Thursday, April 01, 2010

Letter from Supporter Erik Graff

Dear Sirs:

My interest in Shimer College extends back to high school when one of my best friends, Trina VanTellingen, attended the original campus. Indeed, I considered going to Shimer myself, but ended up at Grinnell after receiving an attractive offer under their early decision plan.

My interest was renewed when I served as an academic dean at Loyola University Chicago. There I handled articulation agreements and the training and supervision of academic advisors in the university's part-time division of 3,000 students. This work led me to a pretty extensive knowledge of our competition.

Outstanding among regional liberal arts colleges was Shimer, then at its Waukegan campus. At the time you had one of the best catalogs on the market, a catalog which described a curriculum I personally approved of and an extraordinarily participatory and egalitarian polity. I kept a supply of these catalogs in my offices and, when it seemed appropriate, I directed the attention of prospective students to Shimer. Over the years I seem to have sent at least a dozen students to your school who actually matriculated there.

One of these students was my own stepbrother, Erik Badger, who, as you know, went on to graduate and, until recently, serve the college through a number of offices. Indeed, now he is a candidate for a trusteeship. Erik's involvement and deep concern for the college, as well as friendships and professional relationships with other members of the community, have resulted in my own abiding and rather well-informed care for the institution.

This concern was heightened by two major events. The first was the appointment of President Rice under whom the college began to radically change. Most remarkably, he spearheaded the move to Chicago. Most significantly, however, he began the process of destroying the uniqueness of the college by introducing pay inequities and increasing class distinctions between faculty, staff and administrators. Where once I would have gladly taken a pay cut to work at Shimer (and actually applied), Rice's presidency gave pause to such aspirations.

The second event was the firing of your successful admissions director and her replacement by a relatively inexperienced (except as a lobbyist for Right to Life) creature of current President Lindsay over the objections of the committee normally central to the hiring process. This seemed part of a pattern of presidential authoritarianism and disregard for the traditions and institutions of the college. I decided to check it out.

Doing so over the course of hundreds of hours, I have uncovered a covert, ideologically driven plan to take over Shimer College, a plan inaugurated by President Rice and continued by President Lindsay, a project well sketched out by the recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Personally, some of the ideology appeals to me. I'm in much agreement with some libertarian ideals, suspicious of big governments and have a valued classical education myself (indeed, I write for an academic journal in the field of ancient history and the classics). What I object to includes:
1. The covert nature of the take-over and the subversive nature of the executive administration of the college.
2. The packing of your board by persons whose only qualifications seem to be their political ideology and previous associations with Messrs Rice and Lindsay (or Seid et alia), persons with no background whatsoever with the college and its traditions--some of them, indeed, with little academic or educational experience at all. (What, for instance, qualifies Dennis Katz beyond the fact that he is financially dependent upon and associated with Barre Seid?)
3. The blatantly offensive hypocrisy of Messrs Rice and Lindsay and their creatures on the board. On the one hand, they espouse liberty and the democratic ideals and history of our republic. On the other hand, they work against just those principles as they practically apply to the Shimer community.
4. The recent appointment of an academically unqualified adjunct to push Objectivism, an adjunct who is broadcasting all over the web her intentions--and the college's supposed agreement--to create a school within in the school dedicated to the great books of Ayn Rand.
5. Trustee Bast's (an associate of Barre Seid and mouthpiece of the tobacco and oil industries) public boasting of this whole effort to take over the school, turn over its faculty and to change its curriculum to reflect his idealogy.
6. The increasing lack of balance on the board. A few neoconservatives and libertarians wouldn't be so objectionable were some liberals (in the current sense, not the mid-eighteenth century sense Mr. Lindsay endorses), social democrats and even apoliticals appointed as well--presuming, of course, their respect for the college and its commitment to rational dialog.
7. The increasing financial dependence of the college on ideologically driven, extremely right-wing foundations such as the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation and Parker's hijacked Aequus Institute.
8. The increasing disregard for the community of shareholders who substantially and abidingly make up the college: the faculty and the present-and-future alumni.
9. The fact that these changes destroy the uniqueness of the college, a uniqueness both as regards polity and as regards curriculum. Whereas Shimer had been moving in the direction of a more catholic appropriation of human cultural traditions as a whole, now it appears to be headed back to the parochial confinement of the notion of the great books to those of the western--and U.S. political--culture almost exclusively.

The last point deserves emphasis. Shimer is not the only great books school in the United States. It certainly would not be the only extremely conservative school in the country. It has, however, long been unique among liberal arts institutions, primarily because of its polity. As such, it deserved support and even had a special market appeal. The abandonment of these traditions removes what may be the major justification for its continued existence.


Erik Graff


Issac Gnuton said...

Erik brings up something which I was suspicious of, but which few if any others gave much credence to - e.g. the question of the role of Bill Rice in setting the stage for what is happening now.

A few years back Bill was out in Tucson for some sort of conference and he took the trouble to call and meet with the few of us Shimer alums here in southern AZ. He came across as personable, sincere, reasonable, and devoted to advancing Shimer. Frankly I was shocked when I learned of his resignation.

In looking at the current situation and the history of the various actors in it though, I can't help but be suspicious of the National Endowment for the Humanities connection between Rice & Lindsay. It begs credibility that two (almost consecutive) executives of tiny, obscure Shimer would come from the same place (or almost just traded places, separated by a year).

How did this happen. How did these 2 people come to run Shimer. How was Board composition transformed from being institution driven to being ideology driven?

These are not just rhetorical questions. The closer we get to the answers the better prepared we will be to undo the damage done.

david k

dansbooks said...

I think the Bill Rice connection is decidedly inaccurate. A couple of reasons why: At the time Bill Rice applied to be presdient of Shimer, in 2004, he told the Search Committee that he had applied for a top position at NEH, that was his dream job, and if it was offered, he would accept it. He was quite frank that Shimer was his second choice. Bill apparently was one of the top two candidates for the position, but was not selected. Three years later, the same position opened up, and this time, they called Bill. He jumped at the offer; not surprising when one's dream job opens up. When Bill first applied for the NEH position, Tom Lindsay was not at NEH. And if you check lists of political donors, you will see that Bill Rice was a significant donor to Hilary Clinton's Presidential campaign. It was his only political donation of record. I don't think many right wing zealots contributed to Hilary Clinton. And Bill and Tom have very different positions at NEH--they did not "almost trade places." I think your post, while accurate in parts, does a real disservice to Bill Rice.