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.