Courses involving tobacco, alcohol and drugs called off, censored at Reed College

Font Size:

In the early part of the 20th century, radical progressive pioneer Carrie Nation became notorious for fighting the scourge of alcohol by walking into saloons with a hatchet and destroying bottles of liquor.

In 2013, the president of small, ultra-progressive Reed College in Portland, Oregon has canceled two classes and forced the alteration of two others over fears that students could be exposed to alcohol, ordinary tobacco or information about the safe use of illegal drugs.

The classes at issue are part of Paideia, a unique program at Reed that allows students, staff and alumni to organize and teach short, free, non-credit courses on any topic. Paideia takes place on campus the week before each spring semester starts. (RELATED OPINION: Time to end the drug war)

Current student Austin Weisgrau was planning to teach one of the courses, “Kombucha and Other Fermentation Basics,” reports The Quest, Reed’s independent student newspaper. The class was going to cover brewing kombucha — a trendy swill made of yeast and live bacteria — as well as the fundamentals of fermenting sauerkraut and alcoholic drinks.

About a week before the class was slated to begin, Weisgrau received an email informing him that the private school’s president, John R. Kroger, would not allow the course unless the alcohol-related portion were removed.

The concern was that the school could not ensure that all students would be old enough to brew alcohol under Oregon law.

Kroger also demanded that another course involving cigarette-rolling be altered so that participants would not actually smoke any cigarettes until the end of class.

Two other classes, “Adroit Anticipation of Awesome Altered Adventures 201” and “Put that in your Pipe and Smoke it,” were canceled outright by the school’s president. User comments in The Quest’s article indicate that “Altered Adventures” would be about how to conduct yourself safely while experiencing the effects of certain drugs. A comment suggested that “Put that in your Pipe” would involve “only legal herbs.”

School officials defended the president’s decision.

“In conversations with various staff and faculty regarding the Paideia schedule, it became clear that the concern that has grown over the years regarding Reed’s role in sponsoring classes that instruct participants in the fabrication and/or use of alcohol and other drugs compelled us to impose some reasonable limits,” a school official told Weisgrau, according to The Quest. “I sincerely regret that we did not begin a conversation about this long before December.”

In an email to The Quest, Weisgrau called the forced modification of his Paideia class “a clear breach of honorable student-administrative relations and a portentous glimpse of John Kroger’s perspective on student body autonomy.”

Willamette Week, an alternative Portland rag, notes that Kroger’s actions could stem from a broader effort to combat the widely held perception that Reed is a den of illegal drug use.

In 2010, federal and state authorities organized an unusual intervention of sorts when they met with Reed’s former president at a federal courthouse to discuss the school’s apparently serious drug problem, according to USA Today.

The feds were reportedly concerned about Renn Fayre, the school’s epic, annual three-day festival that includes oddities of all kinds and a profusion of illicit drugs. Also, since 2008, two Reed students have died of heroin overdoses. (Total enrollment is just over 1,400.)

Whatever the reason for the decision by Reed’s president to cancel or forcibly alter the four Paideia classes, the school’s dedication to progressivism is impressive in a multitude of ways. School policy mandates at least one gender-neutral bathroom in every nonresidential campus building. Free condoms — including XL and non-latex — are available through campus mail. Also, while professors grade students and send grades to the registrar every semester, students do not actually receive grades. Instead, they must ask to see the grades at the registrar. (Students with grades that fall below a certain threshold do receive notification.) 

Follow Eric on Twitter

Eric Owens