In 1988, Reader staff writer Harold Henderson wrote a memorable 7,300-word cover story on tiny, financially strapped Shimer College. It was a happy thing just to know that a place as unlikely as Shimer—which, eschewing textbooks and lectures, assigned only primary texts, taught through discussion, and admitted promising students without ACT scores or high school degrees—could exist.
So here’s the bad news: as of this summer, Shimer College is no more.
The good news: it’s also not dead.
Founded in 1853, and a Great Books school since 1950 (it was affiliated with the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1958), Shimer persisted as a fiercely independent liberal arts college, even though its enrollment, especially in recent decades, hovered at around a minuscule 100 students. It survived in part through a couple of strategic relocations—from its original home in Mount Carroll, Illinois, to Waukegan in 1978, and then to leased space on IIT’s Bronzeville campus in 2006.
Now there’s been a final move: when the fall term opens, on September 11, Shimer students will be trekking out to Naperville, where they’ll attend the Shimer School of Great Books at North Central College.
North Central acquired Shimer in a transaction announced in June, and has absorbed it as a program option in its undergraduate school.
Alumni I’ve talked with (historically an intensely loyal and protective group) are mostly optimistic about the arrangement, which they say was the necessary alternative to closure. Alumni board president Steve Zolno says that in an environment where “many liberal arts schools are struggling and enrollment [is] down, a lot of us are grateful that Shimer, in essence, will be continuing.” (Moody’s has predicted that, nationally, over the next few years, small college closings will triple and mergers will double due to financial problems.)
But exactly how many Shimer students will be enrolled this fall isn’t clear. North Central spokesman James Godo couldn’t be specific last week, but said they’re “hoping for 50 students” out of a total North Central student population of about 3,000. Shimer professor Stuart Patterson, who’ll serve as chairman of the school (reporting to the North Central provost), says 30 to 40 of those are expected to be continuing students from Chicago.
According to Patterson, Shimer has a defined physical space on the North Central campus: part of a dormitory has been converted to faculty offices and a student lounge, and Shimer’s typical classroom arrangement of chairs around an octagonal discussion table will be preserved in designated classrooms. Whether its unorthodox admissions policy and shared governance will change remains to be seen. North Central—itself a long-established liberal arts school affiliated with the United Methodist Church—is a more traditional environment.
It was hoped that Shimer’s move to IIT a decade ago would create a synergy between the Great Books program and high-tech institutions, and that the urban environment would lead to enrollment growth. But two unwelcome events created headwinds. The first, in 2009, was an attempted takeover of the board that would have given the college a politically hard-right tilt. Alarmed students, faculty, and alumni succeeded in defeating that threat, but then, in 2014, Shimer turned up at the top of Washington Monthly‘s annual list of the worst colleges in America.
Never mind that Shimer had also been found, by a study five years earlier, to have the highest rate of graduates who go on to get PhDs among all of America’s liberal arts colleges.
Then-president Susan Henking noted at the time that the Washington Monthly “worst colleges” formula was based on data that apparently eliminated most of Shimer’s student body. But the damage was done.
Seven members of Shimer’s ten-member faculty have been hired by North Central (of the others, one declined to make the move, and two retired). Word is that North Central has committed to keeping Shimer going for at least three years. The consensus is that its success will depend on how well it does at recruiting Shimer students.
Longtime Shimer supporter and trustee Peter Hanig said in a phone interview that the board, alumni, students, and faculty at Shimer all worked to get this deal done (including raising enough money to make it financially feasible) and that North Central wants it to succeed. “This is a business deal,” Hanig said in a phone interview. “North Central wouldn’t have done it unless they felt it was going to enhance their brand.”
As for the move to Naperville, alumni board member Jon Goldman told me last week that he toured the North Central campus and “was really pleased to see that it reminded me of the old campus in Mount Carroll.”
“It felt right,” Goldman said. He, Zolno, Hanig, and other Shimer alumni will attend a homecoming-weekend reunion there in October.
“We’ll know in five years if it’s successful,” Henking told me. “The story here is that here is a tiny college that refused to die.” v