Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Problem with "Good" Administrators as Shimer Presidents

The process of selecting the next president of Shimer College remains on hold until the problems with the Board are resolved. In the meantime, it appears that Ed Noonan is providing outstanding and much-needed leadership. That said, it is certainly not too early to reflect on the factors that have led to Shimer's best and worst presidencies, and how these might best guide the selection of the next president.

In the history of Shimer, there have been three presidents who served for twenty years or more: Frances Shimer, William Parker McKee and Don Moon. Shimer's enrollment more than doubled (arguably tripled) under each of these presidents, and each of them effectively built a campus from scratch: the 4-building 25-acre Seminary campus under Mrs Shimer, the 12-building Junior College campus under Dean McKee, and the 12-building Waukegan campus under President Moon. As Shimer once again finds itself in need of a figure who can lead us to renewed expansion -- and once again in need of a campus -- it is worth looking at what attributes these three figures share.

Shimer has had thirteen full (non-"interim") presidents in its history. These can be roughly graded according to their qualifications as administrators of higher education. Some were extremely highly qualified, in both education and experience: Floyd Wilcox, Raymond Culver, Aaron Brumbaugh, Robert Long, Tom Lindsay. Others had substantial qualifications and experience, though of a less sterling character: Albin Bro, F.J. Mullin, Milburn Akers, Ralph Conant, Bill Rice. And there were three who had no obvious qualifications or experience in running anything larger than a classroom or a congregation: Frances Shimer, William Parker McKee, and Don Moon. (All three were accomplished in their chosen fields, but juding from the available records, none appears to have had prior experience administering an institution of any size.)

I do not think it is a coincidence that the least superficially qualified presidents in Shimer's history have also been the most successful. Nor is it a coincidence that of the three presidencies that ended in unmitigated disaster, two were led by figures of unquestioned qualifications (Long and Lindsay).

Shimer has gone through many transformations in its history, but certain things have remained constant: Shimer has always been small, has always been unusual, and has never been a terribly glamorous place to be president. As such, it has little to command the attention or respect of the career administrator. No one whose qualifications would pass muster with a search committee would want to spend their career as the president of Shimer College. Thus, judging from the record, the best that we can hope for is that a qualified administrator will leave quietly after a short time, as Wilcox did in 1935, Brumbaugh in 1953, and Rice in 2006. Alternatively, unless they die early (Culver, Akers), such figures seem invariably to leave the college in disarray, if not chaos (Lindsay) or bankruptcy (Long).

On behalf of 157 years of hard-learned lessons, then, I make this request to the Board of Trustees: for our next president, please do not hire anyone who is "qualified" for the position. Instead, if you can, hire someone intelligent and accomplished in their field, someone who demonstrably cares about Shimer and about education... and who has never set foot in educational administration before.


Allie Peluso said...

I think the most important qualification for a president of Shimer College is someone who cares about Shimer in both it's current and former incarnations, equally. The pedagogy of this school is an absolutely unique aspect which needs to be cultivated & maintained in the coming decades. This is a school that brought me back from the dead, as it were, or at least from the death that was less than contemplative consideration of my life. I find that the "life of the mind" to which Shimer aspires to educate to be pivotal to my own progress as a person. I hope that future presidents of Shimer College accept their position with the full knowledge of from whence this college has come.

Jonathan said...

Like Allie, I'd say that it's more important that someone cares about Shimer and this person truly understands Shimer. Rod Bugarin was highly overqualified by superficial standards, but what made everyone so enthusiastic about him was that he demonstrated a sincere and deep understanding of Shimer. Without an understanding of the unconventional nature of Shimer and it's unique characteristics and challenges.

Jonathan said...

Oops, meant to complete that sentence but got distracted and clicked publish. I meant to continue with .... ''no administrator can be successful at Shimer.''