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Old School Shimer

April 21, 2010

Shimer College’s new interim president signaled efforts Tuesday to end a contentious chapter at the small Chicago-based institution, pledging to uphold traditions many had seen as being under fire during his predecessor’s short and controversial tenure.

The college named a long-time trustee, Edward Noonan, its interim president Thursday, following an announcement that Thomas Lindsay was resigning “effective immediately.” Lindsay, former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, had butted heads with faculty and students who said he disregarded longstanding governance traditions and sought to push the college in a politically conservative direction. One of Lindsay’s most criticized moves was an effort to adopt a new mission statement for the college, bypassing Shimer students and professors and inserting politically-charged language many saw as out-of-step with the ethos of an institution more concerned with Socratic inquiry than ideology.

Noonan, a Chicago-based architect, said Tuesday that he planned to improve the college’s financial standing while ensuring the “Hutchins Plan” is maintained as the college’s guiding principle. Named for the late Robert Maynard Hutchins, a former president of the University of Chicago who died in 1977, the Hutchins Plan ties Shimer's curriculum directly to the “Great Books” – think Plato’s Republic and Euclid’s Elements.

Noonan said he was reluctant to rehash debates that have been ongoing at Shimer in the last few months, adding that he’s more concerned about “reaffirming” the Hutchins Plan than tinkering again with the controversial mission statement of the college.

“I don’t want to be hooked into a discussion about 'he said, she said' or what went on before,” Noonan said.

Under Lindsay, the board was expanded to include a number of new trustees perceived to have conservative or libertarian leanings. Lindsay’s mission statement – narrowly approved by the board – included references to Shimer as being “situated in a system of political liberty.” Language of this kind was wholly absent from the prior mission statement, and Lindsay stirred critics who said the new statement was full of ideologically coded language.

“Shimer is a strong college that has a really unique and important role to play as a beacon for honest, open inquiry into the essential questions about who we are and what we’re doing here, centered around original source readings,” said Noah Kippley-Ogman, a 2007 graduate. “Shimer’s uniqueness is an important point that Lindsay just missed, and he ran an administration that was hostile to the stakeholders of the college.”

While Lindsay’s presidency was criticized for many things, a carefully worded news release thanked him for his “financial leadership over the past year and a half.” Lindsay had insisted on a balanced budget – a departure for a college where under-enrollment has at times threatened continued operations.

Efforts to reach Lindsay by e-mail Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Divided Board Remains

Among the many unique features of Shimer, the college's Assembly is a true rarity in higher education. Its voting members include all faculty members, the college’s roughly 100 enrolled students, administrators, staff and trustees. Alumni are also included as non-voting members. The Assembly is charged with deliberating on “matters which seriously affect the historical identity of the college,” its constitution states. Consequently, it was an appropriate body to consider any changes to mission – and was summarily ignored despite its obvious role, Kippley-Ogman said.

In April, the Assembly approved a “no confidence” resolution in Lindsay, saying he had “imperiled the very existence” of the college. The vote tally was 60 in favor, zero against and three abstentions.

News stories about Shimer’s contentious last few months have often framed the debate as a culture war waged between liberal “Shimerians” and a more conservative board. But that misses the complexity of the debate entirely, according to Kippley-Ogman. The central beef of students and faculty is not that Lindsay and his board may have had an ideological position, but rather that they tried to infuse any ideological position into the identity of an institution founded on the principle that all viewpoints should be subject to fierce scrutiny, Kippley-Ogman said.

“We don’t want ideological statement in the mission statement,” he said. “That isn’t what we do. Shimer is dedicated to real inquiry that critically examines ideology on both the right and the left.”

While Lindsay may be out of the picture, the closely divided board that approved much of his agenda is still in place. For Noonan, the political views of board members are not a problem, so long as those views don’t come to define the college.

“I welcome that range [of thought] as long as it is there to be part of the discussion rather to move the board and the school in a polarized direction,” he said.

The board was expanded from 15 to 35 trustees during Lindsay’s tenure, and an inquisitive alumnus eventually found financial connections between many of the new trustees and Barre Seid, a Shimer booster who funds conservative and libertarian causes as well. Seid's gifts to the college were anonymous, but tax filings from his foundation revealed them.

Since the makeup of the board has yet to change, some still question whether Lindsay’s departure truly marks a new era at Shimer. Citing anonymous sources, the Chicago Reader said the board’s secret Monday vote in favor of Lindsay’s dismissal passed by an 18-to-16 margin – suggesting he had plenty of support left among trustees.

“I and other people are concerned about that, because it’s still pretty close,” said Ron Rothbart, an alumnus. “Will they still have some conflicts? Some struggles? Will members of the board resign? We don’t know.”

Don Moon, a professor of natural sciences, said he believes Noonan can help bridge divisions.

“I think he will bring healing; he’s that kind of person,” Moon said. “He will be someone who reaches out and works with all the different members of the board.”

Several board members contacted by Inside Higher Ed either declined to comment or did not respond before publication.

 

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