Thursday, April 12, 2012

State of the College address by Ed Noonan, with response by Susan Henking

At the Shimer College Assembly of April 1, 2012, the State of the College address was delivered by outgoing interim president Ed Noonan, who has now served for almost exactly two years since the ouster of Thomas Lindsay. A brief response was given by Shimer's incoming 14th president, Susan Henking.

Video here, with transcript of Ed's remarks below:

Text of State of the College speech by Ed Noonan

I don’t like the Assembly.

I love the Assembly.

It is where democracy is learned and shared.

It is the place where you can feel safe and unsure and brave all at the same time.

It’s democracy--the rights and responsibilities for each of us in community learned at the table: discussions at Shimer to be practiced in Assembly and in your lives. The purpose is not to gain power but to participate more openly and add value to community.

“A”: The Assembly is a body open to change, flexible: a place where the kind of thinking that is taught in the classroom can be practiced. There is an openness in the classroom--a willingness to listen, to have one’s mind changed. The Assembly is no more beleaguered than the classroom. Make it an open space that can produce the future of the College, rather than a sealed one that can only safeguard its past. Being open is inherently risky, but our history shows we are very capable of taking on that risk when we are called upon to do so.

The Assembly has in the past functioned well and bravely, and sometimes it just gave lip service to democracy. It has acted when it needed to act, and it inspired others to act. It works sometimes superbly, sometimes awkwardly. It is finding its way now once again as we change more and more. It is learning to trust the judgment of others.

It has helped me, and I’m grateful. I love the Assembly. So keep opening it up.

Two Aprils ago, Don Moon and several Shimer scholars came to Tryon Farm for the planting. I met them all there and the trees have taken root and grown. We were glad you came.

Two days later, I was at Shimer on my first day as the Interim President and they said, “Hey, Ed, what are you doing here?”

That is the question I asked myself. It’s because of you that I was here. Your reaction to the turbulence literally led me to the presidency.

I spoke of the need to get Shimer like a ship into safe harbor and settle everyone down. So I compared myself to a harbor pilot and, since I was not here for the turbulence, I could concentrate on refurbishing Shimer in this interim.

The first thing I did was to go to the dictionary and look up “interim.” It was used by Emperor Charles of the Holy Roman Empire to describe the time between 1546-50 when Catholics and Protestants stopped fighting each other--peaceful times!

Now, we have worked two years together, worked toward unity, discovered strengths in students and staff and faculty--in ourselves, really. We arrive at the point where I can announce to the assembly on behalf of the Interim Presidents everywhere:
The Interim is over and we are underway again; the Interim is over and we are underway again.

And I can tell you that being Interim President is great--nobody expects much from the Interim President and since time is unpredictable you can try things you might not be so quick to do otherwise.

And then you can learn so much so swiftly.

You learn that if you listen, everybody helps you. You learn that if you’re Interim, people outside Shimer think you’re gone already, so I dropped “Interim” outside so donors and authorities and other presidents and parents could take me more seriously when I was serious.

Secondly, you learn to recognize that look on people’s faces when they wonder where it is, what it is and how to pronounce it--is it Shimmer, like “swimmer,” or what?

Then you learn that everywhere you go, somebody’s sister or cousin went to Shimer and that Shimer changed their lives: learning to think for yourself makes you brave, independent.

And then I remembered why I came here, because Shimer changes everyone, even Interim Presidents--I am more careful, listen better, want to hear out others, improved mentally. And I’m much older.

Things have changed. We are structuring and restructuring work and positions.

We have new titles so parents and other schools can better understand us and fit in with us.

When I came here two Aprils ago, I wanted to come because of the central fact which has strengthened Shimer in its 3 locations over all the years: you, the students, the scholars, the faculty and the staff. I was reminded again of it--the bond of Shimer Community as I sat in Marc Hoffman’s film discussion on “the Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Like most Presidents, I had a tie on but I hadn’t seen the movie so I mostly watched them in what becomes normal here and it is quickly noted by every visitor. Shimer students take the discussion seriously, they express themselves very well and they listen politely to each other so the conversation can become better, deeper, more interesting, more seriously valuable, more fun.

It’s hard to learn, as you know, and as you can see in much of American public life now. Because you can get the best of each other this way.

Anyway, we have grown in size and now in stature, we are bringing back the lost or lonely or disenchanted alums, we are opening ourselves to campus life and to Chicago itself.

We are raising donations and investments.

Our mistakes stand out more now that we are making fewer of them.

We are trying to be more democratic, more trusting, more patient with each other as we get more confidence that what we do here in serious study and good conversation is becoming recognized in Chicago.

“B”: We want to remain open to Chicago, to the world, to new ideas--even as we reject some, some applicants, some innovations, some agents provocateurs. We’ve recently seen again what a nation increasingly focused on keeping the outside outside is capable of in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed hoodied teenager walking along the back alley of the gated community that bordered his neighborhood. Even those who believe that Shimer is threatened would not, I venture to guess, want to be implicated in the creation of Shimer as a gated community. I think bringing current affairs into the conversation about the value of Shimer to foster meaningful discourse is useful: it affirms that it has a place in the “real world.” And it aligns the more local issue of what our Assembly should be with the larger issue of what kind of a democracy we want to live in: one that feels threatened by everything it perceives as an intrusion, whether it is or not, or one that remains open, even if that openness is often a nuisance and sometimes a risk. Let us not become an allergic nation or an allergic institution that reacts to a harmless mote of dust in the same way it reacts to the plague.

We think it is a valuable contribution to our lives and will serve us well no matter where we go or what we do.

We see alums returning now, investing again of themselves in Shimer. We are rising now and we thank all of you for coming (sticking) with us and with each other. It makes us hopeful that all you do here will help make community as you go on.

Serious study and good conversation are the bonds of our community and so as Interim ends and Shimer comes to a new day, I thank you and and you and you for all you have done here. We are Shimer and we are rising. So thanks for the memories.

When I finally realized the Interim is over, I looked up farewells in Bartletts.  I skipped the hemlock of Socrates.  Washington said, “Gentlemen, I have grown grey in your service and now blind,” as he put on his glasses.  Eisenhower said, “Because of the military-industrial complex...”

Then I found it the Shimer way. Horace wrote long ago (when I was a young man):

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
he who can call today his own:
He, who secure within, can say
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,
 The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not heaven itself upon the past has power;
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

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