Ken — A Little College Scores a Big Victory

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A Little College Scores a Big Victory
Shimer College, the “Great Books College of Chicago,” has just thwarted a hostile takeover attempt and fired its president.
The small liberal arts school has weathered numerous crises since its founding in 1853, but it has never come as close to destruction as during the last few months, when newly hired president Thomas Lindsay packed the Board of Trustees with 13 additional members who had a different agenda in mind for the college. With the support of his narrow majority on the augmented Board, Lindsay initiated an increasingly dictatorial administration, contemptuously challenging Shimer’s tradition of shared governance and intimating that faculty and staff who did not go along with his program would soon be obliged to seek employment elsewhere. Investigation by concerned students and alums revealed the extreme right-wing background of all the new Board members and of Lindsay himself, as well as the fact that most of them were closely tied to a very wealthy anonymous donor. Suspicions of a hostile takeover were reinforced in January 2010 when an attempt to balance the 13 Lindsay appointees (none of whom had had any previous connection with Shimer) by adding five highly qualified Shimer alums to the Board was blocked by a committee dominated by the Lindsayites — a tacit admission that the new majority was determined to maintain its control. In February Lindsay composed a new mission statement for the school, removing the previous emphasis on student participation as an integral part of education leading toward “informed, responsible action” and adding some gratuitous puffs for American values (a slap in the face to Shimer’s traditional spirit of independent inquiry without prejudging conclusions to be reached). Despite widespread objections and protests, he managed to get this new mission statement passed by a Board vote of 18-16. The Shimer Assembly — a body comprising all students, faculty and administrative staff as equal voting members (alums may participate as nonvoting members) — overwhelmingly rejected Lindsay’s new mission statement and unanimously approved a different statement. By this time the crisis had begun to receive national press coverage (including a particularly mendacious article in the Wall Street Journal) and had united virtually everyone in the Shimer community. Hundreds of alums signed an online petition calling for Lindsay’s resignation and on April 18 the Assembly passed a unanimous resolution of no confidence in him (with three abstentions). This virtually unanimous opposition, combined with behind-the-scenes arguments and negotiations, succeeded in winning over two crucial swing votes on the Board of Trustees, which at a secret meeting on April 19 voted 18-16 to fire Lindsay, effective immediately.
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I have a particular interest in this struggle because Shimer happens to be my alma mater. In itself, that would not necessarily mean anything — I’ve had dealings with many other institutions for which I have no liking or interest. But Shimer is a rather unusual school; and if my nostalgic sympathy for it is not misleading me, I believe that this struggle merits looking into.
I was there from 1961 to 1965. (If you are interested, a few of my personal experiences there are recounted here.) At that time it was located in Mt. Carroll, a small town in northwestern Illinois, and had around 300 students. During the 1970s it went through a series of financial crises that ultimately forced it to sell its campus. Most schools would have given up by then, but the Shimer students and faculty were so committed to their educational program that they packed up everything and moved the school to a couple small buildings in Waukegan (just north of Chicago). At that point there were 43 students and the teachers were working for virtually nothing. Hanging on by the skin of their teeth, they carried on, and over the next couple decades gradually managed to get back up to 100+ students and to somewhat expand their facilities. In 2006 they accepted an invitation from the Illinois Institute of Technology to move to Chicago and lease part of one of IIT’s buildings. Shimer retained its own identity and absolute autonomy, but the new relationship promised to benefit both parties, giving Shimer access to IIT’s much more extensive facilities while giving IIT students access to Shimer’s superlative liberal arts courses.
During all these moves and crises, Shimer has retained the same educational methods and substantially the same curriculum. Since 1950 it has carried on the great books discussion program originally developed at the University of Chicago in the 1930s by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (a program that has long since been discontinued at the University of Chicago itself). Three out of the four years are taken up with an intricately interrelated course sequence that everyone is required to take, covering humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, history and philosophy, leaving room for only a few electives. Classes are kept very small (12 students maximum). There are no textbooks and virtually no lectures. Factual knowledge is not neglected, but the emphasis is on learning how to think, to question, to test and articulate ideas by participating in round-table discussions of seminal classic texts. The teacher’s role is simply to facilitate the discussion with pertinent questions. Unorthodox viewpoints are welcome — but you have to defend them competently; unfounded opinion is not enough.
Following the Adler-Hutchins model, the Shimer curriculum used to be exclusively Western. The original rationale (remember that this was over fifty years ago) was that the Western classics were not only the primary foundations of our culture, they also had the advantage of a coherent interconnection with each other — they were part of what Hutchins called “the Great Conversation,” affirming, revising and criticizing each other in a vast ongoing dialogue spanning the centuries of Western civilization. In contrast, the great books of the Eastern world had at that time much more limited connections with modern society, and were in many cases accessible only by way of unreliable translations and interpretations. There was thus a certain logic to focusing on the traditional Western classics. But as the world has increasingly come together during the last half century, the notion of restricting oneself to Western works has come to seem increasingly absurd. Shimer has accordingly revised its curriculum, incorporating some non-Western works as well as a few more works by women. But while there may be debates about incorporating this or that particular author into the curriculum, no one at Shimer advocates adding an assortment of new texts merely to fill trendy politically correct quotas, let alone dismissing some of the most crucial documents of human history merely because they happen to have been written by “dead white European males.”
In any case, the essence of Shimer’s program is not so much which particular works are studied as how they are studied — namely, open-mindedly and critically. The concern is not so much that the students have absorbed certain important works as that they have developed their own capacities to tackle a variety of viewpoints in a rigorous and critical manner. Those who go through such a program usually end up being sufficiently adept at dealing with other cultures and other experiences when they come upon them.
“Great books” education has recently got a bad name because certain conservative authors have held it up as an antidote to modern tendencies of multiculturalism and supposedly excessive democracy. But in contrast to those authors, Adler and Hutchins did not envision their program as destined only for an elite minority: they insisted that the basic issues dealt with in the great books could and should be grappled with by everyone as the foundation of a lifelong education. If they were rather naïve in accepting Western “democratic society” on its own terms, they at least challenged that society to live up to its own pretensions, pointing out that if it was to work it required a citizenry capable of participating in it knowledgeably and critically, and that what presently passes for education does not begin to accomplish this.
This brings us to the question of what Lindsay and his allies on the Board of Trustees were hoping to achieve. During the whole affair, they denied that they had any hidden political agenda; with an air of offended innocence, they claimed that they merely wished to cut out a little dead wood and put Shimer on a more solid financial basis. Unfortunately for them, some of their colleagues were not so discreet. A devotee of Ayn Rand was so thrilled that she had been brought to Shimer by Lindsay to teach a class on “The Morality of Capitalism” that she posted the following description of Shimer at the right-wing Campus Reform website:
Founded in 1853, the college recently came under new management committed to free market principles and Western values. With this new management came a new mission statement, which makes a clear stand for principles of free inquiry and limited government.
Elsewhere she waxed enthusiastic about increasing collaboration between Shimer and her own pet project, “The College of the United States”:
Following what I anticipate will be a successful “test run” with this course, we’re aiming to expand our relationship and develop a dedicated institute to operate The College within Shimer. Then we’ll proceed toward our goal of establishing the College of the United States as a full-time, accredited institution of higher learning . . . [which will offer a] curriculum that demonstrates the virtues of Western culture, capitalism, and markets.
The plan seems to have been to merge this would-be Ayn Randian college into Shimer so that Shimer would be stealthily transformed into a more right-wing institution that would retain Shimer’s academic prestige. Or, if that didn’t work (which it almost certainly wouldn’t have), to simply destroy Shimer as a functioning institution (by Lindsay’s avowed intention of firing uncooperative faculty and telling discontented students they could go elsewhere), at which point the new owners would come into possession of Shimer’s accreditation. (It turns out that the latter alone is worth several million dollars, because obtaining accreditation from scratch is a long and costly process.)
The particular scenario envisioned by this Ayn Rand devotee might be dismissed as merely her own personal fantasy; but some sort of takeover was clearly in the works. If more evidence is needed that Lindsay’s supporters’ aims were consciously hostile, it suffices to note that almost all of them (there may have been one or two exceptions) continued to vote for Lindsay at a point when the entire Shimer community was fervently and almost unanimously opposed to him and when it had thus become evident to everyone that a Lindsay victory would mean the destruction of Shimer. Lindsay and his supporters were apparently quite willing to accept that destruction as long as they could retain the accredited shell to fill with their preferred content.
It is important, however, to note that this was not fundamentally a left-right conflict. There is nothing inherently radical about Shimer’s program, except in the very vague general sense that people who have critically explored a wider range of original sources are likely to be somewhat more open to diverse perspectives and thus less likely to take the status quo for granted. That is all to the good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily go very far. Even if Shimer students, past and present, have probably tended toward the more radical end of the political spectrum, the faculty and administration have often been relatively conservative; there have always been a substantial number of conservative students and alums who have supported the Shimer program and been happy to contribute to it without any strings attached; and some of the latter were among the first to speak out against Lindsay’s actions.
In any case, however unusual its curriculum may be, Shimer remains an officially accredited institution, with all the compromises and material constraints that that implies. (On the inevitable limitations and contradictions of institutional education within the present society, see the classic situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life. Even though Shimer differs in some regards from the dominant educational system denounced in that text, Shimer students would do well to consider which of its criticisms might nevertheless apply to them.)
Throughout the struggle there were debates about tone and tactics, some urging caution and restraint, others considering more radical direct actions. On January 25 a faculty member wrote to the Chair of the Board:
I believe you understand that Shimer is on the brink of civil war. You may not know that, in particular, plans are being made for going to the media, legal action, strikes and unionization, and student demonstrations. Tomorrow, a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society — of 60’s fame, though now more restrained — is to be launched at Shimer. At least 27 students plan to attend the meeting, and the agenda consists largely of ideas for direct action.
The students ended up putting most of those direct-action tactics on hold, accepting the whispered pleas of certain faculty and friendly Board members urging them to maintain a “respectful” and “responsible” and “nonconfrontational” demeanor so as not to frighten the potential swing votes on the Board whom they were quietly trying to win over. But during the final weeks many people started becoming more confrontational in tone, if not in tactics, using blogs and other online forums to debate the issues in less restrained language, including setting up an online petition calling for Lindsay’s resignation. As more and more people signed that petition, more and more others were encouraged to speak out more and more forcefully. The momentum generated by these expressions of outrage undoubtedly helped trigger the rapid series of unanimous resolutions of no confidence by the faculty (April 13), the Alumni Association Board (April 16) and the Assembly (April 18), which in turn led to the final victory. Although that victory was attained without the use of direct-action tactics, the implied threat of such tactics probably played a role in forcing the ultimate decision.
There are two main results of this affair. The first and most obvious is that Shimer succeeded in getting rid of Lindsay. It is unusual enough for a college president to be fired, but it is almost unheard of for this to happen as the result of an open and democratic process involving an entire academic community. In this sense, the Shimerians have won a significant victory which may well inspire similar struggles elsewhere, even if glib observers will dismiss it as a tempest in a teapot because of Shimer’s small size and relative obscurity.
Second, and perhaps ultimately more important, the students have lived through an experience that may turn out to be more profound and more enduring than anything else they have learned from all their Shimer classes. On February 24, when things were still very much up in the air, one of the faculty members (currently leading a Shimer outreach program in Haiti) wrote to the students:
I admire you more than you could know. . . . I know no better than anyone else does how this all will end. One thing I believe: The investment of time, energy, thought, and solidarity that you are making in this struggle will certainly bear fruit. Whatever Shimer is in the years to come, you will all be something even greater than you are right now because of this experience at fighting a good fight.
Many of the participants had already noted the remarkable sense of community that was developing among hundreds of people, people who were of extremely diverse views and circumstances and whose connections with Shimer ranged across six decades, but who were coming together around a single shared concern. This is a modest example of a phenomenon that can be seen in many social struggles. When passive consumption and isolation are replaced by active communication and participation, people look around and notice with astonishment how much more vibrant and creative they have become. In the process of trying to change something out in the world, they find that they themselves have been transformed.
A radical situation is a collective awakening. . . . It’s not a matter of numbers, but of open-ended public dialogue and participation. . . . In such situations people become much more open to new perspectives, readier to question previous assumptions, quicker to see through the usual cons. Every day some people go through experiences that lead them to question the meaning of their lives; but during a radical situation practically everyone does so all at once. . . . People learn more about society in a week than in years of academic “social studies” or leftist “consciousness raising.” . . . Radical situations are the rare moments when qualitative change really becomes possible. Far from being abnormal, they reveal how abnormally repressed we usually are; they make our “normal” life seem like sleepwalking. [The Joy of Revolution]
In such situations, the ostensible political issues may be less important than the participants’ new experiences, as they break through their habitual conditioning and get a taste of real community. One participant in the 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley estimated that within a few months he had come to know, at least as a nodding acquaintance, two or three thousand people — this at a university that was notorious for “turning people into numbers.” Another movingly wrote: “Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering in ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting.”
Unlike the Berkeley students, most Shimer students probably do not look on their school as an alien institution. They struggled alongside their teachers and most of the administrative staff to defend their school against an alien invasion. But in both cases an alien entity gave rise to a positive, creative response that utterly transcended the original grievance. As one alum charmingly put it in a Facebook post: “Dear Thomas Lindsay, thank you for giving me a reason to get acquainted with so many wonderful Shimerians from before and after my time. Now, please leave us.”
It remains to be seen what these newly united Shimerians will do with their newly discovered enthusiasm and camaraderie. Will they merely try to go back to how things were before? Or will they take advantage of this crisis and the publicity it has generated to tackle broader and deeper issues? After the euphoria subsides, they will continue to face the many grave problems in present-day society as a whole, problems that are not going to go away just because a few people in a tiny college examine some important texts with a bit more lucidity than usual. They will ultimately have to figure out how to address those problems, within or without Shimer. We will see if their much-vaunted great books education enables them to come up with correspondingly great ideas about how to go about this.
April 30, 2010
(Email to the Shimer community, April 21, 2010)
Dear Fellow Shimerians,
As most of you will have heard by now, the April 18 Shimer Assembly meeting passed a unanimous resolution of no confidence in Thomas Lindsay and the following day the Board of Trustees voted 18-16 to fire him, effective immediately.
It was a very close call. If one less Board vote had switched, Lindsay would still be Shimer’s president. While savoring all the toasts and cheers and sighs of relief and warm fuzzy feelings that have been generated by the events of the last few days, we must also face the fact that an academic community that allowed such a crude hostile takeover to almost succeed before barely managing to curb it at the last minute must have been astonishingly naïve and careless in some regards. Hopefully this experience will serve as an object lesson from here on.
There are whole ranges of issues to deal with now. Many of the most complicated ones are undoubtedly being thrashed out at this very moment by the current students, faculty and administrative staff who are most closely involved. Alums and others are also beginning to contribute financial support and looking into other ways to participate in Shimer’s future development. But in this message I’d like to address just one issue that is very simple and that involves everyone.
I propose that we take full advantage of the present crisis, and specifically of the publicity that it has generated and will inevitably continue to generate.
It may be appropriate to be pro forma bland and polite at the homepage of the official website (e.g. thanking Lindsay for his alleged contributions to Shimer and wishing him the best, blah blah blah…). But I believe it would be a great mistake to attempt to minimize what has happened — to try to brush it under the carpet as if it was some regrettable incident that should be left behind us and about which the less said, the better.
On the contrary, I think that this process has been Shimer’s finest hour, with the exception of the heroic years of the 1970s. The very diverse ways in which the Shimer community has dealt with this crisis have been both exemplary and educative. Few other schools in the country have ever offered such an illuminating, hands-on lesson in democracy and social conflict — even though in this case it has involved internal governance rather than broader social issues, as in the 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley or the various campus struggles opposing the Vietnam war, South African apartheid, etc.
I do not mean that Shimer should present itself as a radical school. It is not radical in any significant political sense, however unusual its academic curriculum may be. What I mean is that it should take full advantage of this crisis and this publicity by in effect saying: “Yes, Shimer has just gone through a dangerous crisis, and we are proud of how we managed to deal with it. Here is the fully story, with all the details, both gratifying and embarrassing, and here are the lessons we are drawing from it.”
In any case, there is no way that anyone can stop the publicity. It’s already out there and it will continue to be out there and to spread ever more widely regardless of anyone’s attempt to stuff it back in the bottle. From this point on, for years to come, virtually every person who hears of Shimer will inevitably hear about the crisis and wonder what it was all about, regardless of any bland statements on the Shimer website. (“Shimer? Isn’t that that little school that kicked out its president? Something about an attempted right-wing takeover?”)
Some of this publicity will of course be distorted and hostile. Right-wing media will present it as yet another example of the regrettable left-wing dominance at America’s colleges. But they will do this in any case, regardless of whatever moderate face Shimer PR might try to put on the affair. What we should do, I believe, is to aggressively publicize our own (very diverse) views rather than merely reacting apologetically and defensively. We can take advantage of the attention, including antagonistic attention, to elevate the discussion by talking about what really went on, and what Shimer is really about.
Imagine how many thousands of young people around the country would love to go to a place like this — once they hear about it. Now a lot of them are going to hear about it. Let’s let them hear the full story, which is actually a lot more interesting and appealing than merely being informed that the previous president “stepped down” for some unknown reason.
Personally, I’m delighted that at this very moment many such young people are stumbling upon our recent online debates about what tactics would be most effective for getting rid of Lindsay, viewing the documents that were unearthed about the Lindsayite Board members, and following our current discussions as to where we should go from here (many of which are already being widely posted and forwarded via Facebook etc.).
(Just as a side note: I’d like to see such transparency and accessibility in all areas, so that people searching some topic in Google would stumble upon a Shimer course reading or a paper by a Shimer student or teacher and perhaps be intrigued enough to seek out more information about the school. But that is a whole other project, which would require a fair amount of organizing and Web tech work. What I’m talking about here requires nothing more than being aware of the already existing publicity and not trying to evade it.)
Hundreds of students and alums have already become far more engaged by this crisis than they were before, and as things continue to develop many of us will naturally continue to speak about these issues, not only to each other but also to the outside world. We may have temporarily abided by the whispered urgings for us to keep cool for a few weeks while insiders were tactfully trying to win over a few swing members on the Board. But now that we have crossed this new and very public threshold, there is no way that anyone can conceivably imagine that hundreds of Shimer students and alums will all toe some particular line. (Talk about herding cats . . . !) Some of us will, of course, come together around certain projects. But we should also expand the terrain, taking advantage of the fruitful diversity of our views, talents, connections and circumstances.
As a case in point, I happen to be a member of MetaFilter, an eclectic group blog that has over 60,000 members. Yesterday (under my website name, “Bureau of Public Secrets”) I made a post there about the Shimer crisis, which you can find here. As of this mailing, it has generated 65 comments, most of them very favorable, some even enthusiastic. This morning I posted the same text (with minor revisions) at Daily Kos, the immensely popular liberal Democratic blog, which receives hundreds of thousands of visits each day. You can find it here. As you can see, it has already generated several dozen comments, again, all very favorable and sympathetic. Because the great majority of blog visitors read without commenting, it is safe to say that these two posts have been read by over a thousand people, most of whom had never previously heard of Shimer and some of whom have no doubt forwarded the information on to others.
I did these posts on my own responsibility. It’s possible that you may disagree with this or that aspect of them. If so, I encourage you to put your own ideas out there, in whatever forms you feel are appropriate.
To reiterate (and to mix metaphors), the cat is already out of the bag and I encourage the Shimer community, particularly those concerned with Shimer’s “image,” not to try to sweep it under the rug as if it were some regrettable incident that is now over, but to aggressively exploit it as an example of Shimer’s dynamism and distinctiveness, something to be very proud of, something that will be one of the cornerstones of Shimer’s image and reputation from this point on. We have just been gifted with a wave of publicity we could not have bought for a million dollars. Let’s use it — and amplify it!
Ken Knabb (class of 1966)
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