Monday, April 12, 2010

Open Letter to the Trustees of Shimer College

The following letter was written jointly by alums Jerry Clark, Jonathan Goldman, Sandy (Schmidt) Hockenbury, Marcia Z. Nelson, and Maria Sosa.

After reading several vitriolic and ad hominem responses to discussions of events at Shimer, the likes of which would never have been permitted in Shimer classrooms in our time as students, we became alarmed, not only by the topics being addressed, but by the tone of these discussions. Thus, we are submitting this plea with the hope that those who have been engaged in these discussions will re-frame the argument from a different perspective and, maybe find a solution from that new perspective.

Shimer has faced many seismic challenges over the past several decades, yet has always managed to overcome them and survive. We have been reading about this latest series of battles at Shimer much as children watching their parents fight each other, wanting the fighting to stop and powerless to do anything. Unfortunately, the current situation, unlike those of previous years, cuts to the core of what Shimer represents as an institution of higher learning.

We have read reports of arguments over the firing of an admissions director. We have watched (and participated in) months of battles over proposals to change the mission statement. We have heard countless inaccurate claims about the Assembly, which in recent years has served less as the governing body it succeeded and more as a means of uniting the students, faculty, trustees, alumni, and administration as a collegial body to ensure the inclusion of all voices in the decision process. And we have recently heard rumors that the president and some trustees apparently have decided that the curriculum is now under their control and that some faculty will have to be terminated.

We have seen accusations of left-wing biases, right-wing take-overs, claims about Shimer's conversion to a libertarian school focused on limited-government and free-market principles, claims about bribery of trustees through anonymous donations, claims about shadow colleges within Shimer, and other bitterness hurled to and fro as though by characters in an Edward Albee play.

We have seen reports that some trustees think that all of the problems will go away if only the dissenting faculty or students leave to be replaced by those who support the desired changes. Others have suggested that trustees who disagree with the majority should resign, which certainly defeats the requirements for diversity on boards of non-profit organizations. We have heard that faculty should capitulate to the changes or resign, and that the students should either acquiesce to the changes or transfer elsewhere. All of these solutions and others that have been suggested only serve to further diminish the institution that the trustees promised to serve.

We advocate a different way. We seek the restoration of what has been lost in these last few months.

We are discussing a college, a place of collaborative learning. One term bandied about at most institutions of higher learning is "collegiality." That seems to be missing from the vocabulary of at least some people at Shimer today. We want to see an immediate return of collegiality to Shimer College.

We are discussing a college, an environment in which students should not feel threatened but instead are free to express themselves and experiment with how they interact with others. This requires that they respect others and that they be respected. The character of recent communications between students and trustees further demonstrates the loss of that respect when those interactions are laced with threats. We want to see the immediate return of mutual respect to Shimer College.

We are discussing a college, typically a place where change occurs slowly. This is because processes have been established over the years to ensure that the concerns and needs of all current and future constituents are represented. The recent changes at Shimer represent a failure to follow those normal and established academic processes, many of which are required for accreditation. We want to see the immediate return of adherence to accepted process at Shimer College.

Several constituencies have the power to force Shimer to close during the next year. Many of the faculty, specially selected over the years for the wisdom they bring to the classroom, could resign and thereby abrogate the agreement made with the students who enrolled based on a core of faculty experienced in Shimer's unique learning model. Without those faculty, Shimer will fail.

If Shimer does not retain and recruit sufficient students for next fall, it will fall below the critical mass necessary to sustain the Socratic method. The last century saw a drop by two thirds from over 300 students to below a hundred, a percentage decline not survivable with today's student body. Thus Shimer will fail.

Should the alumni withhold their donations, as has been threatened by dozens, if not hundreds, of us, and the board fails to fulfill its fund raising obligations, Shimer will fail.

If the feuding groups do not find a way to show the Higher Learning Commission that they are following their criteria for, among other things, "Mission and Integrity," "Preparing for the Future," and "Engagement and Service," or if there are major changes to the curriculum or faculty without adherence to recommended practices, Shimer will finally lose its accreditation because the Higher Learning Commission will have tired of giving Shimer chance after chance after chance to resolve its problems. And Shimer will fail.

Unlike proprietary schools, which answer only to their owners and typically do not receive regional accreditation, the boards of non-profit academic institutions are responsible to many constituencies, including their students, faculty, alumni, and local community, as defined by their accrediting agency. We feel that the trustees have failed the institution and constituencies they were chosen to protect. This travesty cannot continue.

We challenge the board of trustees, as the only constituency that actually has the power to do so, to immediately restore collegiality, mutual respect, and process to Shimer College.

We implore you to use the powers entrusted to you by alumni now embarrassed by their degrees, faculty who have given their lives to the institution, and over 100 current students (and their parents) who have entrusted Shimer with their future, to restore those lost values. It is up to you to regain the trust placed in you by those whom you volunteered to serve.

Upon the return of those values, we will work with the alumni association to raise the needed funds and recruit students to help Shimer thrive in the 21st century. Over 300 alumni and students who are members of a single Shimer group on Facebook are ready and waiting for the return of the Shimer we knew and loved so we can join in helping it succeed.

Jerry Clark
Jonathan Goldman
Sandy (Schmidt) Hockenbury
Marcia Z. Nelson
Maria Sosa
-Shimer alumni 1960's & 1970's

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At April 12, 2010 at 9:23 PM , Blogger Visviva said...

This is a remarkable letter, and I trust that its signification will escape none of those to whom it is addressed.

That said, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that a loss of collegiality is at the root of Shimer's problems. I should rather have said that "collegiality" itself -- which in practice often dictates that one not cast aspersions on the good faith or judgment of those who manifestly lack one or both -- has contributed greatly to our recent problems. Lack of transparency has been an even greater contributor, but I would say that collegiality and opacity are regrettably difficult to separate in practice.

I believe it is our duty as alumni to take off our "dialogue goggles" and call a spade a spade, a rose a rose, and a hostile takeover a hostile takeover. Under circumstances like those that now face us, this may entail that we appear vitriolic, ad-hominem, or both. So be it. Shimer will not be able to grow, or even survive, in the absence of sunshine.

At April 13, 2010 at 2:58 PM , Blogger Visviva said...

A response has been circulated, apparently written by Trustee Joe Bast:

Although a detailed refutation is called for, but I would point out that the tone of Bast's letter itself points out the depth of the problems identified in the open letter above.

At April 13, 2010 at 9:32 PM , Blogger Ron said...

By all means, write persuasive rather than angry letters to the trustees. Appeal to their interests and concerns. But don't let that cloud your vision. Children "watch their parents fight each other." Adults take principled stands and initiate effective action. That's what Sam and his colleagues have done.

Bast is their most effective communicator. Note his references to "narratives" and "framing." That's what he's doing in his reply, framing the narrative. It's pretty blatant. He's trying to box us in to an indefensible postion. According to him, they are the forces of improvement, change, and progress. We are the resisters, opponents of change. They want to take the road forward with Lindsay. We want to take the road back. Of course, that's ridiculous; those are not the real options. But it's an effective narrative. It makes it incumbent on us to construct a better, more effective narrative.

- Ron Rothbart '66

At April 14, 2010 at 9:51 PM , Blogger GArcol said...

I honestly do not see the point of writing to Bast. Logic is used only as his servant to achieve HIS desired ends; it is not a mechanism he uses to achieve understanding.

Bast created the Heartland Institute, and is its chief operator. The Heartland Institute picked up money from tobacco companies to PROVE that smoking was not dangerous. The Heartland Institute receives funds from Coal/Oil/Gas/Nuclear producers to PROVE global warming is NOT science and that there is NO environmental crisis. (Shades of State of Fear by Michaelk Crichton...BTW, Bast wrote a blurb for the Heartland Institute titled "Michael Crichton Is Right!" []

Man! I do NOT trust a man (or an organization) that wears its heart (ideology) on its sleeve...


At April 15, 2010 at 8:14 AM , Blogger GArcol said...


Carl Sandburg - Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind!/photo.php?pid=292572&op=4&o=all&view=all&subj=18182924438&aid=-1&oid=18182924438&id=100000227402709


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