President Henking reflects on the history of Shimer, and speaks to the future of the institution.
Today, across the globe, we are experiencing dramatic calls for change in higher education. Indeed, I recently spoke at a conference focused on the question of whether liberal education needs saving. Our joint conclusion was yes, no, and maybe – uttered in a context which asserted a clear recognition of the importance of liberal education as well as the risks currently facing it.
The conversation would have been familiar to all Shimerians, and not just because it occurred at the University of Chicago. At Shimer, we have struggled with these issues and done do together for quite a long time. And, we have embraced change across more than 150 years to ensure that liberal education survives and thrives. We continue to do so in 2016. As one friend of Shimer summarized it: Shimer is all about our ongoing heritage of innovation. That is as true today as it was at any moment in our history. Holding these two apparent opposites together is our responsibility, now, as Shimerians.
We began in 1852 as a seminary for girls on what some saw as the frontier of Illinois and, indeed, the United States: Mount Carroll. We have been single sex and coeducational. We have been a part of the University of Chicago, a junior college, and a four year baccalaureate institution. We have taught a core curriculum for decades and yet regularly reviewed and changed the texts we discuss. Once we had 8 comprehensive examinations and now we have two. We have embraced novelty like the notion that early entrants could enter college well before 18 and without a high school degree (odd in the mid twentieth century) and that 60 year old Chicagoans ought join us for Shimer@60. We were early to reject US News and World Report’s ranking system and to become test optional in admissions, both trends where we were leaders not followers. We have embraced and loved Mount Carroll, Waukegan, and Chicago-Bronzeville. We have emphasized our historic strengths and looked for innovative ways to expand our mission through our digital initiatives, continuing today in collaboration with Great Discourses (and yes, David Shiner is teaching with them this summer). We have walked at Selma and demanded attention to matters of race, class, gender identity and much more in the context of Mizzou.
Leaders and innovators of many kinds have passed through Shimer, as students and faculty, staff and a wide array of friends if Shimer. We have rooted Shimer in BOTH our history AND our aspirations for the future. As we have done so, we have created Shimer and Shimerians.
I have been asked over the past month about our current discussions (and now MOU) with North Central College. My answer: we are building the next chapter for Shimer in the 21st century. And, when asked what we need to accomplish this, I have reminded us all that we need what we have always needed - that our love of Shimer be matched by our capacity to change as well as our willingness to remain Shimer into the future. That future, as always, calls for imagination and courage. It asks us to stretch ourselves to ensure that Shimerians of tomorrow experience the best of what we know to be Shimer and, as importantly, what we can create together – a Shimer that more closely matches our aspirations.
Yes, we need you to make a stretch gift today – and you will hear us continue to remind you of that need – and we need you to continue to carry forward the mission of Shimer for new generations of Shimerians.
Change – a heritage of innovation – is bittersweet. (I do not always like a new translation of a beloved book or a cover of a favorite tune, but I love this Shimerian oxymoron – a heritage of innovation). And like you, I know that once a Shimerian, always a Shimerian.
Susan E. Henking