Friday was a full-day extravaganza of discussion at Chicago's tiny Shimer College, marking the formal inauguration of the school's 14th president, Susan Henking. The inauguration ceremony was a resounding vote of confidence in the school's new leadership from the Shimer community, Chicago, and beyond.
The day's events began with three discussion panels, held in Shimer's storied Cinderella Lounge. In proper Shimer fashion, the panelists were styled "provocateurs", intended to goad the discussion rather than merely lead it.
The first panel, consisting of IIT president John Anderson, Center for Excellence in Education president Joann Di Gennaro (a former Shimer trustee), and Shimer trustee and consultant Chris Vaughan, discussed the fate of books and the humanities. Among the provocateurs, the most provocative was Vaughan, who argued that "our traditional way of looking at texts doesn't work," and that if higher education fails to adapt it "will be extinct within our lifetime." Drawing on his own work as a consultant working primarily with "big data", Vaughan pointed to the gap between most data analysts' ability to model the data and their ability to actually say what it means in human terms. That interpretive ability, he argued, is what the humanities education of the future needs to provide.
The second panel consisted of U of C professor emeritus Don Levine, U of I anthropology professor Matti Bunzl, and new Shimer trustee and DuSable Museum head Carol Adams. Levine, basing much of his provocation on his recent book Powers of the Mind, pointed out that the traditional narrative of the modern Great Books movement -- its having been brought into being ex nihilo by Robert Maynard Hutchins -- is almost entirely false. Dr. Adams, in her turn, challenged the conventional wisdom of the liberal arts from a different direction, pointing out the dominance of for-profit technical schools in selling near-worthless degrees to African-American populations, argued that liberal arts schools need to be "just as vehement" in selling themselves as the for-profit schools are. In subsequent discussion, she noted that parents are part of the problem, especially for first-generation college students: the ever-present "what are you going to do with that?" is likely to push students toward more superficially career-oriented forms of education. Bunzl, artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, noted that while popular interest in the humanities is as high as ever, the number of students majoring in fields like history and English has dropped by half in the past 10 years. "I believe in the humanities completely," Bunzl said, "but I cannot be blind to such stark numbers."
The third panel, styled "A Dialogue Across Generations," was made up of Shimer alumni from across the ages: 1956 alum Ed Walbridge, 1971 alum Steve Zolno, and Alumni Association president Nancy Nickel ('76), and 2013 alum Allison Savage (featured in the recent Shimer College video). The discussion focused on trying to define what was most essentail to the Shimer experience. Walbridge, drawing on his experience as a former president of the Alumni Association, noted the fierce devotion of many alumni from his period to the college of today, and asked where this comes from, and "how do we bottle it?" Faculty member Albert Fernandez suggested that this powerful attachment to Shimer comes from the combination of asking the big questions and maintaining a close-knit community of conversation. Former president Ed Noonan averred that Shimer must be a good idea, because "I've seen about fifty different ways to kill it," and none of them worked. But, he argued, this leads to the question: if Shimer is so wonderful, why is it so unappreciated? Various explanations for this were suggested, including the school's failure to build an effective alumni network, leaving many alums feeling relatively isolated after they lost direct contact with the school.
The inauguration ceremony itself was held at the Standard Club in downtown Chicago. Welcoming remarks were delivered by local elected officials, by representatives of Shimer faculty, staff and students -- including a rousing tribute from Shimer Business Office director Glendalyn Booker that brought the crowd to its feet -- and by leaders of other Chicago institutions including Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Henking was then administered the oath of office by Sally Brown, Chair of the Board of Trustees.
Henking's speech, which closed the day's events, was on the topic of writing and reading "as if our lives depend on it." Noting that this day was a celebration of "one hundred and sixty years of Shimerian optimism," Henking hearkened back to the schools foundign, arguing that as the school's founders Cindarella Gregory and Frances Shimer taught us, "Shimer is not about quietly waiting for change," but rather about participating in it. Noting that "education and social justice are twins, " Henking asserted that "Shimer is not a luxury -- not then, not now, perhaps especially not now."
Henking concluded her speech with an announcement of several new initiatives, including expanded community-college articulation agreements, a "Dangerous Optimist Scholarship" for transfer students based solely on essay discussion, and a reaffirmation of "commitment to place" with scholarships for students from Carroll County (where the school was born), Waukegan (where it was located from 1979 to 2006), and Chicago's Third Ward.