Monday, November 14, 2005

Some thoughts from left field.

By way of introduction: My name is PJ Killian, and I attended Shimer from '95-'97 and then again from '01-'03. I posted Sarah's initial letter to the LiveJournal Shimer College community. I can be reached at if anyone would like to talk privately.

When I initially heard about the proposed move to IIT, my initial reaction was "hey, that sounds like a neat idea."

I have since read many of the arguments against the move, and while some of them are both cogent and wise, I still can't shake the notion that it's still a pretty good idea.

There are also, however, some arguments that seem to me to be on shakier ground, and I think we can't properly make informed judgements on the move without shedding additional light on these topics:

(1) The analogy to Barat does not seem to be apposite. Barat may have spun their acquisition by DePaul as an "alliance" or a "merger," but the truth is that they were acquired. DePaul was responsible for paying their bills, the bills got too high, and DePaul shut down the operation. Unless you're willing to ascribe extreme bad faith to the Shimer administration when they say that Shimer will remain financially and administratively independent, our situation is fundamentally different. IIT will be landlords, and their ability to interfere with our internal operations will be bounded by the four corners of the lease. If they kick us out, we move somewhere else.

(2) There is a notion that IIT is located in some sort of urban deathground, which is not the case. Bronzeville has received a ton of city, state, and federal funds for reconstruction, and it's a far safer and more pleasant neighborhood than it was 10-20 years ago. Bridgeport is in the first stages of an invasion by artists and hipsters who have been priced out of Wicker Park, and the middle/upper-middle class areas of the South Loop keep pushing southward; there are luxury condos and townhouses a mere 10 blocks north of IIT's campus -- in an area that used to be housing projects. From an overall quality-of-life standpoint, Bridgeport, Pilsen, Ukranian Village, and other affordable areas within a 15 minute bus/El ride of IIT are so far ahead of Waukegan it's not even a contest. (Think: museums, concert venues, restaurants, bars, etc.) Granted, I am a city person and a Chicagoan, so I'm biased in favor of an urban environment, but nobody's going to compose pastoral poetry about downtown Waukegan, either.

(3) There has been some talk that IIT is essentially an overgrown "trade school" and, more generally, that they don't share our values. Setting aside for the sake of argument the fact that we will (barring, again, extreme bad faith on the administration's part) be operationally independent of IIT and thus not required to have our classes conform to their values, this idea is still absurd. Flawed as they are, the US News & World Report rankings give an insight into the reputation that colleges have in the eyes of the education community, and IIT ranks #97 among universities nationwide. That Shimer has a different approach to education, an approach that works for us, does not mean that the Shimer way is the only worthwhile way to run a college. What's more, there is ample evidence to indicate that IIT values a diversity of approaches in education even within its own structure. While they are an engineering/science school first and foremost, they are also the parent institution of the Chicago-Kent School of Law, and law schools (especially in classes beyond the first year) are hell of a lot more like Shimer than engineering school.

To me, the potential benefits of the move are legion. In my experience, the things that are driving the attrition rate at Shimer are, above all:

* poor location
* crumbling physical plant
* a lack of extracurricular or off-campus activities
* a small and incestuous social scene
* a lack of diversity in electives

(I would assume that the aspects of Shimer that cause people to not enroll in the first place are similar.) A move to IIT addresses all of these concerns. The location of the IIT is not ideal, and certainly not to everyone's taste, but Waukegan had big-city problems without big-city amenities. A move, by contrast, would put Shimer almost dead-center in one of the world's most fun, interesting and diverse cities. Moving the campus would take the burden of maintaining most of the Waukegan buildings off the shoulders of the administration. I understand the leeriness at the prospect of selling off (some of) the campus buildings, but if you can't afford to build equity or even properly maintain real estate, it becomes a liability rather than an asset. IIT obviously has a range of people with a diverse enough set of interests that there will be far more extracurriculars, and if Shimer can piggyback on IIT's membership in the CTA U-Pass program, the entire city is easily accessible at little to no cost. Being a small school in the context of a larger institution obviously opens up more opportunities to make friends with non-Shimer folks, as does being in the middle of a large city. Having IIT electives out there really broadens the range of classes available to Shimer folks, and are a particular boon to people who want to go to grad school in the hard sciences, or to med school, or to become a math/science teacher.

While I share the general concern about the relatively secretive approach to this move on the administration's part, I have yet to be convinced that the cons outweigh the pros. Just using Ockham's Razor, which is more likely: that IIT has a predatory interest in wiping Shimer off the face of the earth, and the administration and board are going along with it, or that IIT sees Shimer as an opportunity to fill up some otherwise unnocupied space on their campus, and maybe help humanize their student body a bit?


Snorey said...

Vicky said...

I agree with pretty much everything P.J. says. I left the "incestuous" part out of my post, but I was also thinking about that too.

mikeyd723 said...

Well-argued, PJ. I, too, think we should seriously consider this as a positive possibility. I just cannot countenance the process. And I think the travesty of the process outweighs the positives of the move--for a decision to move by Fall 2006. (But please see my more recent post in terms of an alternative to voting yes or no.)

mikeyd723 said...

Oh, and about process, sorry, I meant to say that I surely don't think of IIT as predatory. My mistrust is of Shimer's current internal decision process, not to the (rather inscrutible) designs of IIT. Sorry to blather so much.

D. R. Koukal said...

"Just using Ockham's Razor, which is more likely: that IIT has a predatory interest in wiping Shimer off the face of the earth, and the administration and board are going along with it, or that IIT sees Shimer as an opportunity to fill up some otherwise unnocupied space on their campus, and maybe help humanize their student body a bit?"

With all due respect, this might be a false dilemma.

Where is the evidence that the move has a reasonably good chance of reversing the College's fortune?