Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Tentative Thoughts

Fellow Shimerians,

After reflecting some on the proposed move, here are some tentative thoughts.

On its face, the most obvious advantage of the proposed move would be to allow Shimer students access to more typical college amenities like more diverse dining options, a modern gymnasium, a better-maintained dormitory, a library, etc. All of this is desirable, as is an independent administrative and governance structure, and better, more modern facilities in general.

However, the other advantages claimed for the proposal are dubious at best, in the absence of further supporting evidence.

For example, that the College should move closer to its traditional source of students might seem an obvious strategy to change the school's fortunes. However, in recalling the location of IIT's campus, I don't see how relocating from Waukegan to a remote, semi-distressed neighborhood on the south side of Chicago would make students feel that much less isolated. (If we were thinking of moving to Lincoln Park, that would be one thing, but . . .) A move to the south side would also likely adversely affect the College's recent successes in recruiting students from outside the Midwest--if not the Chicago suburbs.

Without a large and targeted capital campaign, it's true that the long-term deficiencies in Shimer's Waukegan facilities will be impossible to overcome (though it's undeniable that they've manifestly improved in recent years). However, will the trade off in maintenance cost for long-term leases be worth it for the College? What savings will be realized by the College? What are the financial details here?

The intimation that Shimer's course offerings need to be made more "robust" through the option of taking IIT courses strikes my ears as (a) a lack of faith in the Core, (b) a degraded understanding of Shimer's educational mission, and (c) an affront to those of us who found Shimer's curriculum very robust indeed. Better they had just said that this would make it easier to "market" the school. But in pandering to a market, let's make sure it's the right one--and not one that would distort if not destroy the historical identity of the College.

More ephemeral are considerations of the poetics of place, but they should be considered at some level. For example, I'm not that wild about Shimer having a "storefront" entryway. Will IIT be the "anchor store" of our educational "strip mall"?

Finally, it is not at all clear to me that this move will automatically generate the other benefits claimed for it: increased enrollments, a stronger fundraising and donor base, the opportunity for the College to play a national role in Great Books education, greater recognition for the Hutchins Institute, etc. It does not follow, without further evidence, that this move will generate these improvements.

Simply put, if this proposed move is not part of a strategic, long-term plan, my confidence in the proposal would be greatly diminished to almost nil.

A start would be some baseline data. Have studies been commissioned that show that Waukegan is the reason Shimer's growth has been stagnant? Conversely, is there quantifiable evidence that the proposed move would have a reasonably good chance of reversing the College's fortunes? Or is this just a desperate hope?

I would hope that these questions are considered carefully before the Board makes any commitment to this move. Though I know the College is not nearly as healthy as we'd all like it to be at this point in its history, we are also not in Mount Carroll in 1977, when the only option was to move. A move now, even one that has been more fully justified, would undoubtedly cost us some students, and further splinter the loyalties of our alumni base into Carrolians, Waukeganites, and Chicagoans (and this after having some success with bringing many Carrolians back into the fold).

Finally, and in closing, I would ask whether or not the College may be writing off the potential of Waukegan's future too soon. The city is situated on a lakefront with much potential. The last time I visited, I noticed that many homeowners in the area surrounding the College had undertaken substantial renovations of their properties. This residential area is very complimentary to the College's mission. The Genesee Theater has been fully renovated. The Public Library is of remarkably high quality for a city the size of Waukegan. And Waukegan has finally come to fully embrace the College, after years of open hostility.

Yours in common dialogue,
David Koukal (Shimer, 1990)

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