It doesn't take a lot to rock the boat at tiny Shimer College, where the current enrollment is 110, the full-time faculty count is 11, and everything is always up for discussion.
The last time I wrote about Shimer, in 2007, it was the move from Waukegan to Chicago that was making waves. The venerable college had relocated to the Illinois Institute of Technology's south-side campus the year before, and there was plenty of concern about whether it would be able to hang on to its identity in the midst of the bigger, urban, tech-centric school.
Now the waters are roiling over what looks to some like a takeover in progress. Concerned alumni, students, and faculty say college president Thomas Lindsay and a recently expanded board are bent on transforming the communally governed school and its fiercely open-minded culture with a top-down administration and a right-wing tilt.
The changes they point to began before Lindsay was inaugurated this year. In early 2008, when Shimer was headed by interim president Ron Champagne, a board-appointed task force made a couple of important revisions to the school's unique system of rule by assembly, which had been in place since the school nearly shut down in the late 1970s.
Founded in 1853 as a seminary, Shimer evolved into a women's prep school, a junior college, and an affiliate of the University of Chicago. In 1950 it became a four-year coed college focused on the Great Books curriculum developed by U. of C. president Robert Maynard Hutchins. Over the next two decades enrollment grew—at one point topping 500—and then shrank, while the debt-load expanded. By 1979 the school was on the verge of bankruptcy, its trustees had voted to shut it down, and its Mount Carroll campus buildings were auctioned off. As Harold Henderson reported in a 1988 Reader cover story, a tiny nucleus of faculty and students were determined to preserve Shimer's Great Books tradition. They moved what they could salvage to a Victorian mansion in Waukegan and started over, governing by the consensus of the entire active community—students, faculty, board, and staff—constituted as the Assembly.
The changes made by the 2008 task force have been presented by the administration as a means of clearing up discrepancies between the constitution of the Assembly and the bylaws of the board. But the strongest impetus for making them may have been the board's concern that they wouldn't be able to attract high-caliber candidates to the president's job if it didn't carry enough weight. Budgetary and hiring authority formerly held by the Assembly were handed over to the president with the understanding that he would consult with the appropriate Assembly committees.
The arrangement was approved by the Assembly and the board and initially didn't attract much comment. But this fall, members of the Shimer community say, Lindsay replaced Shimer's admissions director. That got their attention. (The new person had worked in admissions at the University of Dallas, where Lindsay was once provost. She was also a former deputy press secretary for the National Right to Life Committee.)
Shimer had had a rough start at IIT. The expectation had been that the Chicago setting would attract more students, but enrollment dropped after the move. It also cost more to operate at IIT. And then president, William Craig Rice, who'd pushed for the relocation, left abruptly in 2007, while the school was still in transition. (He now heads the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities; Lindsay was the NEH's deputy chair before coming to Shimer.) Champagne stepped into the presidency, and the search began for new board members capable of bringing in more financial support.
The board expansion has continued under Lindsay. In Shimer's recent history, the board comprised the president, two faculty members, three students, and an off-campus group consisting almost entirely of alumni. It hovered at around 15 to 18 members. Now the board numbers 36 with a target membership of 40. The new trustees come from all over the country and most have had no previous relationship with Shimer. A number of them do, however, have one thing in common: right-wing political affiliations. Two of them—Carson Holloway and Matthew Franck—write for the National Review. Another, Michael McDonald, founded the conservative Center for Individual Rights, where Ann Coulter was a litigator. Bob Chitester heads Free to Choose Media, which champions Milton Friedman and has made documentaries contesting humanity's role in global warming. About half the board members now qualify as neocons.
Looking at that lineup and at changes Lindsay has proposed to the Shimer mission statement—trading references to "active citizenship" and "informed, responsible action" for an appreciation of "ordered political liberty such as we enjoy in American democracy"—worried Shimer community members gathered for an Assembly meeting November 15.
They passed three resolutions. The first urges the trustees and president "to respect the moral authority of the Faculty and of the Assembly." The third reminds them that shared governance at Shimer is based on the school's history, values, and curriculum as well as "innumerable precedents," public statements, and official documents. The second, a "Declaration of Principles of Shared Governance," calls for consultation on decisions that substantially influence the college and notes that student involvement with the welfare of the college is "an integral part of education at Shimer."
Six board members sent letters to be read at the Assembly. Holloway warned that the opportunity for study "should not be wasted in meddling with the efforts of the College administration." Chitester "was surprised to learn . . . that there was still a perception that governance of the College was a communal and consensual process." Patrick Parker, writing as an alumnus (class of '54) and major financial supporter, said that last year's changes "were aimed at making a dysfunctional and wasteful management scheme more effective. They were necessary to raise the funds that are still keeping Shimer alive." Donors, he added, "expect in return for our support that the rest of the community will do its job, i.e. for the teachers to teach, the students to learn, and the managers to manage."
Dean David Shiner said last week that misconceptions about the extent and effect of the changes need to be cleared up and he's "hopeful that with goodwill on all sides, we'll work through the differences." And Shimer alumni on the board say fears are, as 40-year member Barry Carroll put it, "overblown." Phil Farina, a seven-year board veteran, maintains that while "a lot of the new board members may have libertarian views," Shimer is neither authoritarian nor has it "drifted to the right." And board secretary Mary Lou Kennedy says the school is experiencing growing pains and "controlling that change" is the real issue. "That doesn't mean a swing to one side or the other politically," she adds. "I didn't come on the board to see Shimer become a school I wouldn't want to attend."
Meanwhile, a group of those "interested in providing legal representation for the Assembly" should it "come down to a real fight" is organizing online at shimercollege.blogspot.com. v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com.