Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On Choosing Our Future Prudently

David R. Koukal (Shimer '90)

I. Introduction

In what follows I have drawn extensively on David Shiner's document of 8 December 2005, "Choosing Our Future." But I have also surely been influenced by the many letters, comments and essays posted here. This requires an expression of gratitude.

Working my way through this online forum has reminded me of how much I love and miss Shimer. The thoughts and passions expressed here on a very difficult issue have for the most part lived up to the very best in Shimerian dialogue--clear and measured expression, attention to argumentative detail, rhetorical playfulness, and most importantly, genuine attempts to listen to and understand what the other is saying. Thank you all for your love of our school, and for manifesting this love in this discourse. This is who we are.

There were two main resolutions passed by the Assembly on 18 December. One, by an overwhelming vote, instructed the Board to pursue offers from the city of Waukegan concurrently with its negotiations with IIT. The other, passed by a vote of 46-29, gave the Board full authority to enter into a lease agreement with that school if the Board judges such an agreement to be in the best interests of the College.

In these two resolutions we can see the ambivalence of the Assembly toward the proposed move. I would be surprised if the "Waukegan resolution" was not proposed and passed in an attempt to preserve the unity of the Shimer community at this difficult time.

Hopefully the Board will take the "Waukegan resolution" seriously, especially since the city has strongly signaled its desire to sit down with the College, in a News Sun article published on 20 December. Like most cities in the nation, Waukegan is confronted with its own struggles and challenges, so it could well be that any "offer" from Waukegan would not be substantial enough to adequately address Shimer's needs. Nevertheless, the Board is bound to seriously consider any such offers, as per the second (Waukegan) resolution overwhelmingly passed by the Assembly.

However, I am bothered by the fact that all of the subsequent resolutions passed on 18 December assumed the move to IIT. Furthermore, the language of the "IIT resolution," in giving the Board full authority to enter into the lease agreement without further consultation with the Assembly, indicates to me that the College is moving in that direction.

And if this is so, I fear that the attempt to mollify opponents through the "Waukegan resolution" will prove very short-term, re-exposing a dangerous rift that surfaced when talk of the move became public knowledge.

There seems to be wide agreement that the manner in which this issue surfaced could have been handled in a better way. But my sense is that the issue itself is inherently divisive, and would have remained so even if it had been introduced into the community with the utmost sensitivity. Stay or go, I think it very conceivable that the College will lose students and perhaps donations over this matter. If I am correct, the Board needs to plan accordingly no matter what it decides.

Nevertheless, from this point on, I am assuming that the College is moving toward a lease agreement with IIT. This makes me sad for Waukegan. I think the city needs us more than Chicago does. But that's not an argument I'm prepared to make, colored as it would be by the mysterious (but still very real!) spatial poetics of the College in Waukegan and a genuine affection for my place of birth. Besides, the issue is the future of the College, irregardless of place.

Proponents of the move say the future of the College will be better secured in Chicago, alongside of IIT. Our first duty, as I see it now, is to examine the merits of this claim as presented by Dave Shiner in "Choosing Our Future." As far as I know, this is the most detailed account of the proposal that has been made available to the general community. By Dave's own admission this document leaves many questions unaddressed. I would go further here: I think the document actually raises more questions than it answers. There are many troubling "ifs," omissions, weak premises and doubtful assumptions. I understand that Dave is not responsible for the document's content, and his efforts in collecting and collating this mass of material and presenting it in intelligible form on such short notice should be applauded. All page references will refer to this document.

Our second duty, in the present circumstances, is to address our comments on this document to the Board--since the future of the College now lays exclusively in its hands.

II. What I Find Convincing and Comforting about the Proposal

The following points are arranged in no particular order or priority.

a. This is not a proposal to merge or formally affiliate with IIT, but a business arrangement. Unlike the Roosevelt affair in the 1980s, the proposed relationship with IIT comes with no money flowing into Shimer's coffers, which would undoubtedly have strings attached. Shimer's core, its faculty and pedagogy, its governance structure, administration and board will remain firmly under the control of the College (p. 2).

b. The proposal allows the College to relieve itself of the costs of maintaining an aging campus. History repeats itself.

c. The proposal will allow access to resources Shimer students have not enjoyed in Waukegan. More dining options, better information technology, health services, gymnasium, library, student organizations, discounted CTA and Metra passes, etc. (p. 2).

d. The proposal allows closer proximity to the cultural assets of a large city. Though Chicago is a short and affordable train ride from Waukegan, this simple fact remains: Waukegan is no Chicago. Point granted.

e. The proposal includes steps to ease the transition to IIT. Tuition reductions, extra funds for amenities for faculty and administrators in the short term, etc. (p. 2).

f. The proposal allows for an expanded choice of electives. Through cross-registration, Shimer students will be able to take classes at IIT and VanderCook College of Music (p. 11).

g. The proposal allows for centralized Shimer housing. Shimer students will be able to live together in a leased dormitory in IIT's campus (p.13).

h. The proposal allows for more on-campus safety and security for Shimer students, faculty, etc.
IIT has a campus police force (p. 16).

III. What I Find Unconvincing and Discomforting about the Proposal

These are issues that still need to be addressed by the Board, in my view:

a. This is not a proposal to merge or formally affiliate with IIT, but a business arrangement. As noted under II.a, we retain independence from IIT, but this independence extends to fiscal matters as well. IIT's attitude toward Shimer is unsentimental. It's looking for a tenant, and nothing more (p. 7). It won't be paying for our presence; we'll be paying IIT.

b. The proposal says nothing about the health of our landlord, IIT. Though this is no merger or formal affiliation, there would still be a sense in which Shimer would be tying its fortunes to IIT--just as in any landlord-tenant relationship. How healthy is IIT? Why, for instance, does it have empty buildings that it needs to lease out? What if IIT were to sell our building in the future? These questions are vitally important, since the proposal calls for the sale of most of the College's physical assets in Waukegan.

c. It is not clear that the move would have a beneficial effect on fundraising. The proposal asserts that the move would have "a very beneficial effect on fundraising" because there are many more funding agencies in Chicago than in Lake County (p. 4). Maybe so, but there are also many more institutions applying for funding from these agencies, and many of these institutions have a much longer history in Chicago than Shimer. Secondly, Bill Rice claims that a number of possible benefactors would offer substantial support should the College move to Chicago (ibid.). I'd like more details: Who are these benefactors? Just how substantial would this support be? Where have these possible benefactors been during Shimer's struggles for the past fifteen years? And why is this possible beneficence tied to the move? Why is the mission of the College worth supporting in Chicago, but not Waukegan? More to the point, why would these possible benefactors be willing to fund a school with a larger deficit created by the move itself (see III.d below)?

d. It is far from clear how the College would pay for its relocation to IIT. This is a major concern. I'm far from a financial wizard, but as far as I can tell from this part of the proposal the move would cost the College over $500,000 (p. 8) and increase its deficit from $300,000 to $830,000 (p. 9). Savings on maintenance, technology and business costs would, at least in the short run, be cancelled out by payments to IIT for service to students (pp. 8-9). Shimer would also pay IIT $250,000-$300,000 for its annual lease, as opposed to $85,000 per year on its mortgages for the Waukegan properties (not including maintenance). The transitional costs mentioned on p. 2 (tuition reductions, extra funds for amenities for faculty and administrators in the short term, etc.) must also be figured in. Finally, it is projected that a move to Chicago could result in a higher student attrition rate next year--90 FTE if the College remains in Waukegan, 75 if it moves (ibid.). These are alarming figures.

It has been proposed that the move would be funded in two ways: (i) through foundation funding and Bill Rice's potential benefactors (see III.c above), none of whom have offered firm written pledges; and (ii) the sale of most of the Waukegan campus (p. 9).

Several questions must be asked here: When will grant writing commence to fund this move? Can these funds be secured in time for a summer 2006 move? When will Bill Rice receive firm written pledges from his potential benefactors? Will these benefactors step up if adequate foundation funding does not materialize (in time), the sale of the Waukegan campus does not fetch the price Shimer needs to fund its move, or if this sale takes longer than expected? Will they step up if Shimer suffers the higher-than-average attrition rate mentioned above?

e. There is no compelling evidence that the move will significantly increase enrollment. This, to me, is the question. Barring an endowment from Bill Rice's potential benefactors that will fully underwrite the operating expenses of the College in perpetuity, better enrollment is the good from which all other goods flow: a higher profile for the school, more fundraising opportunities, stability, pensions and salary increases for faculty, etc. As it stands, the proposal admits the move will increase the College's deficit and could well decrease the number of students. Assuming the College survives the move, what is the evidence that the move--by itself--will in time increase enrollment?

The honest answer to this question, and an answer given by many of those supporting the move, is that there is no evidence that the move will grow the school. Some have said that there may be evidence, but that it will by its nature be incomplete. Some have said that even if the College could afford professional risk and/or market analyses, these would not help because, after all, we'd be attempting to predict the future. I even recall one community member saying something to the effect that a prolonged decision-making process doesn't necessarily yield good choices.

These are remarkable statements, coming from a community that exists in large part to promote careful and critical thought. Though it's true that good choices do not always follow from prudent deliberation, surely this is not to say that rash decisions should be embraced. Yes, risk and market analyses are attempts to see into the future--that is the point. And just because the College can't afford them does not mean it would not benefit from them. To deny this would be to deny the place of sound inductive reasoning in the social sciences, all evidence to the contrary. As long as we're being honest, let's be completely honest with ourselves--especially with the future of the College at stake.

The only evidence that the College's enrollment might benefit from the move is that students will be able to take electives at IIT that they could not take at Shimer. Given that the College's curriculum is frankly generalist and humanist, and IIT's is plainly professional and technological, I would expect these numbers to be minimal, though I think cross-registration with VanderCook is potentially more fruitful. In either case, however, and assuming that each school will receive all of the tuition monies per credit hour for each student enrolled in its classes, it would seem that IIT and VanderCook would benefit from this arrangement far more than Shimer would.

What is interesting about the proposal is that it actually spends more time discussing the possible place of IIT students in Shimer classrooms than it does discussing how the move will attract more Shimer students (pp. 11-12). There has been further talk on this blog of the possibility of "converting" IIT students. If the move happens, we should of course maximize cross-registration opportunities. And yes, there may well be some potential Shimer students in the IIT student population. However, I think this would be the rare exception and not the rule.

Why? First, because those attracted to Shimer are rare exceptions, almost by definition. Second, because as a group IIT students have identified themselves with a professional and technological curriculum, not a generalist and humanist curriculum. Third, many Shimer recruits, who we may suppose are attracted to the generalist and humanistic curriculum of the College, end up leaving in short order; why would we expect IIT students to do better? Finally, IIT already has its own humanities division; given this fact, why should we expect IIT advisors to send their students to Shimer? In fact, from an economic point of view, they have every reason not to.

f. It is not clear that the area surrounding IIT's campus will significantly enhance recruitment. The numbers regarding the relative safety and security of each campus are ambiguous at best (pp. 16-17). IIT has the standard security force that patrols its campus and environs. But the neighborhood itself is not a self-contained enclave like Hyde Park, and the area has been characterized (though not uniformly) in negative terms. If this neighborhood presents no better than does the neighborhood surrounding the Waukegan campus, there is no reason to think a move to IIT will significantly enhance Shimer's recruitment prospects. In fact, due to the notorious reputation of certain areas of Chicago, such a move may well hinder rather than help the College attract students. (This is a problem we constantly face at the University of Detroit Mercy, where I teach.)

g. Questions concerning faculty relocation. Will safety concerns, and the higher costs of housing and living prevent underpaid Shimer faculty from relocating to an area close to a Chicago campus? If so, would a commuting faculty significantly undermine the informal accessibility that Shimer students have typically had to faculty?

h. Moral issues. Because the Board's primary responsibilities to the College are fiduciary in nature I doubt it will concern itself with these, but I think it should--if only as a practical matter. For example, Jack Sigel claims that IIT receives millions in Defense Department contracts, and asks whether Shimer should associate itself with a school doing such research. He also raises the possibility of Shimer students picketing IIT on these grounds--a scenario not at all hard to imagine, and one I would personally applaud. How would our new landlord react?

i. Minor and more ephemeral issues. (i) It's good that Shimer students will finally have access to an academic library. But given IIT's technical-professional orientation, just how much use will this library be to the typical Shimer student? (ii) As far as I can tell IIT offers no language classes, which would be a significant benefit to the typical Shimer student. (iii) Dorm life at IIT seems a bit regimented by Shimer standards (p. 13). I also have a hard time picturing Shimer students sitting at a designated "Shimer space" in the dining hall, next to all of the designated "Greek spaces," etc. It seems contrary to our ethos of inclusion. (iv) The poetics of place at a Shimer-at-IIT.

IV. Conclusion: Let's Return to the Essential Question

Some advocates of the proposal have cited the fact of Shimer's stagnancy over the past fifteen years as demanding some kind of "move" (meant figuratively). But as any amateur chess player can tell you, some moves are manifestly better than others--and conversely, some are worse than others. One bad move can cost you the game. My considerations above have lead me to conclude that the proposal under consideration would be a bad move. Yes, our position on the board is weak, but this demands that we think even more carefully about our next move. I think that advocates of the proposal have been blinded by the illusion of a quick fix to the College's problems, and they have lost sight of the whole board. I think a move to IIT would be a waste of resources we don't have, and given that the situation is very worrisome but not desperate (p. 3), unnecessary at this time. To shift metaphors, this feels like throwing a Hail Mary on first down from our own twenty with ten minutes left. Shimer did throw a Hail Mary once, in 1977. It was the right thing to do given the situation, and it worked. But Hail Marys rarely succeed. Let's try it only when we have to.

I am not advocating doing nothing. I am suggesting that we return to the essential question for Shimer, one that has been phrased many ways and pondered over by many imaginative and smart people for decades now. I prefer to start to phrase it this way: "Is it really the case that in any given year there are only 100-some people in a nation of some 270 million interested in a Shimer education?" The answer to this, it seems to me, has got to be "no." And if this is correct, then the essential question remains: "How can we find those people, get them to Shimer (wherever this may be), and get them to stay?"

We have tried lots of ways of accomplishing these goals over the last fifteen years. Some have met with more success than others, but on balance, we've not yet solved the problem. My point is that in light of the proposal presented by David Shiner, and all other things being equal, I cannot see how a move to IIT--by itself--will accomplish these goals. Perhaps there are other proposal details that speak to the essential question which have not been made available. If so, advocates of the move should present them.

Perhaps it is no accident that I am finishing this essay in the town where Francis Wood Shimer died. I sincerely hope that this new year does not portend the beginning of the end of the dream to which she devoted her entire professional life--her, and so many others. Perhaps this plan will succeed in securing Shimer's future, despite the dearth of evidence that it will. If that were to be the case, then the proposal's advocates would be hailed as geniuses and I would be mocked as a short-sighted naysayer--a burden I would cheerfully bear. But if the College's fragile future is squandered away on such slim evidence . . . this would be far too much to bear, and not very easily forgiven.

DeLand, FL
January 4, 2006


mikeyd723 said...

Thanks for this Dave. This is a remarkable document which really says everything I would have wanted to say, and fore more elegantly and eloquently than I could have. Have you contacted anyone to ensure that the Board itself sees this? I think that it should.

D. R. Koukal said...

No, thank you, and many others, for stirring me to write it.

Funny you should mention it--I just got an email from Dave Buchanan, who was good enough to forward it on to Bill Rice and Jim Donovan, with a request that copies go to the whole Board.

We need to focus on the Board, now.

D. R. Koukal said...

I recently received this email from an IIT architecture student, who was good enough to gove me permission to post it here. (She wants to make it clear, however, that she is not a representative of IIT.)

I found the comments here about the attraction of the South Side, Machinery Hall, and IIT's finances particularly interesting.


Hi, I'm an IIT student. I've been recently interested by the potential Shimer move, and am e-mailing you in (somewhat of a) response to your recent post on the Shimer-IIT blog. My interest in the situation lies in a fascination with the evolution of IIT, an institution with a very interesting history, as well as the increased strength (financially and socially) Shimer's presence could give the school. I have no power over anything IIT does, however, so I speak here only as an observer.

I few comments, though, in no particular organized fashion.

A common consensus on the blog seems to be that, aesthetically, the move into that particular building is a bad decision. Given that IIT has such a hard time selling its modernist campus to prospective students, that might well be the case.

Since I'm an architecture student, I generally respect the Miesian style, since I more or less understand the ideas behind it. However, I personally think IGT Central is pretty ugly, and is definitely a bad attempt at imitating the Miesian style. What's sad is that I think it's a Mies-designed building.

What I'm getting at is that "Owen" (on the blog) suggested that Machinery Hall on IIT campus would make a much more suitable home for an entity like Shimer. It is true that Machinery was built in 1901 and has not been kept up particularly well since then, so substantial work would have to be done on it. However, the top floor(s) are unoccupied so technically such an idea could happen. I know that it wasn't the space offered for lease, technically, but IIT doesn't have a use for it, so it wouldn't hurt to ask for it, would it? I would be a win-win situation for IIT, which would still be able to charge Shimer for the space...yet still have the space in IGT Central to lease to someone else.

Also, if IIT were to give you a choice of which dorm in MSV to take a floor of, South and North Halls are the nicest. East Hall is the worst.

It's true, growth is no given. But...IIT is growing despite being not all that distinctive an institution. It's the presence of Chicago around the school that (I believe) is producing that growth, for better or worse. And with a current renaissance in the south side, the growth could well accelerate. However, IIT still has trouble convincing people to come to the south side, and Shimer, for at least the short term, would face the same challenge. Truthfully, the potential for cross-enrollment is probably pretty minimal, at least from IIT students. But, you never know...some architecture students tend to the artsy side, and many IIT students are pretty intellectual - many would be-MIT students use IIT as a backup, after all.

I look at the two institutions' complete incompatibility as a reason that Shimer is more likely to keep its identity at IIT. Vandercook does a pretty good job of staying separate despite sharing dorms and cafeteria space with us, as well as having a professional focus, like IIT does. With less element shared, Shimer should have an even easier time of staying separate.

It's true that IIT does not have a foreign language program. It used to, and it still has a class here and there, but for the most part it dropped it from lack of demand. Rather than an institutional weakness on IIT's part, it just goes to show how different IIT and Shimer are.

Financially, IIT could be in better shape, but has been in far worse shape in the past. It is currently running a deficit of about $6 million (IIT's financial report is located at However, it has an endowment of $200 million and has 6,500 students enrolled (4,000 on the south side campus) and finds the money from substantial alumni donations to renovate its campus and build some nice new facilities, esp. our student center. It has also announced a plan to balance its budget by 2010 based on modest enrollment growth which it so far has been exceeding. has its own challenges, but it's not going under anytime soon. As for it selling IGT Central, I would say that's pretty unlikely, because IIT uses the building's 4th floor for its undergraduate business department (which is growing), and if Shimer doesn't come to IIT, then it hasn't alternative eventual plans for the building as part of IIT's new University Technology Park.

Finally, Shimer students would probably carry more than their weight socially at IIT. Many IIT students are pretty anti-social. And for many student, IIT's workload is often so heavy that they don't have time for much of a social life. Shimer students might breath some social vibrance into the place. But I don't know what Shimer students are like, so I couldn't say.

Thanks for reading this anyways,
LaLuce Mitchell

Noah said...

Just to let you know, this was included in the packet of information sent to the Board on Friday.


Bill said...

David, you are really very gifted. We are lucky to have you and others like you involved in this discussion.

Thank you so very much.