Is Reed College’s New President Too Cool to Be a University Administrator?

Audrey Bilger is a gay trailblazer and pop culture pundit with an absolutely baller vinyl collection.

By Jason Cohen October 23, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Reed College president Audrey Bilger (right) with wife Cheryl Pawelski at Tomorrow Records in SE Portland

Audrey Bilger owns a lot of “firsts.” First woman president of Reed College. First LGBTQ Reed prez. And, probably, the first college president to own a bigger record collection than her school’s entire student body.

Bilger and her wife, Cheryl Pawelski, arrived on the 111-year-old school’s leafy Southeast Portland campus packing about 70,000 albums and CDs. Pawelski is a Grammy-winning record producer and music historian who co-owns the record label Omnivore (which Bilger named). And as a grad student at the University of Virginia, Bilger held down a 2–6 a.m. slot at WTJU, a legendary freeform college radio station.

As tends to happen in households, shared passion has resulted in sheer mass. “We’re not a one-in-one-out kind of household,” says Bilger, who became Reed’s 16th president in July. “We’re a household where we both say, ‘You should get that record. You’re not going to see it again.’”

Before turning to administration (most recently as a VP and dean at California’s Pomona College), Bilger taught literature and gender studies. Among her areas of interest: Jane Austen, gay marriage (she coedited the essay anthology Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage), and pop culture. (It’s safe to say she’s also the first Reed president to write for Bitch magazine.) At press time, the venerable band NRBQ was slated to play her formal inauguration in October. A signed photo of Ronnie Spector, of ’60s pop hitmakers the Ronettes, hangs in her office: “To Audrey, my favorite lit professor, love Ronnie Spector XXX.”

Bilger and Pawelski met while playing in LA bands, bonding over shared love for Jonathan Richman and Big Star. Omnivore reissued the catalog of the latter. “I like to think of Big Star as a secret handshake,” Bilger says of the ’70s-era Memphis cult-favorites, “but then we came to Portland.” Pawelski has already been buttonholed in a Reed hallway by a fan enthused that “you did the Big Star box!”

All this amounts to unique but potentially useful prep for Reed, a school with around 1,400 undergraduates and a bastion of quirky culture and liberal-arts rigor now navigating generational tensions over curriculum and campus politics. Bilger plans to keep writing—perhaps more to advocate for liberal education’s value than to analyze Pride and Prejudice. “There’s been this focus on ‘What does the individual get from us?’” she says. “Not ‘What does society get from having more educated individuals?’”

Meanwhile, if Reed’s online station KRRC suddenly drops some obscure Big Star track into its playlist, it’s possible the campus’s first couple has crashed the studio.

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