Reed instructor Frédéric Canovas is out of work.
The professor who sexually harassed him won an award.
By Maureen O’hagan and Elizabeth Manning, Willamette Week
There are no fences at Reed College to keep out the city folk, but stroll through this 100-acre campus and you’ll immediately get the sense that you’re not in Portland anymore.
No, the tiny liberal arts college in the Eastmoreland neighborhood doesn’t have its own weather system, and you still need a good old-fashioned greenback to buy yourself a cup of coffee, but something about the place just feels different from the world outside.
Students here speak a different language, rich in quirky slang, gilded with cerebral loftiness and studded with political correctness. At Reed, according to the Fiske Guide to Colleges, “Introducing oneself as a homosexual socialist won’t raise an eyebrow, but admitting that one hasn’t read Mill or Kant will provoke gasps and stares.” Even the dogs here play by their own rules, with no leashes, no masters and, for that matter, no restraints on their canine desires.
Some might call this intellectual enclave the Kingdom of Reed, a land where genius thrives and self-absorption is an expected byproduct. Here, reality’s ugly truths are a rare intrusion.
“The real world is fairly avoidable at Reed,” alum Kovd Davis wrote in the student handbook, “but don’t shriek in terror when it arrives. It is only the ever-present mundane existence most of the other people we know have to deal with on a daily basis.”
Earlier this month, a stiff belt of that reality arrived on campus in the form of a $4 million lawsuit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court by Portland lawyer Greg Kafoury. The suit not only threatens the college with substantial damages, but also reveals the underbelly of Reed’s Utopian vision.
In the lawsuit, Frédéric Canovas, a former visiting French professor, claims that from 1992 to 1996, he was the victim of a continuous pattern of sexual harassment by Samuel Danon, a French professor firmly ensconced in the Reed power structure. The harassment, according to the suit, included a constant barrage of sexual innuendo and graphic remarks. Canovas says, for example, that Danon repeatedly grabbed his own crotch and asked him whether he would like to see what was behind the zipper.
College officials have agreed that Danon did, in fact, sexually harass Canovas. What’s surprising is that, according to Canovas, Reed officials appeared not to punish Danon for his offenses. Instead, the lawsuit claims, they rewarded him with powerful appointments and a grant.
Canovas, on the other hand, is now unemployed.
For Canovas, the lawsuit is his way of seeking moral and economic retribution. For Kafoury, a combative lawyer with a long history of activism, the suit is a chance to take on this academic Land of Oz. “There’s always been an arrogance at the core of this place which belies its liberal reputation,” Kafoury says.
Kafoury hopes not only to win justice for his client, but also to send a message: Reed College, he seems to be saying, welcome to reality.
To those who haven’t opened a textbook since the ’60s or ’70s, Reed College may not seem very unusual. Students sprawl on the tree-lined lawns reading Camus. They talk philosophy over endless cups of coffee in the Student Union. They stage boycotts to protest the treatment of day laborers, watch subtitled films about war-torn nations and hold rap sessions to discuss the subjugation of women.
Yet Reed is actually the antithesis of today’s typical college, precisely because it is a throwback. Most higher ed in the 1990s is about a different kind of learning; it’s a vocational tool, a means to prepare for the global marketplace. The archetype for this idea is the University of Phoenix, founded by John Sperling–who is, perhaps ironically, a Reed graduate. Because of its focus on the needs of adult learners and the demands of corporate America, the University of Phoenix has grown in just two decades to become the nation’s biggest private university. “The institution that sees itself as the steward of intellectual culture is becoming increasingly marginal,” The New Yorker magazine wrote in an article about the trend.
Reed seems to thrive on marginalization. Each year, it accepts about 300 freshmen–the student-written college handbook describes them as “mentally advantaged and socially inept”–who agree to a rigorous program of study in the classical form. Today’s staples, such as computer programming and marketing, are conspicuously absent from the Reed curriculum. Instead, students read Homer, Sophocles and Plato.
Reed is one of the few colleges in the country where seniors must write and defend a lengthy thesis to graduate. Some say this academic rigor, combined with the lack of extra-curricular activities like fraternities and varsity sports, is the reason for Reed’s high dropout rate (only 67 percent of incoming freshmen graduate within five years).
But, while the education of Reedies is startlingly structured, campus life goes to the other extreme. “There are only two rules at Reed,” someone once wrote in the student handbook. “No firearms and no climbing on the roofs.” Although the writer may have been joking, behavior on this campus is often wild. The idea, of course, is to stimulate intellectual inquiry by encouraging students to think for themselves. “It’s liberating,” says freshman Kirsten Broadbear, “it’s enchanting.”
For example, students are free to leave the classroom during exams. Whether they take the test in their dorm room, the coffee shop or the library, they’re trusted not to cheat.
Last Sunday, an underage freshmen openly enjoyed a bottle of red wine with his dinner in the school cafeteria. No one seemed to think it odd.
Reedies are also free to speak their mind. A few years ago, when a preacher came to campus, some students responded by stripping, climbing a tree and taunting him with an apple. Campus security didn’t even blink.
Freedom at Reed also means there’s plenty of room for experimenting with drugs. At the annual end-of-year blowout called Renn Fayre, the college makes having a wild acid trip safe and comfortable by providing a tranquil “Karma Lounge” with mellow music and dim lighting to smooth away those rough edges.
The unofficial motto at Reed? Atheism, Communism and Free Love.
“We enjoy so much freedom here that almost anything is accepted,” says Geoff Valentine, a freshman.
The free-thinking ideal extends to the administration as well. In 1995, Reed became the only major institution in the country that refused to participate in US News & World Report’s annual ranking of American colleges–a guide that is studied by hundreds of thousands of high-school students each year. “We’re simply saying we’re Reed and we need to stick by our values,” college president Steve Koblik told The Oregonian at the time.
Though Reed’s values are increasingly anachronistic, there is no doubt that this tradition of free thinking allows genius to blossom. The college turns out the second-highest percentage of students in the country who go on to get PhDs and has more Rhodes scholars than almost any other school its size. It’s no coincidence that Apple founder Steve Jobs, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder and gastronome James Beard all went to Reed.
There is, of course, a subtle difference between promoting individual autonomy and breeding self-absorbed arrogance.
Samuel Danon likes to dance on that knife edge. And Reed seems to have let him get away with it.
In the quirky student handbook distributed during orientation, incoming freshmen learn this bit of Reed lore: “Michel Foucault…it is rumored, has slept with at least one member of the Reed faculty.”
As students quickly learn, that faculty member is alleged to be Samuel Danon, who reportedly has made no secret of his liaison with the late thinker, cultural historian and philosopher whom some consider the 20th century’s premier French literary theorist. (Danon is currently on sabbatical in France. His attorney, Clay Creps, would not comment.)
In other professions, even at other colleges, colleagues might frown on this sexual braggadocio, the notion that your worth is measured according to the people you have slept with. At Reed, however, rumors of sex with Foucault are a badge of honor that add to Danon’s reputation.
You might say Danon thrives on being an overeducated bad boy.
In any case, Danon is by no means your typical nerdy academic. He began teaching at Reed in 1962, 14 years before receiving his PhD from Johns Hopkins University. He has since become a Reed institution. He flouts the “publish or perish” rule that guides professors at most other colleges and instead has built a name for himself as an extraordinary teacher. He has chaired the French department on and off for years, and his lively lectures have made him a favorite among students. “Danon is a dynamic prof…I heartily recommend him,” an English major wrote in Reed’s guidebook on teachers.
Danon has an arrogant personality that some students say can crowd the personal space of others. He’s seen as a genuinely nice and honest fellow, former students say, even if his conversation is peppered with sexualized winks and glances.
When Canovas arrived on campus in August 1992 to begin teaching in the French department, the college paired him with this stunning intellect in a sort of student/mentor relationship.
“Danon was very interesting intellectually speaking,” Canovas says. “He knew the major figures in French literary criticism from the ’60s and ’70s, which was the period I was interested in. He was a close friend of Roland Barthes. So for me, it was very fascinating.”
At the time, Canovas was just 26 years old, fresh out of the University of Oregon with a month-old PhD in hand. He had been hired as a visiting professor, which meant he would have to negotiate a contract year-by-year. His only hope for long-term employment at Reed would be to apply for a tenure-track position, should one open in the future. His prospects were dim elsewhere, because French studies are becoming less popular in the United States.
As French department chair and a member of the Committee on Advancement and Tenure (which holds power over the academic teams that search for new applicants as well as those that grant tenure), Danon clearly had some authority over Canovas’ future at Reed. In order to keep working as a visiting professor or to get hired for a tenure-track job, Canovas had to win Danon’s support.
But almost immediately, Canovas says, Danon adopted a discomforting familiarity with the young scholar that involved a constant barrage of inappropriate sexual remarks. The comments started even before the first day of class. According to Canovas, while they were driving to an orientation event in Canovas’ Honda CRX, Danon said, “This car does everything. Does it jerk you off, too?”
“I hardly knew the guy,” Canovas told WW last week. “I was uncomfortable, so I just ignored it.”
The behavior only escalated, according to Canovas. At various points during Canovas’ five years at Reed, Danon read Canovas a graphically sexual poem. He invited him to watch a porn movie. He pinched his cheeks. He grabbed his own crotch. He habitually called Canovas at home on weekends and asked whether Canovas was wearing any clothes.
The final and most galling incident was in the fall of 1996, when Canovas was complaining about a strong odor in a building. Danon, he says, responded with a graphic sexual comment in French slang. “He said you must prefer the smell of shit when you get fucked in the ass by a big cock,” Canovas told WW. “I was shaking. I was at the same time scared and angry.”
On Nov. 5, Canovas filed a formal written complaint with then-dean of faculty Linda Mantel. He didn’t accuse Danon of demanding sexual favors, but he did claim that Danon’s behavior was so offensive that it interfered with Canovas’ work. Moreover, he claimed, this behavior was exacerbated by the power dynamic between the two. Canovas felt intimidated by the older professor’s authority and demeaned by his comments, as a grievance board made up of three faculty members later noted: “One would have to be awfully naive not to recognize that the circumstances carry an implication [that Canovas’ response might affect his future in the French department.]”
In mid-November 1996, the board heard Canovas’ complaints. It took testimony from six others, including Danon. According to the committee’s memo on its findings, Danon did not deny Canovas’ accusations. Instead, he said he didn’t realize his conduct was unwelcome. According to the grievance board’s written findings, Danon did “not deny that the language and behavior in question would be offensive to most people. But he believed he had special license in the case of Canovas.”
On Dec. 16, the grievance board issued its opinion: Danon had violated the college’s sexual harassment policy.
“We conclude that all three of the criteria under the Reed College Sexual Harassment Policy are met in some degree by this case and hence that Prof. Danon has violated that policy.”