Hi everybody, it's David Shiner (or Dave if you prefer; I've never been bothered one way or the other). Thanks to Sara for kindly helping me figure out how to post here.
I hope to use this space to try to clarify what's going on with the Shimer-IIT situation, in my view, and particuarly what the large-scale issues are. As I see it, there are three major issues, not all of which I'll have the time to address today:
1) Why is Shimer contemplating major action?
2) Given that Shimer has good reason for contemplating major action (and I think it does, as I'll explain below), why does this include the possibility of leaving (or at least mostly leaving) Waukegan?
3) Given that Shimer has good reason to contemplate leaving Waukegan, why this particular proposal?
I addressed #1 in my conversation with Katie and Sandy last week, and with others since. To recap and add to that, Shimer is in a tough spot. Although retention is up, enrollment is down. The enrollment of new students has declined for three straight years despite the fact that modest resources have been added to the Admissions office and budget during that time. We enrolled 19 new students this fall, the lowest number in something like 20 years. Donations are also down over the past few years. These trends are worrisome in and of themselves, because we've tried a lot of different appproaches without much success. If we had more money we could try more things, but we don't, and I frankly don't know how we're going to get it. As things stand, the Budget Commitee regularly projects more income from donations than we recieve, our best efforts to the contrary. That puts a strain on all of us.
Some people have proposed that sustainability rather than growth should be Shimer's goal. I'm sympathetic with that argument and in fact used to believe it myself, but now I can see that it won't work in the long run. We have regularly been told by our accrediting agency that we can't continue to operate with our current numbers of students. Our response has been that we'll try to increase our student body. We've tried for years, and we haven't been able to do that. Similarly, we've been awarded a number of grants in recent years. This has really helped financially, compensating for some of the things we haven't been able to accomplish (more students, donations, etc). However, granting agencies want to see quantifiable returns, such as more students, as the result of their "investments." We've promised those increases, and we haven't delivered. All this makes it less likely that we'll be awared future grants, which reduces another group of funding sources. Our accreditation is also a concern, for similar reasons - not this year or next year, but in the long run and perhaps sooner than that.
By the way, the downturns have almost nothing to do with the "new administration" that I can see. All of those declines were well under way before we hired professional administrators except for the Chief Financial Officer, who has nothing to do with any of them. The plans for growth were written into the 2001 accreditation self-study, chaired by Barbara Stone; the biggest grant we have received, Title III (U.S. government), was written by Don Moon and approved by the government agency more than two years ago. Board membership was almost entirely different 3-5 years ago than it is now, with only three or four holdovers.
This year 38 out of our 103 (fulltime equivalent) students will graduate. There will also be some attrition, as there always is. Unless an enrollment feat not seen since the 1970's occurs, enrollment next year (perhaps next semester) will be under 100 for first time since the early 1990's. So the situation is worrisome, and no one knows if and when it will improve.
There's no reason to be alarmist about any of this. Shimer has had its ups and downs over the past 150+ years. The recent trends might be a blip on the screen, or they might not. If they are, great. If not, we need to be prepared, and it's better to be prepared when you have a choice, as I believe we do now, than to wait too long and have no choice. I witnessed the latter when we left Mount Carroll 27 years ago, and it wasn't pretty.
To move on to the second point: When I first heard that Young Kim and Bill Rice were talking with IIT about moving most of Shimer to the IIT campus, I really disliked idea. As time has gone by, I've come to take a different attitude. It's not that I favor the move; I don't. I also don't oppose it. It's a tough decision. I haven't made up my mind yet, and I won't until more facts (or at least projections) are available.
But my current attitude has nothing to do with my personal views on whether the move is a good one. Simply put, as I now see it, before this idea came up Shimerians were thinking in a manner that was too restricted. We tried various things in Admissions and Development. When they didn't work, we tried something else. At worst, we got the Director out of the office and brought in someone else. Amateurs, professionals, this approach, that approach - we tried a lot of things. Not everything, obviously - we don't have the resources or expertise for that - but a lot of things.
What we never did, or did all too rarely, is take a step back and ask whether the problem wasn't bigger than we were conceiving of it. One effect of the IIT discussions, however they play out, is that we're doing that now. Maybe our campus is a major part of our problem, and maybe it isn't. We haven't decided that issue, and we probably never will, but at least we're thinking about it. Maybe Waukegan is part of the problem, or maybe not - same deal.
I say all this for a couple of reasons. First, it's true. Second, I know that some current students and recent alumni feel like we're being forced into a move by the Board, or Bill Rice, or the administration, or somebody. I can understand that; frankly, the dissemination of information around this whole matter has been, to put it delicately, less than ideal. But that's separate from the issue of whether this or any other move would be a good one for Shimer. As I say, I don't know the answer, but I'm glad we're finally asking the question.
It might be replied that we have asked this question before, in the Roosevelt negotiations 15 years ago. But that situation was a lot different. At that time we had been unaccredited for 10 years, and Don believed that only a merger (not a lease agreement) could save Shimer, because we had no realistic chance of getting accredited. Not getting accredited would mean no federal financial aid for students, which would obviously mean the end of Shimer. So we voted to become a college of Roosevelt, believing there was no other alternative but closing the school - in other words, basically the same deal as when we moved from Mount Carroll. It didn't work out, but we somewhat miraculously received a major grant, and the rest is history. My point here, though, is that we want to ask the big questions when we don't feel the situation is hopeless, when the possibility of choice still exists.
I've got to run, so that's it for now. I'll reply to any responses to this post, which I know is seriously incomplete, when I can make time for it. I'll also keep reading with interest, and I hope many alumni can make it to the meeting with Don Moon and Bill Rice in Prairie Lounge next Sunday (4 PM, if you hadn't heard).
I'll close with this thought. A few folks who don't like the possibility of the IIT move have told me, "This really sucks." What really sucks, in my view, is that Shimer still finds itself in this position: that we're always having to scramble for our very existence, that things never seem to get better, at least not for very long. I know that all the postings on this and other sites, different though they might be, come from a common perspective, which is that those writing them care enough about Shimer to weigh in on this, express concern, and see how other Shimerians are thinking and feeling. That's great, and I take heart from it. I just wish we could figure out how to translate all that energy into a more viable future for Shimer.
Thanks for listening, and caring.
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