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Big Trouble at Little Shimer: What’s happening to Chicago’s Great Books college?

Last Sunday afternoon, most of Shimer College crowded into a small room to discuss the future of their school. The Assembly—a democratic body in which all students, faculty, staff, and trustees have equal votes—has traditionally been the moral authority of the college, while legal authority rests with the Board of Trustees. In last Sunday’s special session, those two authorities clashed as the Assembly voted on resolutions condemning the Board’s recent actions and the college’s president.

The current conflict that threatens to rip Shimer apart is only the latest tribulation in the history of the tiny school, which bills itself as “Chicago’s Great Books College” and has an enrollment of a little over 100 students. Founded in 1853 in bucolic Mount Carroll in western Illinois, the college faced mounting debts and declining enrollment in the 1970s. In 1978 the Board of Trustees voted to shut down the school, but the faculty and students wouldn’t give up. They moved into a Victorian mansion in Waukegan at the mayor’s invitation and remained there for almost 30 years with a communal government centered around the Assembly. In 2006, the college moved again to its present location in a few buildings on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus in the hope of attracting more students. Until recently it remained tucked away there, largely unnoticed by the outside world.

But then Thomas Lindsay came along. The school’s new president was inaugurated last year and quickly stirred up opposition. “This thing really got going when President Lindsay fired the director of admissions without any internal consultation whatsoever,” says Professor Albert Fernandez, who also serves as a trustee and the Speaker of the Assembly. Lindsay then chose a replacement whom a search committee had twice rejected. In a meeting on November 15, the Assembly passed several resolutions calling on Lindsay and the Board to respect Shimer’s tradition of shared governance. In response, trustee Patrick Parker ’54 wrote a letter to the Assembly informing them that financial donors like himself “expect, in return for our support, that the rest of the community will do its job, i.e. for the teachers to teach, the students to learn, and the managers to manage.”

Parker’s letter was accompanied by very similar ones from five other trustees, all of whom had several things in common. All had been appointed to the Board very recently. All had no previous ties to Shimer. All attacked the school’s history of communal democracy. And almost all were prominent political conservatives, a point that articles in the Tribune and Chicago Reader have fixed on.

The letters caused an uproar among Assembly members, and tensions only rose over the following months. The next battle would be joined over the school’s mission statement, which needed to be reviewed as part of the reaccreditation process. An online petition in support of the current mission statement, posted in December, received 144 signatures—almost one and a half times the size of the student body—but Lindsay made it clear that he wanted a new statement. On February 7, the Assembly voted to retain the current statement. Two days later, the faculty sat down for a meeting with Lindsay in which he informed them that he would be meeting with faculty members individually “to ascertain their commitment to the new mission statement,” according to Professor and Dean of Students Stuart Patterson in an email interview. “To a person, the Faculty felt strongly that President Lindsay was indicating a linkage between commitment to his mission statement and employment at Shimer.”

The faculty’s response was a unanimous letter in support of the current mission statement that was read at the Board meeting on February 19 and 20, but to no effect. The vote, which was conducted by secret ballot for the first time Fernandez can remember, was 18 to 16 in favor of the new mission statement.

The resolution passed by the Assembly last Sunday took issue with the questionable process by which the Board had approved Lindsay’s mission statement. The day before the Board vote, Parker had informed the trustees of an agreement signed three years before with a charitable foundation that he claimed required the school to adopt a new mission statement before the next Board meeting. When the Board’s Executive Committee indicated its unanimous disapproval of the new statement, Lindsay had urged them to resign. In light of all this, the Assembly declared by an almost unanimous vote that it didn’t recognize the “legitimacy or authority” of the new mission statement.

The other scheduled resolution, that the Assembly “has no confidence in the ability of President Thomas Lindsay to lead Shimer College,” was tabled indefinitely after long and heated debate. “This is a very serious vote. It could well spell the death of the school,” said Patterson. “If that’s the will of the Assembly, then it’s the will of the Assembly to strike out on their own as a new college.” Owen Brugh ‘06, who attended the meeting, said that even considering the resolution sent a message to “the hardline Board members.” “I don’t think that they believe that this community is capable of this type of action,” he says. “Are you really sure we’re not capable of that?”