Friday, January 25, 2013

Montaigne scholarship deadline approaches

Less than a week now separates us from February 1, which is the cutoff date for applications for the Montaigne scholarship contest.

If you're an alum, you can refer a student. Students referred by an alum have their application fee waived.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reflections on Governance Committee report

On reading over the GovCom report, I find myself a bit concerned about the direction things are moving.

To take what strikes me as the meatiest of the questions raised:
Will the Assembly at large, instead of a dedicated committee, be proactive and bold enough to ensure institutional transparency and “call” any entity within the College that it believes is acting destructively toward it? Do we need a special oversight committee within the Assembly after all?
I'm not sure this is the right question.  We should never ignore the possibility of genuinely bad-faith actions by members of the community; however, I do not think this is the primary problem that the Assembly or its (non-JAG) committees exists to solve.  There are existing pathways, both inside and outside the Assembly, for dealing with genuinely out of line (or illegal) actions by members of the community.  The key role of the Administrative Committee in providing an early warning of the attempted coup of 2009-2010 should not be forgotten, but focusing on the mere possibility of a single historically rare transgression being repeated in the future puts us at risk of "fighting the last war".  (If I'm not mistaken, this narrow focus is also the source of the concern over the potentially adversarial nature of such a committee, as mentioned in the report.  One can easily imagine an Oversight Committee becoming a twisted version of the JAG Committee, with a sort of permanent grievance against every senior administrator. I don't think such an outcome is very likely, but it would certainly be unfortunate.)

"Transparency" strikes me as a somewhat unfortunate term in this respect, because it does embody somewhat adversarial assumptions.  I would argue that the most important thing that the existing committee structures (seek to) ensure is simply communication, of which transparency and accountability are relatively limited (though significant) aspects.

In that regard, this much seems axiomatic: Students deserve to be as informed as they want to be regarding school operations, and to have their input on operational decisions heard.  This needn't (and shouldn't) imply micromanagement or second-guessing of administrative choices. Ideally, in fact, the existence of such channels of communication should actually lighten the burden on staff overall, especially by helping to identify emerging problems before they blow up into major crises.

The small size of the Shimer community notwithstanding, communication about college operations cannot be taken for granted, particularly in a time when Shimerians are no longer cooped up in the same small area 24-7.  And even when good communication does take place, experience shows that we cannot blithely assume that it will be truly bi-directional -- that administrators will be eager to actively listen to and adopt feedback from the internal community. (However, I don't think that necessarily reflects poorly on the administrators.  Part of being good at jobs of this nature is precisely being able to filter the inputs that urgently need to be addressed from the ones that don't.)

Assuming that communication is still important at Shimer, structures are needed to ensure that it actually takes place.  Do those structures need to be Assembly committees?  Certainly not, but if the committees in question are eliminated, something needs to replace them that will similarly ensure timely, granular, and mutual communication about College operations.   (It might be worthwhile to consider what lessons could be learned from movements such as participatory budgeting in this regard.)

The proposal to replace these two committees with a strategic planning committee is, in my view, a troubling one.  As we often hear, budgets are moral documents. They show where our true priorities lie, after all the fancy words and justifications are stripped away.  In contrast, although we certainly hope for better in the future, strategic plans at Shimer have a long history of being somewhat detached from reality.  The choices that actually shape the school's operations and development, particularly in the time frame in which most students (and many faculty and staff) interact with it, have historically tended to be made at a much more granular level, based on year-to-year if not month-to-month or day-to-day considerations.  Even in the more stable and prosperous future that we all hope Shimer is moving toward, it is likely that these more granular decisions are going to be the ones that most profoundly affect the members of the community during their time at Shimer -- and thus the ones about which it is most important that community members be informed, and be listened to.

If the input of students into operational decisions at the scale where they actually affect the students is no longer sought, then  we will have managed to achieve the goal so eloquently expressed in this photo:

... whatever our intentions may have been.

Since a primary concern raised about the obsolescence of the Administrative and Budget committees has been the increasingly demanding and specialized nature of administrative work, I wonder if consideration might be given to taking the opposite approach to the "Supercommittee" originally envisioned: rather than merging Administrative and Budget committees, replacing them with a number of small groups, one for each department or senior administrator, with the primary goal of each such group being to maintain clear communication between the department and the community/Assembly as a whole.  Mapping the structure of these Assembly committees/groups directly to the structure of the administration in this way might also help to ensure that the Assembly's structures would remain relevant to College operations in the future.

(Such a change would, of course, require considerable deliberation, particularly in terms of its effect on established and noncontroversial(?) committees like Admissions and QLC that already fill some aspects of this role with respect to a specific department. And there may be good reasons to reject this idea out of hand, or perhaps it has already been considered and rejected; since the committee's work has largely been hidden behind the Great Firewall of Shimer, those of us in the external community are at something of a disadvantage when we try to move from carping to constructive suggestions...)

I write, of course, purely as a kibitzer.  My only qualification is as an alum, and even as an alum, I am not especially well-qualified (my own participation in the committee system having been decidedly limited).  Still, I dare to hope that my relatively remote and naive perspective might be of some value to those confronting the trees of this forest more directly.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Report of the Ad Hoc Governance & Constitutional Committee




January 2013

The current Ad Hoc Governance & Constitutional Committee of the Assembly, known also as the Governance Committee and as the GovCom in shorthand, is the third Assembly committee that has been examining the governance of the College since the troubled 2009-10 “civil war” year, which largely motivated this examination.   The current committee was formed by the Assembly in April of last year, with the charge to “study and reflect upon the governance of the College, the role of the Assembly and its committees, and the Constitution of the Assembly, with the purpose of preserving meaningful and substantive shared governance at Shimer College.”    The Committee’s immediate predecessor, the Summer 2012 Ad Hoc Governance Committee of the Assembly (also established in April of 2012, and chaired by Eileen Buchanan, with Albert Fernandez and  David Shiner as members) presented five recommendations to the Assembly as the current committee took over the governance work, as follows:

1. General recognition that the Assembly, and its committees, no longer play a primary role in the administration of Shimer College, so that the Assembly’s main purposes shift to serving as the voice of the College community as a whole, to advising insofar as the Assembly continues to contribute to administration, and to ensuring communication, transparency, and the preservation of the College’s core values.

2. In view of the above, consolidation of the current Administrative and Budget Committees into a single committee to carry out the functions described above.

3. Recognition in the Preamble of the other governance institutions of Shimer College and their respective areas of authority, without additional text on specific responsibilities, questions of precedence, or other details.

4. End distinction between Weekday and Weekend Program students for the purpose of apportioning student seats on standing committees of the Assembly.

5. Changes to the text of the Constitution not covered by the preceding and found in the attached documents, made for the sake of clarity, organizational efficiency, or fidelity to actual current practice.

Of these recommendations the current Committee has followed up on the fifth, insofar as it has considered numerous, relatively minor, stylistic and substantive edits and changes to the text (and even the font) of the Constitution, in addition to the edits in the eight separate versions produced by the Summer Committee. But the primary focus of our deliberations has been in response to the first and second of the recommendations.  These recommendations, taken together, present the problem of how to maintain meaningful Shimer community participation in the governance of the College at a time when Shimer’s routine management and administration, its fund-raising and marketing, and its recruitment, financial, and other operations are carried out, and need to be carried out if the College is to be competitive, by experienced professionals, and not according to the model adopted by the College out of necessity after its relocation to Waukegan, when it could be said that the Assembly and its Committees actually ran Shimer.  This is the essence of the central problem that the Governance Committee has been grappling with .

Although there are but five of us formally on the Governance Committee, our meetings have been regularly and actively attended by the current Chairs of the Budget and Administrative Committees and by the President.  Our meetings, like the meetings of other Assembly committees, continue to be open to the  community as a default. The Governance Committee also has a website (at the “Sites” tab in Shimer/Google mail) that is also accessible to the entire community, although posting is restricted.

It may help the reader follow the ensuing narrative to keep in mind that the numerous references to committees are for the most part to either the current Governance Committee or to the “new,” “consolidated,” or “supercommittee” that is being hatched, so to speak, by the Governance Committee.

The Governance Committee began by deliberating on the Summer Committee’s 2nd  recommendation, for a “supercommittee” consolidated from the Budget and Administrative Committees, in part because such a reform would require lead time in phasing out those two current committees and holding elections for the new one.  At first, following the lead of the Summer Committee, we conceived a role for the new consolidated committee that would be in part advisory to the President and senior staff and in part oversight--“oversight” in the sense of the Committee working to ensure transparency and, if it came to it, reporting to the Assembly at large policies and practices, such as transpired in the not-distant past, that might violate Shimer’s core ethos.  But, although the new committee would have no power other than to advise staff and report to the Assembly, some members of the Governance Committee saw the proposed supercommittee as overly adversarial.  Others found its proposed role too vague and mixed, and expressed concern about a committee that would not be sure what to do, and eventually atrophy.  It was also said that the kind of oversight responsibilities that were to be given to the new Committee properly belong to the Assembly as a whole.

At this point the Governance Committee began to consider alternative missions and forms for the new committee.  Although it would have been easier and quicker to proceed with some sort of consolidation of the Budget and Administrative Committees, demoted to an advisory role but with oversight powers to compensate for it, we undertook to re-think the question, from the ground up, of how a college community, at a time when college administration is a profession, can substantively participate in shaping the future of an institution. As in a classroom discussion, it’s hard to say who exactly came up with what exactly first, but I believe that more than anyone else it was President Henking who made the suggestion that the Governance Committee is deliberating at present:  that the new Committee’s function and mission be to help set goals for Shimer College, and, more specifically, to make recommendations for Shimer’s Strategic Plan.  The new committee would also be advisory to the President.  The idea appeals strongly to the members of the Governance Committee, because it seems to offer a way for the Assembly to have strong influence on the future of Shimer, without establishing a committee whose role might be largely prosecutorial and “negative.”

However, many questions and issues face us at this point, and we ask the Assembly membership to assist us in reflecting on them:

Will the Assembly at large, instead of a dedicated committee, be proactive and bold enough to ensure institutional transparency and “call” any entity within the College that it believes is acting destructively toward it?  Do we need a special oversight committee within the Assembly after all?

If the Strategic Plan is already crafted by a group inclusive of the various constituencies of Shimer, why is an Assembly Committee needed to do the same?

Would the new committee simply publicly express the standpoint of the Assembly regarding the goals of Shimer College?  Or would it have a formal role in the composition and updating of the Strategic Plan?  And, if so, what formal role?

Would such a committee, or any other form of committee, have enough to do, and enough understanding of what to do, to preserve the authority of the Assembly, or, becoming a do-nothing committee, lead the Assembly in the opposite direction?

How do you preserve the voice and influence of the community in a professionally operated, 21st-century institution?   


There are other questions and issues, in addition to that of the nature and function of a new committee, and those raised by the recommendations of the Summer Committee, that are less central as of now, but that will eventually move in from the periphery of the Governance Committee’s deliberations:

Should the Constitution of the Assembly recognize the educational value of Assembly participation, explicitly or by means of provisions?  (A Fireside discussion of the educational value of the Assembly and its committees, per se, is being considered by the Agenda Committee.)

Should the citizenship status and Assembly role of Shimer alums be revised, in keeping with other efforts toward increased involvement of alumni in the life of the College?

What can be done to increase the attendance and involvement of external Trustees, who, unlike alums, are already formally full citizens and members of the Assembly?  It seems especially important that they not be antagonized or alienated at a time when the College is revising its governance.

Albert B. Fernandez

Chair, Ad Hoc Governance & Constitutional Committee of the Assembly

With Ann Dolinko, Landis Masnor, Adrian Nelson, and Barbara Stone, Members

And with thanks to Sandra Collins, Joseph FitzPatrick, Susan Henking, and Marc Hoffman

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Shimer College Assembly Discussion, Wednesday January 23 2012


Assembly Information

From Professor Eileen Buchanan, Speaker:

This Assembly meeting will not be an official meeting with reports from committees and voting matters.

Instead, it will be the first ever Assembly discussion.

I have asked Professor Albert Fernandez, head of the Governance Committee, to present a report of the committee's ideas and concerns for feedback from the community.
The Agenda Committee invites everyone to attend who is interested in taking part in conceptualizing Shimer self-governance for the future.

Date: 1/23/2013

The discussion starts at 3:15 PM.

(The Governance Committee website does not seem to be accessible at this writing.)

Update: Committee report.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shimer College admissions seeks alumni help

From Shimer admissions to Shimer alumni
1.Refer a Student

One of the greatest impacts alumni can have on our intellectual and fiscal vibrancy is to help us enroll the kind of smart, talented, enthusiastic student who thrives at Shimer.  Applicants referred by alumni typically complete applications, are admitted, and enroll at much higher rates than students who come from any other source. In one college's case, alumni referrals constituted 1% of inquiries but 10% of enrollment!

For the first time, we’re setting a goal of 25 referrals between now and May 1. But right now, prospective students have a chance to win a full-tuition scholarship for up to four years. Help us get closer to the goal by referring a student before the deadline to register for the scholarship competition expires on February 1.

Don’t think you know any potential Shimer students? We bet they’re closer than you think. They could be relatives, neighbors, co-workers, the siblings or children of your friends, or friends of friends. They might also be talented young people featured in your local paper or online whom you've contacted to share information about Shimer. Hearing about your experience at Shimer and the difference it made in your life can be very compelling for both students and their parents.

When you have contacted a student, please fill out the referral form below. Please note, when a student you’ve referred applies to Shimer, we’ll waive the student’s application fee.

If you know someone who would benefit from a Shimer education, please fill out a referral form.


Monday, January 07, 2013

Video of Shimer College banned books reading

The video of the "Banned Books Read Out" event at Shimer has at long last found its way to the Shimer College YouTube channel, after first being featured on Chicago's CAN-TV. Many thanks are due to those who made this happen, not least Shimer prof Stuart Patterson, who coordinated the event (and who is now on his way to England to head the Oxford program for the coming semester), and above all to videographer Ben Housten.

The video is in three sections:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3: