" -- a major meal to honor the seniors.

He said that he thinks Renn Fayre compares favorably to the spring parties at other colleges. "There's a less macho attitude to it, there is less drinking and so you don't see the sexual harassment compared to other institutions," he said. "They are busting one of the saner and healthier college parties in the nation."

That doesn't mean, Wilner-Nugent said, that there isn't real work that needs to be done to combat substance abuse -- not just at Reed, but generally. The "real, day to day work," he said, doesn't capture attention and doesn't get the money that authorities can get for a well-publicized crackdown at Reed. He said, for example, that he advises all of his clients to never break the law. For those with serious drug addictions, he works to place them in treatment centers. He said these programs are woefully lacking in funds and that it's actually difficult to find treatment for some people -- a fact that he said should anger people more than a party at Reed.

Law enforcement efforts come and go, he said. "There was one when I lost a friend from Reed to heroin the summer after I graduated in 1995," he said. "It hasn't worked."

The Threat on Federal Funds

It is unclear how real the threat is to bar federal funds from going to Reed and its students. The federal government rarely cuts off funds to an entire college in the way Reed's president was threatened.

At the same time, the law does create the potential to do just that. The Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 and the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1989 both state that "no institution of higher education shall be eligible to receive funds or any other form of financial assistance under any federal program, including participation in any federally funded or guaranteed student loan program, unless it has adopted and has implemented a program to prevent the use of illicit drugs and abuse of alcohol by students and employees."

Inside Higher Ed has been unable to identify any cases where the laws were used to deny funds to a college or its students.

Share Article

Back to Top