Saturday, December 03, 2005

from Steven Werlin

I’ve been trying to figure out where to place myself in this discussion. Officially, I’m a member of the internal community, a member of the faculty. I work for the College full-time. At the same time, the particular assignment that the College has allowed me to create for myself means that I’m not in Waukegan more than a few days each year. Almost any member of the internal community has better information than I have and has had opportunities to think more deeply and in more subtle ways than I’ve been able to do.

A lot that’s valuable seem to me to be emerging from what I’ve been able to follow of these discussions. Two separate issues seem on the table, and they both are worth getting into, though for very different reasons. One is the College’s governance structure, what we want it to be and what it turns out to be in practice. The other is the possible move itself.

The first is made especially important because it seems to be the source of a lot of pain right now, with accusations and defensive responses as regular parts of the dialogue. Two points seem easy to make. The first is that the Board has final authority at the College. As Don once explained things to me, even such authority as we are accustomed to leaving in the hands of the Assembly is only delegated to the Assembly by the President of the College, whose authority comes from the Board.

The second is that the Assembly ought to have a powerful voice in the Board’s deliberations on so important a question as whether the College moves. Since I joined Shimer, the Board has consistently shown that it respects the Assembly’s role in College decision making. This is to say that the fact that the Board has the final voice – and I have more to say about this below – does not have to mean that the Assembly has no voice at all.

This is true even if the Board and its representatives are unwilling to guarantee that its decision will follow the Assembly’s will. I myself think it would be improper for the Board to guarantee, in advance, that the Assembly will get its way. Only current Board members can know how important the Assembly’s view is to them, and I doubt even they can be sure right now how they will react when and if they are asked to take a vote.

A third point clouds things, but it does so beautifully. If one wants to see the limits of a board’s final authority over a college, one need look no farther that to our own history. It was, after all, Shimer’s board that decided to close the College. (Was it twice?) And yet here we are. Though I don’t want to suggest that we members of the internal community prepare ourselves to ignore the Board and carry on if their decision is not what we want it to be, I do think that the College’s history can remind us all what internal community members have done over the years to earn the voice that they’ve traditionally had at Shimer – if, that is, a reminder is necessary.

As far as the move itself goes, I am at a loss. I’ve grown fond of the College’s home in Waukegan and of Waukegan itself, but am excited by the prospect of a campus in Chicago. There’s a lot about the space we’re in right now that suits us, but the most important academic aspects of our lives together do not, it seems to me, depend very much on the coziness of a particular space. I would be happy to be able to offer students and staff more in the way of services, but worry that a traditional College cafeteria would wreak havoc on the lunch program that has come to offer so much to our communal life. I wonder whether we can survive a move, with all the short-term difficulties that it may entail in lost staff and other problems, but have to admit that I’m part of the group that has failed to figure out how to make the College grow where it is.

One note: I am a little confused about exactly what kind of decision the Assembly will be asked to make, but that may just be because I’m so far away. If the Assembly is supposed to say whether it prefers Waukegan or the South Side, then it needs little more information than detailed descriptions of the facility we are considering. If, however, the Assembly is being asked whether it thinks moving is a good idea, then it needs much more. It needs summaries of the schools current financial position. It needs to know why someone might take the view that the school needs to do something dramatic. It needs a lot of information about the proposed deal itself.

It is the second question, the one as to whether making a move is the right thing for the College, that I would prefer to see the Assembly face. It’s a much harder question, of course, but I see no reason to protect the Assembly from hard questions. Though the Board has final responsibility for the College’s finances, that doesn’t mean that the Assembly should keep from considering such matters. David Shiner’s recent offer of information from various administrators seems very positive to me.

What comforts me as I watch the discussions from a distance is my conviction that those who in the midst of the discussions care deeply about the College. This is true of those of you who are speaking gently. It’s also true, I think, of those who are not. At first I was a little taken back by the testiness I see in some of this discussion, but I’ve come to think that it’s just a reflection of how much we all do care. I’d like to believe – and, in fact, I do believe – that at least in terms of our intentions in these discussions, we are all on the same page.

7 comments :

KRSoule said...

All -

Although there are many on this blog who I hope will remember me, I begin with an introduction. I am Kate Soule, former Shimer CFO. I was at the College from 1991-1996. I currently work at Dartmouth College as Director of Budget and Fiscal Affairs for the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. While I am happy at Dartmouth and although I was never enrolled as a student at Shimer, I consider myself a Shimerian and am following this dialogue with great interest.

Because my entire Shimer experience has been in Waukegan, my idea of Shimer is very much grounded in that place. I spent more hours on the second floor of Prairie House and on campus than anywhere else, including my home, while I worked there. I was involved in the purchase, refinancing, renovation, and maintenance of all the College buildings and care about every inch.

I also have had a very up-close and personal view of the College’s finances. I have seen how difficult it is to sustain a college on around 100 student FTE. Each year during my tenure, the Budget Committee made optimistic estimates of students and donations and each year I figured out just how to convince people not to spend their budgets so that we could pay our employees and our vendors. I hunted down students for their timesheets so they could eat from their wages for another two weeks. I lay awake at night formulating strategies to make the next payroll and pay our mortgages. I know first hand that Shimer at 100 FTEs with aging facilities and a shrinking donor base is simply not sustainable.

On the other hand, while both the Waukegan facilities and the financial situation the College faces are part of Shimer, they are not unique among US institutions nor are they features of the College that are required for Shimer to retain it’s identity. Rather, Shimer is unique because of its students, its faculty, and its classroom. Our devotion to the Great Books, limited class size, dialogue and co-inquiry among faculty and students, faculty with an interdisciplinary focus and a commitment to valuing all points of view are some of the factors that truly make Shimer stand out from crowd. The fact that Shimer accepts most students with an inquiring mind and an interest in learning in its environment motivated me to work hard to attract and retain students by assisting them with the finances of their education. I have always felt, as I can tell others do, that Shimer does make a difference in the world, however small in number we may be.

Therefore, although I am attached to Shimer in Waukegan, as were those that loved it in Mt. Carroll, I see much to be attracted to in the prospect of a move to a more vibrant and sustainable Shimer at ITT. The new space can be made cozy and Shimerian no matter what it looks like on the outside. New students can be attracted to Shimer, whether to the day or weekend program or for the occasional class to supplement their ITT courses. These students, like all students who have ever attended Shimer, will become Shimerian through contact with the devoted faculty, students and administrators they will meet while in our midst. In short, I hope that everyone in the Shimer community will focus on the core aspects of what makes Shimer unique when deciding whether the move is in the best interests of the institution.

Kate

mikeyd723 said...

Kate,

It is so great to hear from you and to know that you think of yourself as Shimerian, too.

I just wanted to say that while I see the reasons for optimism about the idea of moving, and agree that "Shimer at 100 FTEs with aging facilities and a shrinking donor base is simply not sustainable," the argument that I and others have been making against the idea of relocating in Chicago is not so much nostalgia for the campus in Waukegan, as a suspicion that the move might really affect "the core aspects of what makes Shimer unique." Specifically, that the move might well lead to increased enrollment, but by bringing in folks who are very happy to be in Chicago pursuing liberal arts in some sense, and only tangentially (if at all) excited about those core elements of Shimer's being.

That of course is not in and of itself an argument not to move, but it is an argument not to believe that any argument against moving from Waukegan is premised on a misplaced emphasis on the physical space bounded by cory, genesee, sheridan, and funeral home.

Best,
Michael (Weinman, '98)

KRSoule said...

Mike -

Hi! I agree with you in many respects. This is a discussion about "the core aspects of what makes Shimer unique" and the core can be threatened regardless of location. Our block in Waukegan is no more immune than the proposed IIT location.

And, I agree that what makes Shimer worth fighting for is vital and should not be taken lightly. Still, I sometimes think that those of us who consider ourselves Shimerian may take a too narrow view whether new people can become Shimerian too. I don't think increased enrollment, per se, will make Shimer into something else. I don't think IIT students taking a class or two has to turn Shimer into an average liberal arts college. I feel that as long as Shimer has the strength and courage to BE SHIMER instead of trying to be something else, additional people around tables of 12, discussing the great books and learning from each other will always have the capacity be Shimerian.

After all, I was fairly un-Shimerian before I made a leap of faith and decided to work there. Carleton College (where I grew up), Amherst College (B.A.) and University of Massachusetts Amherst (MBA) are not Shimerian institutions, nor is Dartmouth where I am now. Still, I will always consider myself to be Shimerian no matter where I may roam as I have been profoundly changed by my Shimer experience.

My hope is that more students, faculty and staff have the opportunity to become Shimerian too. I know I will never look at reading or learning the same way again.

Kate

Inspector Michael D . . . said...
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Inspector Michael D . . . said...
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D. R. Koukal said...
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D. R. Koukal said...

New students can be attracted to Shimer, whether to the day or weekend program or for the occasional class to supplement their ITT courses. These students, like all students who have ever attended Shimer, will become Shimerian through contact . . ."

Kate, I have to disagree with you here. Shimer has not only always had problems with recruitment; it has always also (God, that's awkward) had problems with retention. Not all students who come into contact with Shimer stay; in fact, I'd be very surprised if our retention rate wasn't significantly lower than that of comparable institutions.

There are probably lots of reasons for this, but one goes to a core Shimer value: our mode of pedagogy is intimidating, because it requires one to question one's own most deeply-held beliefs. Without sounding elitist, it does take a certain kind of student to do this; those who are unwilling to do this leave. And I'm not sure that the typical IIT student is of the kind that stays.