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Great Books and City Lights

January 23, 2006

What do you get when you cross a tiny, independent Great Books institution, with a big city technology institute?

Shimer College, in Waukegan, Ill., is working on an answer to that question. The liberal arts college is picking up its 100 undergraduates and moving 40 miles south to the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago.

Initially, the agreement is simply a leasing arrangement, and the two private institutions will maintain their own faculties and boards. Shimer will lease 17,000 square feet on the IIT campus. Some Shimer students will live in IIT dorms, and may soon enjoy some of the benefits of the larger institution.

“We’ve been discussing having their students use our library services, and maybe moving their [20,000 book] collection to our library,” said John Collins, vice president for business and administration at IIT. Shimer students may soon have access to other amenities at IIT, like the athletic and dining facilities.

As far as Shimer is concerned the Windy City real estate is the main attraction. Shimer spokesman Christopher Hawkins-Long said the college is looking to expand and “we can reach a broader audience in Chicago.” Hawkins-Long said that Shimer wasn’t shopping around for a new venue, but that the plan grew out of personal conversations between Shimer and IIT administrators. Eventually, cross-registration opportunities might be available for IIT and Shimer students. Shimer’s curriculum is centered on a broad set of core requirements in the humanities and sciences, and small discussion classes where students read major texts of Western civilization.  

George Dehne, an enrollment consultant who has worked with both Shimer and IIT, said in an e-mail that the urban setting is a bit tough, and that “there could not be two more different groups of students then artsy, intellectual and sort of outside the mainstream as the Shimer students and the career-driven, technology oriented IIT students.” But Dehne said that Shimer will never reach capacity in Waukegan, and called the move “an ingenious idea.”

Dehne said that IIT, which has just over 2,000 undergraduates, is also under enrolled, so the relationship will be symbiotic. Administrators from both Shimer and IIT said that collaboration beyond space-sharing may be in the offing. Shimer president William Craig Rice said that “Shimer will strengthen the liberal arts on the [IIT’s] campus, reinvigorate the Great Books tradition with deep roots in Chicago, and Shimer students will benefit from IIT’s strengths in science and technology.”

IIT has already seen a relationship grow with another tenant, the VanderCook College of Music. “Over time it’s evolved where our students take some of their classes,” Collins said. “Initially, that didn’t happen, but now it does, and it’s mutually beneficial.”

Still, Dehne said, the Shimer-IIT understanding isn’t likely to open the floodgates for similar college partnerships. “Institutional egos are very, very large,” he said. “I worked with a consortium of small, relatively desperate, Christian colleges within about 30 miles of each other,” Dehne said. “I recommended some kind of consolidation, similar to IIT and Shimer, but none would budge because each did not think the others were Christian enough.”

Dehne added that the cultural attractions of the city will be a great complement to the Great Books curriculum, and the kind of round-the-clock activity that Dehne said his firm’s research shows “the Millenials crave…. In our current student surveys more than 8 of 10 students say they go to bed at 1 a.m. or later. Obviously, small town or rural colleges have a hard time competing.”

Stuart Patterson, who teaches natural sciences at Shimer, said that he’s excited about the move because it will help further diversify the student body. “We’ll get a great mix of student experiences,” he said. “[The move] expresses a certain realism about where we’ll do best.” He added that there is some “trepidation among students,” simply because they’re used to the Waukegan setting.

Shimer won’t be completely packing up and leaving for the big city. Shimer’s graduate teacher education programs, which serves about a dozen students, and its science labs for home schooled middle and high school kids, which serves 40-50 students, will stay in Waukegan.

Richard H. Hyde, the mayor of Waukegan, a diverse city with about 90,000 residents, is sad to see the college go. Hyde said the city “understood their space problem … so we offered them one of our hotels that’s been out of commission for 15 years.” Hyde said the hotel is a beautiful old building, but that Shimer would have had to renovate it, and, obviously, it isn’t in Chicago.

Hyde said he understands, but that “we hate to see them go. They were a real asset to the community.”

 

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