Saturday, December 17, 2005

THE CASE FOR MOVING TO CHICAGO

--Albert B. Fernandez, Shimer Faculty


If you’re short on time or patience, though I think the issue before us demands both, I suggest you skip to my last three paragraphs or my final paragraph, which I dare say is a relatively original contribution.

Although I urge everyone not to finally make up their minds concerning the proposed move to the IIT campus until they have received as much information and listened to as much of the ongoing discussion as possible, as Sunday's Assembly meeting nears I think it is appropriate and helpful for those of us who are at this point strongly leaning one way or another to present their reasons, if only in summary form.

The point of departure that leads me, and others, to favor relocation is an assessment--which I believe at this point is a consensus if not a unanimous position among the staff—of the College’s future in Waukegan as precarious, for financial reasons. Data, arguments, and forecasts relating to enrollment, donor income, and grant income that support this assessment have already been presented by others (I will be glad to direct you to this information if you can’t find it), and I readily grant that there are also factors that work against financial pessimism. But, to sum it all up, Shimer is like a family that has been getting away with living from paycheck to paycheck for quite some time. It may survive like this indefinitely, but it’s also a bankruptcy waiting to happen. Given this assessment, it is widely felt, as I do, that Shimer needs to make some kind of “move.”

Given that assessment, the essential reason why I, and others, will be going to Sunday's Assembly inclined to support a resolution recommending the move is that we think it is more likely that Shimer College will endure and prosper if it does relocate to Chicago as proposed. And, in turn, the essence of this reasoning, for me at least, is that it seems likely that enrollment and the stream of applications to Shimer will increase. I can see four sources that will likely produce such an increase, independently, and it's more likely that at least some out of the four will do so. The factors I'm referring to, specifically, are as follows.

1) The College will be located right in the middle of a huge education market of working adults, so that the ailing Weekend Program stands to benefit especially,

2) Shimer will no longer be a “no-frills” college. I do not think that if prospective students (to say nothing of their parents) are reluctant to attend a College that has no cafeteria, no gym, no security staff, very little by way of extracurricular facilities, and--even now--not much of a library, and with buildings that still look rather ramshackle, it means they are not serious students.

3) Attrition will likely be reduced because it will be much easier for our students to take specialized courses not offered by Shimer, even if we don’t work out a cross-registration agreement with IIT. Currently the College fails to retain an undetermined but significant number of students because their grad school or career goals require them to take courses not available, or at least not easily or regularly available, at SC or nearby colleges (pre-med, specialized lab courses, economics, etc.)

I am saying “significant” mostly on the basis of personal recollection over my years at Shimer. But the nearest thing to a scientific determination of how many students are in this category, Enrollment Manager George Krafcisin’s attrition studies from ’96 and ’97, suggests that the number is high. In the ’96 attrition study, the 2nd most common reason for leaving the College (after “personal-emotional-health,” 38 students) was transferring to another institution (36 students). The ’97 study tallied reasons given by departing students themselves, and “career goals changed” was the third most frequent response.

4) Chicago. Little needs to be said about the appeal of the opportunities for cultural and social enrichment that Chicago offers. It has been countered that many college applicants prefer a rural environment, but Waukegan is not a rural environment.

The preceding outlines my essential reason for favoring the move, but it is not the only one. I am thinking that residing at IIT would enable us to make the claim that many other schools would kill for: "The advantages of a small college with the resources of a large university." I am also thinking that IIT students comparing our classes with IIT’s would probably enhance Shimer ‘s reputation, and that the word will spread. I am bearing in mind reports of Mt. Carroll alums who have said they would be generous to Shimer if we moved. And I regard our mixing with a different community (that has one of the largest proportions of international students in the US), which I have elsewhere called “contact with aliens,” as a fundamentally good thing for our community. Of course I also have my list of “cons,” which is posted on the intranet, and which includes the unappealing new building, but at this point my pros are trumping the cons.

I have been repeatedly using the word “likely,” at the expense of good style, to indicate my awareness that I cannot scientifically demonstrate almost anything that I have written. But I don’t believe that professional market studies or similar instruments, which some have called for, would be of much help, even if we could afford them, in what is, after all, predicting the future.

As for reasons and arguments that have been expressed in opposition to the proposal, I do not have the space to explain why each has ultimately not persuaded me, though I certainly do not dismiss them. But, taking them in the aggregate, it seems that the bulk of them are to the effect that if Shimer moves to the IIT campus it will lose its independence, or its soul, its uniqueness, its small classes…. First and most generally, it seems to me that whether things of this sort happen will be up to us. That Shimer should stay put to safeguard its identity strikes me as analogous to an individual avoiding people who are different for fear of losing his/her identity.

Even if it is assumed, for the sake of argument, that if we move Shimer will be run by soulless persons who do not understand Shimer’s values and care for nothing but marketing and the bottom line, the stupidest thing they could do, just from the marketing standpoint, would be to surrender what makes Shimer stand out---in the language of marketing, “product identity.”

What I think is generally being missed when worry is expressed about the pressures on our autonomy that we would face if we moved is that such pressures already are and have been enormous. There is no harsher landlord than poverty. After twelve years of teaching at Shimer in Waukegan, I can say that there has been virtually no decision, no project, no initiative, that has not been severely constricted by scarcity of resources and financial handicaps, including the very one we are discussing, and this applies not only at the institutional level, but for all constituencies, including students. Examples are legion. For a long time the College has meant to offer graduate education courses, but this has not been possible, even on a modest scale, without the tail of external funding wagging the dog. Faculty have to deal with an exceptional lack of financial support if they want to write, research, attend conferences, take sabbaticals, or otherwise contribute to the larger educational community or any community beyond the immediate one. And if you’re a student and, let’s say, want to organize a soccer league for neighborhood kids, you will likewise immediately come up against the College’s dearth of resources, facilities, equipment, insurance, etc. Nothing disempowers more than poverty.

1 comment :

Katie Harrell said...

Albert,

I was a member of the committee which conducted research for George on satisfaction/attrition and I would like to point out a rather large flaw: It only took a semester. Of the four people I could get to let me interview them for hours, 2 left the school (and indeed indicated that they would do so in their interview). 1 said that they planned to. Had the study gone on longer, one would learn that the 2 who left, also returned (both after George left). The 1 who planned on leaving, never did. I'm not saying that attrition isn't a problem, but I wouldn't put too much into George's numbers. There are cats in the dorm currently that have spent more time at Shimer than George did. A long term study is needed.