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

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