Shimer College, the “Great Books College of Chicago,” has just thwarted a hostile takeover attempt and fired its president.
The small liberal arts school has weathered numerous crises since its founding in 1853, 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 13 additional members who had a different agenda in mind for the college. With the support of his narrow majority on the augmented Board, Lindsay initiated an increasingly dictatorial 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 the extreme right-wing background of all the new Board members and of Lindsay himself, as well as the fact that most of them were closely tied to a very wealthy anonymous donor. Suspicions of a hostile takeover were reinforced in January 2010 when an attempt to balance the 13 Lindsay appointees (none of whom had had any previous connection with Shimer) by adding five highly qualified Shimer alums to the Board was blocked by a committee dominated by the Lindsayites — a tacit admission that the new majority was determined to maintain its control. In February Lindsay composed a new mission statement for the school, removing the previous emphasis on student participation as an integral part of education leading toward “informed, responsible action” and adding some gratuitous puffs for American values (a slap in the face to Shimer’s traditional spirit of independent inquiry without prejudging conclusions to be reached). Despite widespread objections and protests, he managed to get this new mission statement passed by a Board vote of 18-16. The Shimer Assembly — a body comprising all students, faculty and administrative staff as equal voting members (alums may participate as nonvoting members) — overwhelmingly rejected Lindsay’s new mission statement and unanimously approved a different statement. By this time the crisis had begun to receive national press coverage (including a particularly mendacious article in the Wall Street Journal) and had united virtually everyone in the Shimer community. Hundreds of alums signed an online petition calling for Lindsay’s resignation and on April 18 the Assembly passed a unanimous resolution of no confidence in him (with three abstentions). This virtually unanimous opposition, combined with behind-the-scenes arguments and negotiations, succeeded in winning over two crucial swing votes on the Board of Trustees, which at a secret meeting on April 19 voted 18-16 to fire Lindsay, effective immediately.