Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Response to Noah's Survey

Noah,

Your survey reached me via Dave Buchanan, whom I've copied here, along with Bill Paterson. Any of you should feel free to circulate this, should you want to. I will likely also post it to shimercollege.blogspot.com.

What brought you to Shimer initially? What aspects of Shimer made the College appealing, and what aspects made is unappealing?

What keeps you at Shimer (or made you leave)? What aspects of Shimer are those that draw you in as you live the Shimer life, and what aspects make you want to leave?

I'm Shimer '90, and presently teaching philosophy at a Catholic university in Detroit. I'm a born and bred Waukeganite, and so it was an unusual situation of the College in a sense finding me instead of me finding the College. K-12 I was a spectacularly average student and underachiever, probably bored and didn't know it.

When Shimer first arrived in town over the fabled winter of '77, taking up residence in a run-down 438 behind a rather shabby sign announcing its presence, most people didn't know what to make of the place. Many, including myself, thought it might be some kind of cult. In 1983 or so I ran across some Shimer literature in the print shop over which I lived. After two years of cautious investigation I enrolled in the weekend program to check it out. It wasn't boring. After one semester I was hooked, and never looked back.

At the time, the weekend program met at a conference center in Lake Bluff. While a luxurious break from our working lives for many of us weekenders, it did tend to foster resentment among the day students confined to the then very shabbier confines of the Waukegan campus. In any case, the College (due to financial exigencies, I believe), relocated the weekend program to the Waukegan campus, where I completed my studies. At that time, I would have followed the College anywhere. I still would.

There was nothing that ever made me want to leave, but I was always deeply concerned about the fate of the College. If you're familiar with Shimer's history, you know that it is a history of crisis. If Shimer had a "golden age," it was a brief one, probably sometime in the 50s.

While I was at Shimer it was only a candidate for accreditation, and I always wondered (1) whether a degree from an unaccredited school would hurt me in a search for a grad program, and (2) would I graduate before the College collapsed altogether? The fiscal situation was perilous, to say the least. But I did graduate from an unaccredited school, I did complete a legitimate graduate program, I am practicing my calling full-time, the College is now accredited, but the fiscal situation is still dire.

At the same time, however, in some respects things have gotten manifestly better for the College. It has acquired most of the properties included in its master plan from the 80s--something I regarded as a dream on paper at the time. It has unified the campus to a large degree. The lab in Hutchins was an astonishing acquisition. The College has at long last put money into a seriously ramshackled dorm. It has cultivated advantageous political relationships at the local and state levels. It has reached out and become a part of the local community. And the city which initially regarded the College with open hostility now regards it as both a citizen in good standing and an essential part of any renaissance of its downtown.

But--there's always the "but"--despite all this, enrollment has remained stagnant all this time. And because Shimer has never had a large student body, and because many of its graduates do not enter the corporate or entrepreneurial worlds, it has never had a large endowment. And because of this, enrollment is the key consideration.

So, in principle, I'm in favor of anything that would increase enrollment and hence put the school's future on a firmer footing. Which brings up the matter at hand--would the IIT move do this?

Unfortunately, I have yet to see anything that would indicate that this idea is anything more than a hope that smacks more of desperation than deliberation. That the president of the board went in the space of a week from being "undecided" to intimating to the Chicago Tribune that he was for the move seems to underscore this. All this and the short time frame for a decision makes me extremely nervous, especially in light of the fact that school is not facing an impending crisis (that I know of).

Look, as a member of "conventional academia" (and Shimer is gloriously unconventional), I can tell you that schools spend years doing serious studies of the possible outcomes of proposed changes far less momentous than the one being proposed here. Schools far more robust than Shimer have been severely damaged or ruined due to rash administrative decisions. Given that Shimer is a very, very fragile institution, is is essential that our administration be especially cautious.

If the administration can produce evidence that the move would have a reasonable expectation of stimulating enrollment, I would tend to support the move. But, as I've already said on the blogspot, in the absence of such evidence, I have almost no confidence in the proposal.

So, what then? Can the College afford to stay in Waukegan with stagnant enrollment? This option is not all that appealing. As much as we like to romanticize the countless hardships that Shimer has survived over the years, it seems to me obviously foolhardy for us to continue to dance on the knife's edge. This suggests another question: How can the College stay in Waukegan, take advantage of the roots it has put down there, but stimulate enrollment?

Let me suggest a promising place to start, and it would also involve a survey: a survey the students and parents who visited Shimer but decided not to attend. Through several conversations that I've had with Bill Paterson over the years, here's what I think such a survey would reveal about why such visitors decided against Shimer: (a) "it doesn't look like a college," (b) its physical plant is run-down, and (c) it is located in a distressed area of Waukegan.

To take up the last matter (c) first: it's not like IIT is in the best of neighborhoods, though it has a campus security force which would be a comfort to many. At the same time, I've read on the blogspot that the crime around IIT is much more pronounced, but that makes sense--there's just more people. And it seems to me that the area around the Waukegan campus is starting to turn around. I remember when virtually all of the Victorian frame houses in the neighborhood were carved up into tiny run-down apartments rented cheap to iffy people. Several urban pioneers have come into the area and have invested serious work and money into their properties--just the kind of people I think compliment Shimer's mission.

(b) If you visit any college campus and look closely at all but the brand new buildings, you'll see a lot of wear and tear. Students are hard on buildings. But it must be admitted that many of Shimer's buildings are especially worn, given that most are decades (if not one hundred-plus) years old. If the College is to remain in Waukegan serious money must be raised and put into the physical plant, and a program of maintenance put into place. At the very least, this would probably entail new roofs and heating/cooling plants all around, and new electricity service where below code. Given the number of buildings the College now owns, this would require a substantial but not overwhelmingly large sum of money by conventional standards, though it would be a lot of money by Shimer standards. But we hired a new president (who doesn't teach, I'm told) whose chief responsibility is to raise money. How is that going?

(c) "It doesn't look like a college." What could this possibly mean, given the wide variety of architectural styles that comprise various college campuses--or any single college campus? But deep down, we do know what this statement means (or at least I do, because I asked it myself when I was checking Shimer out): "It looks like a bunch of houses." We had a board member once (an architect, Ed Noonan, I think) who took up this perception and came up the notion of a "college of cottages," which formed the basis of the 80s master campus plan. As I've already observed, much of that plan has been realized: a unifying quad, professional and well-placed signage, etc. In my view, the Prairie House, Hutchins, 438 and Admissions present a good "collegiate" face to the public; our other properties on the block need work to bring them up to these standards. Finally, something like a semi-permeable boundary around the campus, like a low brick wall (expensive) or a low, well-maintained hedge (not so expensive), would further unify the campus, perhaps lend some psychological succor to those concerned with security, remain reasonably open to the community, and hopefully give an (admittedly intangible) impression of a "small, quaint, liberal arts college"--emphasis on the "quaint."

At long last a final word on Waukegan and Shimer. I'll admit that I've come to a greater appreciation for Waukegan over the years. I also think the city has a more promising future than most give it credit for. But please don't take me for a biased apologist for my home town. There will always be those who will hate the fact that Shimer is in Waukegan; the tensions between "town and gown" are as old as Oxford. This will hold if the College moves to IIT, or anywhere else. And I would suggest that the cultural "isolation" that some students feel is easily cured by a cheap, one-hour train ride to downtown Chicago, from where one can take any number of cheap trips on the El to virtually any place in the city. (Imagine being a student at Ball State in Muncie, IN, where the only cultural salvation is an hour away by car . . . in Indianapolis!)

Even in the best case scenario, a move anywhere will cost us some students, and we have to seriously consider whether the College can survive an undefined period of reduced enrollment until the alleged "IIT effect" kicks in. Furthermore, Waukegan *needs* us; just look at the alarm of the city administration when it heard the rumor of our move. IIT, on the other hand, is just shopping for a tenant that could be of some benefit to them.

In the end, I have to say that without compelling evidence that the proposed move would likely improve Shimer's enrollment in the near future, I think it would be foolish to burn the bridges we have built through good will over the years in Waukegan.

Dave Koukal

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D. R. Koukal
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Director, University Honors Program
University of Detroit Mercy
4001 W. McNichols RoadDetroit, MI 48221-3038
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phone: 313.993.1138 koukaldr@udmercy.edu
personal web: http://koukaldr.faculty.udmercy.edu
honors web: http://www.udmercy.edu/honors
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"A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!" - Nietzsche

2 comments :

Edward McEneely said...

David,

I just wanted to take the the time to thank you for expressing in lucid and pleasant prose feelings that I myself in large part share, but have been unable to impart in an articulate manner.

Saradevil said...

David,

Thank you, I agree fully. You certainly put this a bit more eloquently then I could.

Sara