Shimer Unmanned

Peter Wood

The board of Shimer College in Chicago yesterday voted to dismiss the college president, Tom Lindsay. The move came at the end of a rancorous campaign by some faculty members, students, and alumni upset over Lindsay’s aggressive efforts to restore the College to its Great Books mission.  We at the National Association of Scholars lament this outcome. Lindsay is a brilliant scholar as well as a highly experienced academic administrator.  If his board had backed him, he would very likely have raised this tiny college to a level of educational excellence well above its quixotic past and, in recent years, its existence as barely scraping by.

We don’t have all the details but we have enough to wonder whether Shimer will have much of a future after this board decision.  Lindsay’s short-lived presidency (he took office in January 2009) was accompanied by significant increases in external support for the College.  It seems likely that a fair portion of that increase was inspired by confidence in Tom Lindsay, and not a sudden enthusiasm on the part of the public for keeping the College the way it was.

Mr. Lindsay’s critics (some of whom have stated their views in comments on NAS articles) characterize their opposition as based on Lindsay’s disregard for the College’s traditions of shared governance. It is certainly true that as President Lindsay moved far more decisively than his predecessors and had limited patience for the College’s dysfunctional form of extreme democracy. Mr. Lindsay’s break with the practice of “consult-with-everybody-all-the-time-twice” made him vulnerable to those who believe that Shimer College should be defined by the communal style it had developed in the years before his appointment. In our view, however, this complaint was sentimentalism masquerading as principle. The real issue all along was whether Shimer College could muster the determination to hold itself to genuine academic standards.

The board appointed as Lindsay’s interim president a former board member named Ed Noonan. Mr. Noonan will begin his work with a faculty and student body triumphant in their victory.  It is a victory, however, much as King Pyrrhus of Epirus celebrated over the Roman army at Asculum in 279 BC. Observing what it had cost him, the King observed that “one more such victory would utterly undo him.”  According to Plutarch, anyway. Calling the ouster of President Lindsay a Pyrrhic victory, of course, may be optimistic. One of the Shimer College people we interviewed took a dimmer view, saying the College had just essentially committed suicide.

Perhaps. Colleges don’t die easily. They often linger into a long twilight of declining standards, erratic bill-paying, partial lay-offs, and restless irrelevance before they finally go the way of Antioch College.

We are sorry to see Shimer College lose its nerve in what was ultimately a battle over academic standards.  There are not that many colleges or universities in the United States that remain substantively committed to academic excellence.  Now there is one fewer.

Update: Shimer College has released its official statement saying "Thomas K. Lindsay, will be stepping down effective immediately," and offering no explanation.

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