Saturday, November 19, 2005

View from the Front

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.

David

11 comments :

mikeyd723 said...

David,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your reflections. I do believe that the single biggest problem with the process has been a lack of transparency, which is unbecoming of any community or polity--are you reading "senior White House staffers"?--but especially of Shimer, which is (or has been) so transparent (to a fault probably) for all the time I have known it.

(For example, I was disappointed to read that conversations with IIT had begun as early as the Spring, when last week it seemed "common knowledge" that the conversations had only really begun in the past 10 weeks or so. How did that common knowledge become common knowledge? I **thought** from an announcement made just to that effect by Bill to the faculty in the 3rd week of October. I am not used to multiple-sourced information about matters Shimerian being so baldly inaccurate; which suggests a real lack of transparency, if not something worse--like duplicity or at least some kind of deception.)

What I think is most dangerous, David, is that the Assembly will become a plebiscite on this matter. That is, a simple yes or no vote on something not understood in any real detail. (This is, for example, how democracy works in New York state--you get to go to the poll on Tuesday and say "yes" or "no" to spending 2.9 billion dollars on a transportation bond act, for example. You don't get, as a member of the NYS community, a right to help contribute to the frmaing of the bond act and so on.) This sort of thing is needed in large representative democracies, but this is not what Shimer is (or was) or ought to be. Nevertheless, it does seem that some folks with great authority on this matter do want that--I mean Young Kim and Bill Rice specifically. If they do not want that, then they should say so. But if they do, I beleive that they are wrong, and that this is not in the long term interest of the College.

David Shiner said...

Thanks, Michael. I didn't talk about process much in my post yesterday, so maybe it would be good to do more of that here.

The role of the Assembly at Shimer has been changing incrimentally for several years now. I've had to do a lot of thinking about that, because I'm chairing a group of staff members who are responsible for the next accreditation self-study report. One portion of a paragraph in the working draft of our self-study (which won't be completed for another couple of months) is as follows: "The Assembly’s present business is primarily threefold: the election of members to Assembly committees that are responsible for work such as academic planning, administrative review, and budget recommendations; the hearing of annual or semiannual reports by administrators, especially the President and the Dean; and the discussion of the future of the Assembly, including proposed amendments to the Constitution. While these functions are important, they do not suggest a body with significant decision-making authority, or one that needs to meet all that regularly."

One can be happy, sad, or indifferent to this trend, but for whatever it's worth, it seems to those of us on the committee that it's been going in this direction for several years now. Last year I served as Speaker of the Assembly (as I do again this year), and on several occasions I had to introduce (that is, invent) motions and discussion items just so we'd have a legitimate reason for the thrice-semesterly meetings that were called for in the Assembly Constitution. I tried to get Assembly members to introduce items thenmselves, but with little success.

That's not to say that the Assembly is dying. For our first meeting in September there were something like 75 attendees, which was pretty incredible, possibly a record. All Assembly committees were filled without anyone's leg having to be twisted, which to my memory hadn't happened for a long time. The next meeting was also well attended. Weekend students, who hadn't been all that visible in Assembly for many years (if ever), have been turning out in impressive numbers for the past year or so.

It's true, I think, that orientation toward the Assembly doesn't come naturally to Young or Bill. I don't think that's too surprising, since Bill comes from very different academic environments (which, of course, is almost all of them) and there was no Assembly when Young was a Shimer student. It's a learning process for them, and also for those of us who are more used to Shimer's current brand of self-governance. When I'm around either of them and the issue of the Assembly comes up, they treat it with respect. It's an evolving process. I don't know how it will play out concerning the IIT situation. I doubt that the Assembly will be treated as "a mere plebescite," and I'm trying to do what I can to help, but I wouldn't want to make any predictions at this point. As you mentioned in an earlier post, the strengthening of the Board that appears to be happening these days is probably a good thing, but it might affect the Assembly in ways that are hard to foresee.

As far as the issue of when conversations with IIT began, your concerns have also been expressed by folks around here at times. From my perspective the issue isn't innacuracy, but a difference in what is being talked about. From what I understand, Bill and Young had very casual conversations with folks at IIT back in the spring. Those conversations were at first infrequent, but became more frequent and interesting as the summer wore on. By the time I was brought into the picture about 10 weeks ago, it looked like there might be reason for serious interest on both sides. So in one sense the conversations began in the spring, in another around September or even later. It depends on what level of seriousness you're talking about.

College presidents frequently say things to each other like, "Maybe we should work together on X." It's part of the terrain. The Higher Learning Commission (our accrediting agency) encourages it, as to some extent does the Illinois State Board of Higher Education. Up to a certain point such conversations are too casual to take very seriously, let alone enlist others in (sorry about ending that sentence with a preposition).

Look, here's an analogy. Nancy and I met in the summer of 1988, when she started working at Shimer. We were married in the summer of '93. We definitely were not an item for the first couple of years; we weren't dating in any romantic sense. Sometimes we went out together casually (I remember in particular a ballgame in Kenosha in the summer of '89), but lots of Shimer faculty members do that sort of thing. As time went on we saw each other more often, because we enjoyed each other's company. By January of 1993 we were engaged. Somewhere before that, obvously, we were getting serious, but I'm not exactly sure where the tipping point was. If you were to ask either of us, we might well give different answers. Each of us might even give different answers from ourselves at different times. It's not a matter of duplicity, just what we consider important or decisive.

That analogy might seem silly, but I hope it brings out at least one aspect of present-day Shimer situation that could as easily be looked upon as benign as otherwise. We don't have any spinmeisters here; we don't have people trying to control who tells what to whom. People do write press releases, and some voices are necessarily more "official" than others, but no one is duty-bound to toe any sort of party line. No one tells me whether to post on a blog such as this, and I don't ask. So sometimes a "story" won't look particularly "straight." You can see that as deceptive or even duplicitous; I see it as one of the defects of our virtues, the virtue in this case being that Shimer people, even so-called "high-ranking administrators," say what they want without a party line, prior coaching, or fear of negative repercussions. That's pretty rare in higher education or, for that matter, anywhere else. But it has been, and continues to be, one of the great things about Shimer.

Keep the comments coming. I'll check in daily, or at least as often as I can. Take care.

mikeyd723 said...

Dear David,

I am not sure if this is a private conversation between the two of us, or if others are reading and not commenting. Either way, I appreciate your responsiveness and I do feel a great deal more clarity about the situation, which is a relief, if nothing else. I have two substantive replies: one on the role of the Assembly, and the other on transparency. They are, I think, deeply connected.

(1) Assembly: It seems odd to me that with attendance at and interest in Assembly so high that it would simulataneously seem superfluous. I think that Assembly met about 10 times a year in my time, if I am not mistaken. When you figure one time for elections, and twice to hear reports from the Dean and President respectively, that seems like really only seven meetings to fill with relevant deliberations. If nothing else, wouldn't there be "advise and consent" work to be done on important academic and administrative policy? But I guess the proof is in the pudding, and if Assembly meetings have been irrelevant, then they have been, and you would know. In any case, it seems to me that they surely could be--and probably should be--significant; given the interest in Assembly.

(2) I am specifically grateful for the clarification regarding the start date of discussions with IIT. But I have to confess that I feel that something more is at work here than the "it depends on what your standard" is discussion you bring up. The analogy seems weak to me only and especially in the regard that whereas partners in a relationship may hold different standards of when they really started being together, they probably would give their friends a similar account of when they met and when they first decided they were together. And if they did not, we would probably call it a failure of memory. In this case, it is clear that it would be really important to folks if there were even non-serious discussions about something like moving the College, and witholding that (and what else can we call it?) simply is a decision to have a not-for-general-consumption conversation about strategic issues. This is, of course, par for the course for most every institution and organization--academic institutions no less (and maybe more) than others. But it is very new for Shimer.

And this is what brings me to the unity of the two issues, and back to the question of the plebiscite possibility. I very much hope you are right that the Assembly won't simply be playing the role in the decision to or not to move that I and other NYS residents played in the decision to or not to borrow 2.9 billion dollars in a transportation bond act. But if folks have the general idea that Assembly is really pretty marginal anyway, and if there is this very aggressive timetable, then when will there be any ability for the Assembly, or a delegated ad-hoc committeel, to really contribute to the decision? I frankly see none under the current proposal and process, as I understand it.

Again, thanks for taking time out to make this clearer to those of us a great distance from the affairs.

David Shiner said...

Thanks again, Michael. I hope this isn't only a private conversation in a public venue, like two sportscasters who address wach other on the air, but rather that others feel free to chime in.

Your main point concerns the ability of the Assembly to make an informed and relevant decision on IIT by the time the bell rings. I don't know whether that will happen, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm trying hard to help see that it does.

On your other points: I didn't intend to give the impression that I see recent Assembly meetings as "irrelevant." I think they fulfill a somewhat different function than in the 80s and 90s - not all that different, but somewhat so. In thinking this over, it occurs to me that the rise in Weekend student attendance and the decline in decisions on substantive issues might be related to each other. The Weekend students, on the whole, seem to appreciate hearing committee reports and the like more than Weekday students and staff; it helps them feel more informed about what's going on at Shimer. They don't seem at all frustrated by the lack of substantive items, although they do speak up when we have discussions. I'll think more about it, but in any case I surely wouldn't characterize the Assembly as "irrelevant." I would say that Shimer is somewhat less democratic than it was a decade ago, and much less so than 25-30 years ago. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I do think it could become a bad thing if it goes much further. Since I'm obviously committed to the Assembly, I'll continue to try to figure out how to make it as functional and relevant as possible.

As far as the statement that "even non-serious discussions about something like moving the College" would have been communicated widely in the past, I simply don't agree. Examples to the contrary abound. Back in 2002 Don was approached by a proprietary school that was interested in affiliating with Shimer. He told me about it some time after his initial conversations, and eventually he told the rest of the faculty. The talks disintegrated before the students and administrative staff (not to mention alumni) were brought in. Those dicussions never got to the point that the IIT proposal has, but they were certainly at least somewhat serious. If they had gone further, I assume the Assembly would have been brought in, although months after the initial contact.

We'll never know. What I do know is that Bill, like Don, regularly gets calls about this sort of thing, which could loosely be termed "non-serious discussions to move the college" or to subtantially affect the college in other ways. I don't think it makes sense to have them all disseminated widely, or in most cases at all. What I think is probably in this case is not that issue, but the rather clunky way this particular situation has been handled. I hope that everyone involved, myself included, will learn to handle such matters better in the future.

mikeyd723 said...

David, I too hope that we are not having a public private conversation, but it is always lovely to be discoursing with you in any medium regardless.

I completely agree with you, first, that you are personally doing everything possible that the decision made at the December 18 meeting will be both informed and relevant. I appreciate that a great deal.

That said, I think that in order for the Assembly meeting on the 18th to be both informed and relevant, the Assembly will have to have a good deal more in front of it than the kind of information currently available. While I see the wisdom behind not making the contract available, a somewhat detailed summary of the main points--what will be the exact nature of the space devoted exclusively to the College; the shared space; the costs; etc.--should be broadly available, so that the Assembly can really deliberate about some of those details rather than just go back and forth in a general way about the wisdom of a move in general and this move in particular. And I have not yet heard if there are any plans to provide that kind of a material basis for the Assembly's deliberation.

Let me also say that I did not mean non-serious so much as "semi-serious," in describing the kinds of conversations the broader community is, has been, or should be, included in. I agree with you entirely that there are and ought to be lots of non-serious issues that arise at the Presidential and Board levels that would not benefit from communal discussion, and which the community would not benefit from being party to. But "semi-serious" conversations are another matter, and I imagine they are pretty rare, and that this particular one was semi-serious long enough ago that it would have been good--for both the quality of the decision made, and for the quality of community felt to exist by College community members--to start speaking publicly about it (to some extent) sooner. This is importat not so much for carping about the past, but--as you say--so as to learn about this for the future.

A last note on the relevance of Assembly more broadly. I am wondering about the possibility of using "Open Space" with Assembly more, especially if it becomes/is becoming more of a reflective, rather than determinative, body. This could be a way to keep meeting, and doing worthwhile things at the meeting, without the Agenda committee "loading" a (somewhat false) agenda. Just a thought, rather tangential to the matter at hand.

David Shiner said...

Michael, the more we "discourse" the closer we get to each others' views. I am about to start the process of assimilating all possible material concerning the IIT proposal, whether pro, con, or undecidable. The accreditation self-study group will be enlisted in this process, but everyone on campus will be included in some way, and I also plan to incorporate thoughts from alumni via this blog, other conversations, the meeting this coming Sunday, etc. Of course we'll also include the financial prjections and any other "official" documents that might be helpful, such as the sort you suggest on the exact space we would occupy at IIT, lease terms, mortgage terms of the current Shimer buildings in Waukegan, etc. The group will try to distill everything into a coherent, non-repetitious but reasonably complete document. We have a couple of weeks to get it done, and we'll work hard to get it done right.

As to the Open Space format, this is already being done, as I probably should have mentioned in an earlier post. As things currently stand, the term "Assembly" is now used loosely for "the internal self-governing Shimer community" and tightly for "the group that has called meetings to conduct business." (This terminology is itself loose.) In other words, if we simply want to get everyone together to discuss an issue or set of issues, we set a time (usually Sunday at 4 when the Weekend Program meets) and invite all current Shimerians to come if they're interested. If we have items of business to hear and/or decide upon, we hold "an Assembly meeting" with all the concommitant requirements for staf members, APC members, and so on. We've already had two session of the "looser" variety this semester along with two official Assembly meetings. We're planning two more Assembly meetings in December, so a lot of what you're suggesting is already happening. Not to say that it couldn't be better, but we're getting there, I think (& hope).

mikeyd723 said...

Thanks once more for these clarifications, David. I must confess that I am getting a bit lost in the blog at the moment, but in response to what you say here, and what I read up above in more recently started posts, things seem to me to be in much better shape as regards the quality of the conversation than say a week or two weeks ago. Whether the process itself is improving, or just my perception of it, is another question (to be sure).

I say this because I generally am of the conviction that when it comes to important questions, if the process is a good one, and the folks involved share a view of the good toward they are working, then the decisions end up being all that one could hope for.

My one lingering confusion, or doubt, in this regard is what exactly the meaning of the Assembly vote will be and if it will simply take the form of a yes/no. Since the Assembly decision (what it will be) will be seen as advice/recommendation to the Board in any case, it seems to me that it is possible for it not to simply be "do this" or "don't do this" but rather that [or not that] and/or "we believe 'X' is beneficial while 'Y' is a real drawback. I may not have articulated this well, but it seems to me that there ought to be some way in which the nuances of the conversation (which shall surely exist, given the nuances we see here) can be reflected to Board, rather than just "x" number of assembly members voted "yes" and "y" number voted "no."

David Shiner said...

Michael,

I fully agree that the Assembly should not plan on a simple "yes" or "no" vote on the IIT relocation. I foresee the meeting at which this is decided taking several hours, with everyone discussing the issues and coming up with hypothetical proposals (we approve X on condition Y) which would then be voted upon. This is nmore or less the way things went with respect to the Roosevelt decision 15 years ago.

But there's a complication. Since all Weekday conferences end on December 16, some Weekday students don't want to (or can't) hang around until December 18, when the Assembly meeting will be. Those students would like to cast absentee ballots, and a proposal to that effect will be prsented to the Assembly at its next meeting on December 4. Since it would be impossible by then to forsee what sorts of proopsals the Assembly might come up with on the 18th, that would be a problem. So would disenfranchising those students. On the other hand, we've never allowed absentee ballots before, and I know a lot of Shimerians are dead set against it. Having the IIT Assembly meeting any time other than December 18 is a non-starter, since (1) the Weekend students would be disenfranchised, and (2) there's no such time anyway, given when "full" information on the implications of the relocation will be available and when the Board needs to decide.

So I don't know what will happen, but I trust the Assembly to come up with the best solution it can under the circumstances. Keep your fingers crossed.

Alan Iliff said...

I have been lurking my way through the threads of this blog from the beginning. I found this duet, as it were, to be very valuable. In 'real-time' you may have been the only participants, but I am/was with you in spirit.

Thanks,
Alan

David Shiner said...

Thanks for chiming in, Alan. It's nice to know that someone else was "listening in." Your thoughts on any of this would be appreciated.

D. R. Koukal said...

I, like Alan, have also appreciated your shared dialogue--though I'm getting here rather late. This is the first chance I've had to work my way through all these posts, and I'm at best only halfway done.

My worries center on how this proposal was made public to the community, and in light of Shimer's tradition of self-governance. I'm afraid that the (shall we say) ham-handed way this proposal came to light has a very real danger of splitting the College into two factions, pro-move and anti-move. It may be the case that no matter what the College does now, it could lose students, etc.

Very unlike the way Don's stepping down as president was handled. It seems the College made a concerted effort to ease the community into this transition. We could've used some of that nuance in this case.