Friday, November 11, 2005

From Michael Weinman

Dear Sarah,

Michael Weinman here. Good to hear from you! How the heck are you, anyway? I just graduated with the ol' PhD and am teaching in northern NJ and living in Brooklyn, NY. Can't complain on the whole.

Anyway, I am writing to say thanks so much for your effort in crashing the meeting, taking such copious notes, and sending them out to "huddled masses" dispersed throughout the lower 48 and beyond. And to let you know a few thoughts which you might be so kind as to subsume with the others and pass along. I have 4 points here: (1) Governance; (2) Timing; (3) Integrity; (4) Motivation.

(1) Governance: What troubles me, and I think most "concerned alums" about the whole move--beyond a fear/feeling/certainty that this will be the final death of Shimer--is that it is happening in a way almost antithetical to the way the "Roosevelt crisis" went down. At least in the versions I have heard about that earlier time, everything about it was out in the open--maybe to a fault. And then, of course, it came down to that fateful 10-hour (or was it 10-day) Assembly meeting. Everything about the way that this is happening seems diametrically opposed: backroom, last-minute, mad-rushed nonsense. This is definitely the sense from a distance, but I do not think it is way off. Now, maybe the point is just that I was at Shimer for the end of the self-governance era (I have heard told that Assembly attendance has been on an unrelentingly downward trend for 5 years, and there has been more and more Board involvement--which is a good thing, from my perspective), but if so then THAT at least ought to be openly acknoweledged, if nothing else is.

(2) Timing: This whole "we need to lease the space" argument seems to be a total red herring. In all my (not so great, but no so limited) experience, I have never heard of a decision on the scale of whether to form an alliance between two academic institutions being hinged upon a leasing situation. This just can't be right. If it is important enough to IIT to find a partner, and if they are seriously interested in Shimer, then it should be fully possible to reflect over this for the course of a year or so, and make an **INFORMED** decision in the Fall 06 or Winter 07, to commit for 07-08 or 08-09. In the meantime, there could be some pilot program(s) run over the 06-07 year to see how Shimer-style education and Shimer students and faculty might be able (or unable) to integrate with the academic community at IIT. Being forced--or forcing ourselves--into a decision to move to/partner with IIT because of a lease deadline is like deciding to buy **THIS PARTICULAR HOUSE** because of a mortgage offer expiring soon **WHEN YOU NEVER DECIDED WHETHER OR NOT YOU WANTED TO BUY A HOUSE IN THE FIRST PLACE.** In short, it is "putting the cart before the horse," or as my Mom would simply say "ass-backwards."

(3) Integrity of the Shimer classroom experience: IIT obviously cares about class size. Under faculty resources, they proudly report: "(1) 13:1 student/faculty ratio; (2) 22% of classes have fewer than 10 students, 90% have fewer than 40."
( This is definitely remarkable, **BUT** two point are worthy of mention. (i) the full class-size picture is not so rosy from a Shimerian perspective, for while it is true that 84/415 class had 9 or fewer students, and 203/415 (or almost 50%) had 19 or fewer students, it is also true that 210/415 (or over 50%) had 20-49 students, and that the number of classes with 30-49 students was roughly (see Table 1) Point being, IIT might be remarkable in its commitment to the class size, but that does not mean that students attending IIT have either the expectations or the desires that are really necessary to make a Shimer seminar work. So, if and when they came to elective offerings, or to Hum 3, it would be an awful lot to expect from them the kind of work and love a Shimer class requires if they are expecting to "fulfill a liberal arts requirement." (And here I know of what I speak, having taught 5 years of student in 4 institutions, almost all of whom were seeking just that, even in classrooms that happening to have 20 students or fewer.)

Table 1: Class Size (source:
2-9 84
10-19 119
20-29 108
30-39 57
40-49 21
50-99 24
100+ 2
Total 415

The second point under (3) "integrity": (ii) As we know well, it is not the size (of the class) that matters, but rather "what you do with it." That is, you have 19 folks in room, or even just 10 or even 8, and still have a stitled discursive space which is no genuinely a place of co-inquiry. I have no idea if there is co-inquiry at IIT or not, or if IIT students are interested in it, but I **DO KNOW** that what makes Shimer Shimer is co-inquiry. If in melding course offerings with IIT--which is clearly the only condition under which this makes sense--means that co-inquiry is lost, or even just compromised, then this move will have eviscerated Shimer once for all. And that is the nightmare scenario.

(4) Motivation (or the "all or nothing" character of this proposal): Finally, and perhaps least instructively, I do want to throw my voice behind those who say that a move like this seems like something that you because you MUST, not because you WANT TO. (Contra David Shiner's point about the move consideration at the meeting, as you reported to us, Sarah.) What I mean is that, this whole idea of allying/merging/partnering with an insitution so different from Shimer, and pulling up thw weekday program outright from Waukegan, and losing a campus for a wing of building, and moving to a place where the college would have no ownership. All this seems to me something you do if you are out of options. Isn't there a comproomise here? Can't Shimer pursue some sort of pilot with IIT, while keeping its identity in Waukegan? At a minimum, wouldn't it make sense to do something on a provisional basis (like 2 years) and see if it is working before uprooting the Weekday program altogetehr. I hear the concern about parallel costs and cutting "administrative fat," but I can't see how Shimer exists in 15 or 30 years as having an identity **WITHIN** IIT. How would that work? "The small liberal arts college of the Midwest--a subsidiary (or equal, but subsumed partner) of IIT"? It just doesn't seem logical.

Above all, what I see points 1, 2, and 4 pointing for is the desperate need for further deliberation here. (Point 3 just points to perils of pursuing any "alliance" ever.) I am open, for my part, and for whatever (little I imagine) it is worth, to the idea of such an alliance. But the all-or-nothing, now-or-never character of this seems illusory and harmful to me. Frankly, it feels akin to a gun at the head of Shimer's academic community and self-governing character. If the Board was coming to us saying "look, it is do this, or face a vote to close the college," then my answer (at least) would be "do this." But under a scenario where the College has continung, chronic, but no-worse-now-than-before problems, this is too much too fast. And frankly, I am surprised that anyone DOESN'T feel that way. (But then again, maybe I don't understand what kind of a "gun" IIT is holding at Bill Rice's head and the Board's head.)

Alright, that is all from me. I thank you, Sarah, for listening to this, and I hope you can find some usefulness in it for sharing with others in the proper venue. I look forward to further "reports from the front," from yourself, or from whoever has the time and opportunity.

Michael Weinman, '98


Psyche Z. Ready said...

Michael, wonderful to hear from you. I'd been on the verge of ACTUALLY CALLING YOU to see what you thought about this whole deal. Again, wonderful to hear from you, thanks for your thoughts.

D. R. Koukal said...

Michael, Dave Koukal '90 here. I think you hit the nail on the head when you observed that if IIT is really serious about wanting to boost its humanities offerings though an affiliation with Shimer, then why is their position that we have to grab this open space, now or never. If IIT is indeed serious, why wouldn't they wait for Shimer to weigh this very serious decision?

Another thing: I was around for the Roosevelt episode, and you're right: things were very open, very thoroughly discussed. The pressure then was accreditation, which Shimer still didn't have. Providentially, right after we decided against affiliation, we finally became fully accredited.

(I might add that Roosevelt also has location location location over IIT.)