Tuesday, December 06, 2005

From Barbara Stone

Hi Everybody,

It’s Barbara Stone, Dean for a time in the early 90s, and Dean now, with a stint in Development in between. I’ve been following the blog for a long time; it’s been good to hear from so many of you again, and to follow the discussion.

Of course I’ve also been trying to pull my thoughts together for a while. This past Sunday I gave an Academic Affairs speech to the Assembly at the College. Most of it treated the long-term academic issues I see facing the College in the years ahead – whether we stay in Waukegan or go to Chicago. I also outline some details related to the possibility of a move to IIT, and report on a faculty discussion of the issue. So, I think this should be of interest to many of you.

Though I understand that the blog is meant to be a personal discussion, for me this speech is very personal, and outlines my own views of how I see things. So, I’ve excerpted the section (yes, it’s long) that treats IIT for all of you to read.

And, to make my life easier (it’s the end of the semester and extremely hectic) I have asked Noah to post it for me since he can do it more quickly than I can. I will of course read responses; and feel welcome to email me at Barbara@shimer.edu too.

From: Academic Affairs Speech
Barbara S. Stone
December 4, 2005

I have excerpted the lengthy section that treats my view of the academic long-term issues that face the College, and how a move to IIT relates to them.

The question I want to address is: How do I see the discussion of the possibility of a move to IIT, and the rethinking of how we do things here, fitting into the mission and the long-term vitality of the College? And, since this is a State of Academic Affairs speech, I will narrow it down even further, and focus on the “academic vitality” part – rather than on the long term financial well-being, though these two things are closely connected.
I shall begin by taking stock, and outline where we are, and how we got here. I shall consider a number of issues that impinge on what I consider to be the long-term health and vitality of the College, especially those that impact the future of our academic programs. I will add some basic information which may help to answer a few questions that have come up repeatedly in my conversations with others in the last weeks. My major argument is that, even leaving aside financial difficulties, it is of primary importance that the College’s enrollment grow significantly in the next few years, in order to retain its level of excellence for future generations of students. To my mind, this is one of the basic questions that must be kept foremost in mind as we weigh the option “To Stay or Go.” Some issues I will be addressing will be described slightly differently in a paper which David Shiner is putting together in preparation for the Assembly discussion in two weeks, but hearing them more than once is probably a good thing - at least it’s taken me a while to fully wrap my head around some of these matters.

First, to the current enrollment situation: quickly, somewhat bleakly, and to the point. This year’s entering class was the smallest in a long time, more precisely since 1987. We also have an enormous number of seniors who are expecting to graduate in May. This is the result of a combination of factors, primarily more transfer students and much less attrition. But the number of students who will continue next year, if there were absolutely no attrition – obviously not the case - is that we have 72 remaining students, 21 in the Weekend Program, 51 in the Weekday Program. This doesn’t include readmits, and there are always some, nor does it include new students. Nevertheless, chances are very high, even if Admissions has an extraordinary year, that we will have fewer than 100 FTEs (full-time equivalent students) for the first time in a decade. Though one could argue that money and size, are in fact somewhat peripheral, and that smallness, in and of itself, is a plus, I do not believe this, at least at this scale.

A declining student body has implications for a number of things at the College. I’ll rattle off a few quickly and go into greater depth on some others. Having a critical mass of eligible students to warrant the Shimer-in-Oxford Program is important; lack thereof could place that program in jeopardy. Small enrollment limits the number of elective offerings each semester. And, even though some may love it, it guarantees having the same fellow students in class after class, over and over again. Yes, it can be argued that it forces one to learn to get along better; but it can limit the entry of new ideas and perspectives. In addition, these enrollment figures have major implications for the question of faculty size in the coming years. Today, not counting off- campus faculty members, we have 11 faculty members teaching in the Weekday and Weekend programs. None of these are less than 40 years of age, and the ratio of senior faculty to junior faculty is 9/2. Looking to the future, we are reaching, or have reached the time in which some of our senior members of the faculty may be looking towards retirement. Additionally, other faculty members will be requesting Leaves of Absences as a time for renewal, and to explore other opportunities. Yet, because of static and/or declining enrollments, limitations are now placed on the hiring of new faculty. This is the second year in which we have not brought in new faculty members, nor do I anticipate that this will be possible next year, wherever we are. Though I’m not confident about estimating a “healthy” senior faculty/junior faculty ratio, too many of either is not desirable. Junior faculty prevent a sense of stasis in the senior faculty; they bring in new ideas and vitality, and make us view our procedures from the point of view of a newcomer, which may be difficult but good for all of us. Especially at a time when faculty are looking towards retirement, it is important that new faculty learn from those who are most experienced with our method of teaching and the curriculum. So bringing in new faculty quickly is pivotal to the long term health of the College. At the other end, whenever we have brought in three or more junior faculty in one year, it has been disruptive and has not worked out well. One wants a balance of seasoned teachers and newer members. This can only occur with a sizeable student enrollment which allows for more turnover. For this reason, as I see it, the primary issue before us, on an academic level, is how to grow College enrollment, and how to make the best judgment as to where this can best happen.

With this background, I will clarify a few issues raised by a move of a considerable portion of our operations to IIT. I am of course working on some of these matters right now, but will share my thoughts with you on some of the details. I emphasize that under this proposal Shimer will remain an independent identity and is not becoming part of another college or university.

Academically, wherever we are the College will hold true to its academic mission of original sources in small discussion classes with the Core Curriculum comprising approximately 2/3 of a student’s course registration. Class size and reading lists would not change because we were moving. In fact I would say that most curricular issues and academic requirements at the College are independent of time and place. The Weekend Program, before settling here in Waukegan, took place in different venues, and graduated a terrific group of students, Bill Paterson among them. We would also have our own bookstore and continue to use our won editions of texts.

In terms of cross registrations at IIT, course prerequisites would need to be honored for students registering for courses at IIT or Shimer. For example, Shimer students would need to demonstrate mathematical competency for advanced IIT math courses; IIT students would need to show competencies in 1 & 2 level Shimer courses prior to taking 3-levels. This could be done by placement exams, or, as with Shimer transfer students, we would use the Bachelor of Science model to determine by-pass of core courses. Likewise for elective courses, the same standards would be applied to IIT students as to Shimer students. Shimer students interested in pre-med programs or teaching certification programs in science and math could get a head start on this work prior to graduation. Additionally, VanderCook College of Music is located on the IIT campus; this would give our students the opportunity to take music lessons and courses, which has been a long-term interest of ours, but difficult to accommodate here. So, this represents an argument that being closer to IIT would enhance our course offerings. However, to make cross registrations possible would require changes to our calendar to conform more closely to IIT’s time schedules and calendar.

In addition, we would need to reserve spaces in our classes for Shimer students “over IIT students.” I would expect IIT to likewise give preference to their students. This would require earlier registration and planning for Shimer students, and that, dare I say, may not be such a terrible thing.

What would it feel like to encounter a non-Shimer group of people on a daily basis, and not just when I get on the train and leave Waukegan? In a way it’s been very comfortable here; it’s known and familiar, despite the irritations of being on a campus with deferred maintenance, leaky roofs, scanty resources, and copy machines that are always breaking down. Yeah, on some level it’s pretty comfortable and we all have our habits and know one another’s. I think for many of us there is comfort in small numbers, except for having to respond to the occasional outsider’s question: “What’s wrong with you that you’re so small?” But, as you know by now, I’m not sure this smallness is such a good thing. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t. I say this despite some arguments I have heard in the last weeks, some of the more convincing ones, as to whether there is something about the Shimer curriculum that invites or needs an ascetic way of life.

Nor is such smallness a part of the Shimer mission. As I argued above, the danger is that it can result in personal, if not institutional ossification. At IIT, we would have interactions with many more people, or at least it would be quite difficult not to. This would be a challenge. It is very easy when encountering a new culture to find oneself tending towards the “us” and “them” mentality. Some Shimerians might find meeting new people exhilarating, others might feel: “What do I have in common with all those others who are “techies, nerds, urbanites, … fill in your own words?” and they might dismiss the whole project and leave. When I hear this kind of talk, I find myself thinking – I do have a lot in common with those others– we’re all humans. And “ussing” and “theming”, though well understood to anyone here who has taken Natural Sciences 2 and read Lorenz’ On Aggression, is quite a dangerous thing, especially if one has even a minimum level of commitment to peace and justice. Closer to home, I am reminded of the “disdain” that Weekday students and Weekend students felt towards one another when the Weekend Program first came to Waukegan. Three weeks ago the Weekend students in my Sunday afternoon discussion group begged to be together with the Weekday students if we move since the students from both programs have such great discussions with one another and feel so much that they are part of the same school. I was really touched by this. So, I think this would be a challenge, but might make me - I won’t speak for others - just a bit more open-minded than I tend to be. And to me that’s what education is all about.

It is clear to me that the discussions of the last few weeks have already changed us, and that we can’t go back to the “before-the-IIT-discussion-started-mentality” – in large part because we can’t continue operating in this way in Waukegan – whether the argument is of a financial nature, or an academic one, as I have put forth here. I’d like to read the mission statement of the College, something we rarely pay as much attention to as we should. It has new meaning for me these days.
“The mission of Shimer College is education – education for active citizenship in the world. Education is more than the acquisition of factual knowledge or the mastery of vocational skills. It is the process leading away from passivity, beyond either unquestioning acceptance of authority or its automatic mistrust, and towards informed, responsible action.”

At their worst our discussions of the past weeks have exemplified “unquestioning acceptance of authority” or, at the other end of the spectrum, “its automatic mistrust”. At their best our discussions have exemplified thinking that will lead us “towards informed, responsible action.” Over the next weeks we need to keep these things in mind as we continue to talk with one another. And let us remember, people change and institutions change, and yes, they also stay the same amidst the changes

We are at a fork in the road, we need to figure out what we should do, and how to go about it. Let’s make the changes we need to remain one of the few Great Books colleges in the country that is based on small discussion classes. What is most important to me is to take the mission of the College, education, to new students – to those who are afraid of the world and lack confidence, to those who are overly confident and need a bit of knocking down, to teachers, to home-schoolers, to Early Entrants, high school graduates, to transfer students, to urbanites, to suburbanites, to techies, nerds, luddites, antidiluvians, and so on and so forth.

Finally, I would like to return to the faculty, and their commitment to the College and its continued excellence. .The possibility of moving a significant portion of our operations to IIT raises many questions for all of us in this room – both institutionally and on a personal level. But if we look to those who have been most actively involved with the College, on the day to day, for the greatest number of years, we know it is the faculty who are the longest enduring. And for us, the impact of such a decision is major; and it comes at different times in our lives. For some Waukegan is their home, for others Waukegan is a place you go to because that’s where the College ended up after Mt. Carroll. For some Waukegan is a short and easy commute, for others it’s long and inconvenient. For some the idea of city life is inviting, enticing, energizing, and full of new opportunities. For others, a quiet life along the lake across the Wisconsin border is just the ticket.

The faculty met a couple of weeks ago to discuss the possible move to IIT. This was after our regular monthly Wednesday business meeting. We didn’t have a format for the meeting; we decided to just let things happen. As it turned out, we wanted to hear from one another how we felt about the move, on a personal level. We went around the room and shared with one another our feelings about the potential move. Despite the hardship this may cause for some, and the excitement it offers others, we were all unified in accepting that, if it is best for the College, we will make it happen, and we will be there for you. Thus, I can assure all the students in the room, that the faculty will not abandon the College if it moves. The same number of faculty plan to be with the College for the next years, whether we remain in Waukegan, or move some of our offerings to IIT. Or to quote David Shiner’s words from that meeting, “Wherever Shimer is, I'll be there.”
Thank you for listening.


Snorey said...

Thank you very much for sharing these thoughts with us, Barb. It really helps the discussion to see how those "on the ground" are thinking about the choice... and also about the future of the college , which will remain a critical issue for all of us even after this decision has been made.

In the end, I trust Shimer's current students and faculty to find the best balance between risk and opportunity. I don't envy anyone who has the make the final decision.

As a distant alum, I am little more than the ghost of Shimer Past... However, I echo Dave Shiner's sentiments: wherever Shimer is, I will still consider myself a part of it.

KRSoule said...

Barbara -

Thanks also from me for your comments. I particularly appreciate your insights on faculty viewpoints about the move. It is necessary for Shimer to have a committed but changing group of faculty for continuous renewal within our Great Books curriculum.

I also share your views on enrollments. As I said before on this blog, Shimer at 100 student FTE's is simply not financially viable. As you point out, Barbara, Shimer is also not academically viable at 100 student FTEs. Since one of the intentions of dialogue in the classroom is to learn from one another, a sufficient diversity of viewpoints is necessary to keep the classroom experience and the very curriculum vital. Talking with the same group of students on different subjects in different classes may help each student to get to know the others very well, but I am not sure it makes for the liveliest discussions.

I also appreciate your views on encouraging new people to join the Shimer community, both as matriculating students and as IIT transfer students. Again, as I said earlier, I believe there are people “out there” who Shimerians may label as “other” but who have the potential to be transformed by the Shimer experience. If moving to IIT brings Shimer to a wider audience while remaining true to it’s core principles, I think such a move should continue to be explored.

At the same time, I see Dave Koukal’s point that other more traditional colleges and universities spend considerable time studying the ramifications of changes less monumental than the one before us. I too work at such an institution. While it is a luxury to have the time and resources to ponder change at length, I am not convinced that questions that receive greater consideration are always more successfully decided.

My hope is that the College chooses a path that allows Shimer to continue, to flourish and to bring its unique brand of education and community to those who will be transformed by it.

Kate Soule