Shimer College, the “Great Books College of Chicago,” has just foiled a hostile takeover attempt and fired its president.
The small liberal arts school has weathered numerous crises since its founding in 1853, including a near-bankruptcy in the 1970s that forced it to sell its original campus in northwestern Illinois. 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 14 additional members who had a different agenda in mind for the college. With the tacit support of his narrow majority on the augmented Board, Lindsay initiated an increasingly authoritarian 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 thefar-right background of all the new Board members and of Lindsay himself, as well as the fact that virtually all of them were closely tied to a very right-wing and very wealthy anonymous donor.
After months of discussions, debates and protests, the crisis developed into an open power struggle, giving rise to national coverage (including a particularly mendacious article in the Wall Street Journal) and uniting virtually everyone in the Shimer community – students, faculty, administration and alums. Hundreds of alums signed an online petition calling for Lindsay’s resignation and on April 18 the Shimer Assembly (a body comprising all students, faculty and administrative staff as equal voting members) passed a unanimous resolution of no confidence (with three abstentions).
This virtually unanimous opposition, combined with behind-the-scenes arguments and negotiations, succeeded in converting two crucial swing members of the Shimer Board, which at a secret meeting on April 19 voted 18-16 to fire Lindsay, effective immediately.
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 the entire community. This process has demonstrated the dynamism of Shimer’s community, and delivered a modest but exemplary blow against ongoing right-wing attempts to corrupt or take over academic institutions. At the same time, it opens up an unknown future. Will the tiny school be able to continue to carry out its innovative program after having bluntly rejected the strings-attached support of the wealthy right-wing clique?