Friday, April 02, 2010

A Shimerian Responds: "Shimer College in Power Struggle"

I recognize that the constraints of writing for a daily newspaper leave little room for scrupulous fact-checking. I believe that the errors and distortions in Ron Grossman's Chicago Tribune article entitled "Shimer College in Power Struggle" (1/27/2010) were almost certainly committed in good faith. But given the continued prominence of that article, I feel it is necessary to set the record straight.

On that positive note, then, let's start with a truth well stated.


"In all of American academics, it’s a good bet there’s no place quite like Chicago’s Shimer College."


Now then, let's have a look at that subtitle:

Board, president seek independence from partnership with students

This seems a peculiar way of stating things. It is, after all, the students and faculty who are Shimer College. The president and his razor-thin majority on the Board are free to go their own way -- and at this point, the sooner the better. Furthermore, the students have never attempted to interfere in the Board or president's internal affairs. It is, rather, the President and his lackeys on the Board who have eagerly thrust themselves into the internal affairs of the college. And even if one can somehow class that interference as "independence," it is a bit difficult to see how such an "independent" Board and president intend to go about running the college without any cooperation from the community. Unless, of course, they plan on reducing the college to a meaningless shell.

"[...] its mascot is the 'flaming smelt' [...]"

Shimer College does not have an official mascot. The flaming smelt, an unofficial symbol beloved of many Waukeganites, is no more or less a mascot than the phoenix or the squirrel.

"In some ways, the Shimer standoff is reminiscent of the left-versus-right campus melodramas of the 1960s."

It's hard to argue with a statement as vague as this, but it is clearly intended to mislead the reader into thinking of the current Shimer crisis as a continuation of the "culture wars".

"[...] some of the generally leftist students and faculty see a move to tip the power balance in favor of the administration. "

"Generally leftist"? Even with regard to the students, we've yet to see any documented evidence of this. And as for the faculty ... does anyone really think that teaching the Great Books year in and year out would appeal to your average "leftist"? Good grief.

"Many of the new trustees are political conservatives like the school’s new president, Thomas Lindsay."

All of the new non-alum trustees are political conservatives. Most also share undisclosed financial ties to Barre Seid. Seid's role as the "anonymous donor" was kept secret from the community for many years.

"The ’60s have echoed loudly in the feud [...]"

Sigh. What does this even mean?

"But both sides in the Shimer dispute are united in passionate enthusiasm for the 'Great Books' course of study -- an elitist curriculum holding that seminal ideas should be read in their authors’ own words rather than textbooks offering watered-down versions."

Shimer welcomes all applicants, including many who did not finish high school or dropped out of other institutions. Offering a high-quality education to all comers scarcely seems like "elitism."

"Shimer’s syllabus is the same as half a century ago, when it had its own campus in the small town of Mount Carroll in northwest Illinois."

Leaving aside the rather important distinction between syllabus and curriculum, this is simply untrue. While the core of the Core has held constant, as it should and must, the details of the reading lists and other requirements have changed enormously since 1960. The reading lists for some courses, such as Humanities 3 and 4, have been revised considerably in the past decade alone. In fact, it is a requirement of Shimer's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, that Shimer "[assess] the usefulness of its curricula to students who will live and work in a global, diverse, and technological society." If Shimer's curriculum were as static and unquestioned as Grossman suggests, that would surely cause significant problems with accreditation.

"The big issue dividing Shimer is what form of campus governance would best guarantee the survival of the classic curriculum. The communal democracy of which Marx dreamed, and of which Shimer students read in Social Sciences 1? Or the enlightened despotism that Hobbes advocated, which is discussed in Social Sciences 2?"

Yipes! It's hard to know where to start with this. So let's break it down.

"The big issue dividing Shimer is what form of campus governance would best guarantee the survival of the classic curriculum."

The big issue is whether the curriculum and faculty are to be free of political interference from President Lindsay and his cronies. If a binding guarantee of non-interference were provided, I'm sure we would all be happy to work through the remaining issues in a dialogical way.

"The communal democracy of which Marx dreamed?"

Presumably this is intended to be a reference to the Shimer College Assembly, but I have to say that the connection between the Assembly and Marx escapes me. The Shimer College Assembly is far more reminiscent of a New England town meeting -- but is actually significantly more removed from the particulars of governance than the average town meeting, inasmuch as the Assembly is restricted to deliberating on general issues of the ethos and mission of the College. The Assembly, which in 1980 replaced an earlier and significantly more radical institution known as the "House", was most directly inspired by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, according to an account by veteran Shimer professors Jack Wikse and David Shiner.

The delicate balance of power between administration, faculty, Assembly, and committees was aptly described, by 26-year Shimer College President Rev. Don P. Moon speaking at the February Assembly, as a "constitutional monarchy."

"Or the enlightened despotism that Hobbes advocated?"

The gist of Hobbes' Leviathan is that rulers can do what they want, to whom they want, when they want and how they want, and that this is right and proper. Whatever its philosophical merits, this is scarcely a recipe for responsible governance.

Enlightenment is perhaps in the eye of the beholder, but I cannot seem to find the phrase "enlightened despotism" in Hobbes' writings at all.

Philosophically, Shimer is unabashed leftist: Former ’60s radical William Ayers was a recent speaker.

Sigh. How many times must we address this zombie half-truth? Apart from the fact that William Ayers has spoken in a great number of places, and his right to speak at Shimer was defended by Lindsay himself, Shimer has always welcomed speakers from across the political spectrum.

And what is this about being "unabashed leftist"? Is it leftist to study Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas? Are New England town meetings a "leftist" form of government? Should the Hayekian economist and Episcopalian reverend on the faculty be tossed out as not being "leftist" enough? This is fatuous.

A concerned student blog proclaimed Shimer “in mortal danger of being reduced to a meaningless shell.”

I, the author of that post, graduated from Shimer 12 years ago. This blog was founded by '99 alum Saradevil in 2005, when most current students were not so much as a gleam in an admissions worker's eye. To be sure, Shimer College and the Future welcomes students as both contributors and readers, but throughout its 6-year history, the vast majority of posts and comments on this blog have been from alumni.

He considers the Assembly a “historical accident,” and other trustees say it is a burden now when trying to persuade potential donors to write big-bucks checks to what is seen as a student-run college.

Perhaps these trustees should explain that the particulars of administrative matters are handled only by carefully-selected committees, as would be the case in any well-run institution. Indeed, why would any sensible donor want to contribute to an institution that had no internal oversight system? Clearly the problem is not with the Assembly or the committee system, but with how these are represented to donors.

At the same time, all sides are pulling for the college to surmount this latest crisis.

We would all rest easier if there were any assurance that this were true. It has not escaped anyone's attention that Patrick Parker, the ringleader of Lindsay's wrecking crew on the Board, also sat on the Shimer College Board of Trustees in 1974 when it voted to close Shimer down the first time. We would all prefer to overlook this unfortunate bit of history, except that in reliably reported conversations, Parker has expressed his belief that it would be no problem if the entire student body and faculty were to leave, and his fellow trustee Joe Bast has echoed this opinion.*

In short, the good faith of Thomas Lindsay's wrecking crew is not merely in doubt; it is almost certainly nonexistent. This was perhaps less apparent when Grossman's article first saw the light of day in late January, but it is now painfully clear to even a casual observer.


* Even assuming that Barre Seid comes through with a few hundred full-tuition scholarships, it's not clear how Lindsay, Parker & Co. plan to bypass the upcoming accreditation review. Perhaps they imagine they can bribe and dissemble their way through that process much as they wormed their way into power at Shimer.


Issac Gnuton said...

Does anyone know how to contact that putz Ron Grossman and send him a copy of this? I tried to find a contact link for him on the Trib's website, but they don't have the integrity to provide email links for their writers.

Marcia Z. Nelson said...

This is unfortunate argumentative nitpicking disguised as fact-checking. I'm a journalist. And a Shimer grad. I first learned the distinction between fact and interpretation at Shimer. I also learned there that ad hominem arguments (i.e., calling someone a putz)usually signify weakness in an argument. But it was my grandma who taught me you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If you want the MSM to ignore you, just keep on nitpickin'. In j-school I learned to sign my name to my opinion: Marcia Zdun Nelson, Shimer '75

Visviva said...

As I stated at the beginning of the post, I believe that the errors in the piece were committed in good faith. I certainly do not consider Mr Grossman a "putz". I urged a number of my fellow Shimerians to talk to Mr Grossman when he was working on the article, but I have to assume that his sources and time were limited. That said, whatever their origins, I am not about to sit idly by and allow these distortions of the situation at Shimer to go without a public response when they remain at the top of Google results for month after month.

In any event, this is not the Visviva show, nor am I trying to pass myself off as the voice of Shimer; this is a community blog of which you and many other Shimerians are members. You did not mention which parts of the post you take issue with, but please do feel free to make a counterpost. This will be a much healthier blog if there are more voices being heard.

There is no particular reason why anyone would care about my identity, but it is no secret in any case: Sam Henderson, class of 98.

Visviva said...

I can see where my playful use of the royal "we" in the prologue could have given the wrong impression. I have edited that out.

But again, a corrective post would be extremely helpful and constructive, if you feel it is warranted.

Issac Gnuton said...

Marcia: In *my* opinion, any so-called "journalist" who attempts to pass off an editorial piece as reporting the news is a putz. You are entitled to your own opinion.

Sam's analysis of the Grossman article is hardly nitpicking. It exposes it for what it is: a shallow, biased, hack-job.

As for not signing my name to the original comment, I assumed that anyone who was interested would have the sense to click on my avatar and look it up in my Blogger profile.

David Z Kohn

Flying Spaghetti Monster said...

Unlike Marcia, I don't see any nitpicking, but I do take issue with one sentence (am I nitpicking?): "...mislead the reader into thinking of the current Shimer crisis as a continuation of the 'culture wars'." Certainly students, alumni, and faculty are not propounding or defending multiculturalism or political correctness. But it appears to me that Lindsay and friends think they're on a crusade against multiculturalism and leftish ideas, such as what Lindsay calls Shimer's "radical egalitarianism."* Moreover, as Marsha Enright reports,** some trustees think the current curriculum includes too many "postmodern" works and not enough books about "freedom." Sounds to me like THEY think they're fighting the culture wars. I imagine that some see Lindsay, not as a poor manager, but as a hero in the culture wars. That's a danger because Lindsay can use that to marshal money, power, and influence for his side. Witness the Wall Street Journal piece. - Ron Rothbart, Shimer alum, '66

* (seems to have been removed from the web??)


Visviva said...

Since I think that Marcia is quite correct that this post goes beyond the proper scope of fact-checking, I have updated the title of the post to something more accurate.

Visviva said...

@FSM/Ron: A bullying campaign by President Lindsay has been at least temporarily successful in persuading the author to remove that post. President Lindsay has been asked to provide a specific rebuttal, but has thus far declined to do so.

I am not a fan of bullies, but I can understand the difficult situation in which members of the internal community find themselves.

Flying Spaghetti Monster said...

Thanks Sam. I can understand why Lindsay may have been particularly concerned about that article. It was very revealing. I'm not internal, so I can quote it:
"Tom does not agree with the 'radical egalitarianism' of shared learning. He deemed this another one of ours and modern western thought in general's 'unexamined assumptions' with which he could not agree." The whole conversation is quite a hoot. Lindsay comes off as quite an arrogant elitist.

Marcia Z. Nelson said...

Thanks, Sam.