New advertisement for Shimer shown above along with Ayn Rand faculty and devotee Marsah Enright

Shimer College 

I just read an interesting e-mail sent to me by Kenneth Knabb, of the Bureau of Public Secrets (Ken Knabb, April 30, 2010,  I have long been a follower and admirer of Knabb and the Bureau since the late sixties when the Bureau was a lofty icon in Berkeley, Paris and elsewhere.  They published amazing critical inquiry, commentary and analytical work keeping with the writings and work of Guy DeBord and the Society of the Spectacle which arose in France during the period of the 1960’s (The Situationists).  For this reason I wished to share the story of the failed takeover and I want to thank Ken Knabb for his post and exposure of this issue.

According to Knabb, Shimer College, the “Great Books College of Chicago,” has just recently thwarted a hostile takeover attempt and fired its president, Thomas Lindsay who was hired two years ago.  Knabb goes on to note that:

“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” (Knabb, K.

What took place was an investigation by concerned students and alumnae that revealed an extreme right-wing background of all the new Board members, and notably of Lindsay, as well as the fact that most of the finger selected board were closely tied to very wealthy anonymous donors.  

For example, Lindsay was with the Heritage Foundation, was a Bradley Foundation Resident Scholar and a Bradley Foundation Fellow.  Others found in the motley crew of board members were Matthew Franck, another Heritage apostle and Federalist Society member.  Franck also boasts of a stint with the National Review, William Buckley’s stable of right wing conservative chattel.  And then there is new board member Bob Chilester.  Chilester is attached to, the website of the ABC right wing commentator that never ceases to promote free markets while crushing public interest and institutions with his rhetoric.  You can see him on FOX news now.  Chilester actually worked with the Bradley Foundation to set up his own foundation, The Chilester Fund, to work directly with sophist Stoessler.  Then there’s Carson Holloway, another right wing pedagogue who worked with the Earhart and William E. Simon Foundation, along with the John Olin Foundation and the Family Research Council.  He is enamored with ‘home education’ but wants to sit on the board of a small college.  Michael P. McDonald was also named to the board.  A former DEA agent, McDonald worked with the Center for Independent Rights where he employed Ann ‘H’ for hideous Coulter.  F.H. Buckley, another board member was an Olin Fellow from the John Olin Foundation and defended ‘free markets’ before the American Enterprise Institute.  These are just a few of the 13 right wing board members that Lindsay packed the board with.  The others are available along with their right wing resumes at the site Knabb indicates above.

It seems that suspicions of a hostile takeover were reinforced in January 2010 when an attempt was made 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.  The move was blocked by a committee dominated by the Lindsayites.  This led students and alumnae to see that the new majority was determined to maintain its control of the school at any costs.

In February Lindsay fought back and put together 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”.  Lindsay decided that a few gratuitous statements about American values and the like were more appropriate than the traditional spirit of independent inquiry that Shimer enjoyed. Although Lindsay faced widespread objections and protests, he managed to get the new mission statement passed by a Board vote of 18-16.

According to Knabb, 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 an article in the Wall Street Journal) and had united virtually everyone in the Shimer community against the right wing coup d’etat.

According to the Wall Street Journal, ever eager to defend conservative right wing causes, especially if they involve hostile takeovers of formerly liberal arts colleges:

“Everyone at Shimer believes in a great-books education, through which students study the profound questions of Western thought and civilization. The “family dispute” is over how to govern this great-books school. Should a community of scholars call the shots, as it has done over the past 30 years? Or should the school be run by a chief executive, as the college’s president thinks? Is Shimer a Greek-style polis, as many Shimerians believe? Or does it need to function more like a corporation, as the president contends? (On the Barricades at Shimer, March 10, 2010,

Hundreds of alums, calling Lindsay and ‘authoritarian’ and ‘autocrat’ (ibid) 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.

Where the parasite will find another host is uncertain but one thing is definite, the fight by students and alumnae over the turn to the right by the former college president was successful.

Some History of Shimer

According to the report in the WSJ:

“This has not been the first bump in Shimer’s road. Founded in 1853, it tied itself to the University of Chicago from the late 19th century into the 1950s. By 1950, Shimer adopted the great-books curriculum of the University of Chicago, where Mr. Lindsay received his doctorate. But the “Grotesque Internecine Struggle” of the late sixties threw the college into disarray.

Despite the comical name by which it is remembered at Shimer, this internal conflict had very serious implications for the college. Like other battles on politically cantankerous campuses at the time, it pitted faculty and students against the administration and president. Amid the chaos, Shimer’s enrollment dropped to 300 from more than 500, eventually bottoming out at fewer than 50 students. The school nearly shut down on multiple occasions, and in 1977 it declared bankruptcy and abandoned its home in idyllic Mount Carroll for rented quarters in Waukegan, Ill.

Alleging that poor leadership by the college’s then-president was to blame for the financial mess; students, faculty and staff then banded together, during the 1980-81 academic year, to form “the assembly,” a self-governing body that determined important school policy based on a majority vote of all three groups. The board and the president assumed more marginal roles” (ibid).

Under the assembly, enrollment grew to about 100. The college found funds to relocate to Chicago, carving a small space on the Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus in 2006. But during its 30-year recovery period, says William Craig Rice, Shimer’s president from 2004 to 2007, the college still only “had 60 days’ worth of cash” on hand on any given day.  In other words, the college was broke.  So, enter Mr. Lindsay. 

The board at the time gave Lindsay two tasks:  establish a $10 million dollar endowment (the college currently has none), boost enrollment to 300 students, and brand Shimer a nationally renowned ‘Great Books School’.  Hired to secure the college’s future, Lindsay saw this as an opportunity to place his right wing minions on the board and become CEO of the tiny college turning it into a depository for conservative funds and ideology.  Run it like a business, was his mantra and so the market fundamentalists and right wing ‘stink tank’ protégés came out of their wet, dark corners and joined the fight. 

Lindsay’s first piece of autocratic authoritarianism came when he fired the director of admissions, without consulting the assembly.  The reaction was visceral with alumnus calling the move unilateral and dictatorial.

According to the WSJ:

“Mr. Lindsay’s second major change at Shimer, a new mission statement. The old one was a paltry three sentences that described the goal of education as “active citizenship” and “responsible action”—1960s buzzwords. Mr. Lindsay rewrote the statement, making it longer and more explicit. “The word ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal education’ has the same root as the word ‘liberty.’ . . . Shimer finds the highest liberty to consist in the freedom of the mind; that is, in freedom from unexamined assumptions, for example, swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology.” Given that the pursuit of intellectual liberty “depends on its being situated in a system of political liberty,” the statement notes the importance of studying the Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution and The Federalist Papers” (ibid)

With the “1960’s buzzwords”, as the WSJ lovingly calls them, Lindsay now was on a mission to destroy the original college and learning mission of “active citizenship” and “responsible action” by substituting the word “liberty” which is really a buzzword for ‘free markets’, ‘tea partyers’ and ‘right wing conservative’ ideologues It seems that citizenship and responsible action took the back toilet seat in favor of Lindsay’s attempt to revitalize the college’s mission statement with all the “right” words that he would need to convince his cronies in the web of think tanks he had collected as representatives on his board and through billionaire circles that he was putting the ‘leftist college’ on the chopping block and then the auction box.

Talk to Lindsay and it is simply a matter of rhetoric and sophistry:

“The mission statement makes clear that freedom of the mind transcends political freedom. It does a disservice to liberals to say that they’re not for freedom of the mind” (ibid).

The Wall Street Journal noted at the time of its writing that Mr. Lindsay was optimistic about Shimer’s future, saying that since he made his mission statement public his email and voicemail inboxes had been ringing with messages of support from foundations and benefactors. Sure they were.  What a coup to take a small liberal arts college over one hundred and fifty years old and turn it from its critical thinking and independent heritage into a vending machine for the likes of Gates, Walton, Donald Fisher, Reed Hastings and all the other prevaricators that dress up as philanthropists in drag, while they engage in cut-throat takeovers of schools throughout the nation.

Knabb has a particular interest in this struggle because Shimer happens to his my alma mater.  According to Knabb, Shimer is a rather unusual school.  He believes that this struggle merits looking into.  So do I.  Any time rightwing conservatives line up another college for a firing squad of takeover artists the manure is thick and rife with sweltering stench and Shimer was to be no different.

Quoting Knabb:

“I was there from 1961 to 1965. (If you are interested, a few of my personal experiences there are recounted here.) At that time it was located in Mt. Carroll, a small town in northwestern Illinois, and had around 300 students. During the 1970s it went through a series of financial crises that ultimately forced it to sell its campus. Most schools would have given up by then, but the Shimer students and faculty were so committed to their educational program that they packed up everything and moved the school to a couple small buildings in Waukegan (just north of Chicago). At that point there were 43 students and the teachers were working for virtually nothing. Hanging on by the skin of their teeth, they carried on, and over the next couple decades gradually managed to get back up to 100+ students and to somewhat expand their facilities. In 2006 they accepted an invitation from the Illinois Institute of Technology to move to Chicago and lease part of one of IIT’s buildings. Shimer retained its own identity and absolute autonomy, but the new relationship promised to benefit both parties, giving Shimer access to IIT’s much more extensive facilities while giving IIT students access to Shimer’s superlative liberal arts courses (

These were the days when colleges were supposed to teach not be gigantic profit centers for the likes of Thomas Lindsay and his coterie of conservative darlings.

During all these moves and crises, Knabb noted, Shimer has retained the same educational methods and substantially the same curriculum. Since 1950 it has carried on the great books discussion program originally developed at the University of Chicago in the 1930s by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (a program that has long since been discontinued at the University of Chicago itself). Three out of the four years are taken up with an intricately interrelated course sequence that everyone is required to take, covering humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, history and philosophy, leaving room for only a few electives.  Classes are kept very small (12 students, maximum). There are no textbooks and virtually no lectures. Factual knowledge is not neglected, but the emphasis is on learning how to think, to question, to test and articulate ideas by participating in round-table discussions of seminal classic texts. The teacher’s role is simply to facilitate the discussion with pertinent questions. Unorthodox viewpoints are welcome — but you have to defend them competently; unfounded opinion is not enough.

Learning how to think?  Now there’s the problem right there!  Conservative market fundamentalists and American chauvinists don’t want thinking students, that’s the last thing they can afford.  The Machiavellian manipulators prefer docile, wetted down students and a college with a history and storefront they can hock to the highest bidders.  Once this is done and the capitalists have their foot in the door, the curriculum comes next and you can be sure it will not resonate with Shimer’s past or its “buzzwords”.  What an opportunity, Lindsay must have thought to take over a tiny college and turn it into his own autocratic lunch bucket.

The Great Books Curriculum

Following the Adler-Hutchins model, the Shimer curriculum used to be exclusively Western. The original rationale (remember that this was over fifty years ago) was that the Western classics were not only the primary foundations of our culture, they also had the advantage of a coherent interconnection with each other — they were part of what Hutchins called “the Great Conversation,” affirming, revising and criticizing each other in a vast ongoing dialogue spanning the centuries of Western civilization. In contrast, the great books of the Eastern world had at that time much more limited connections with modern society, and were in many cases accessible only by way of unreliable translations and interpretations. There was thus certain logic to focusing on the traditional Western classics.

Yet as Knabb notes, as the world has increasingly come together during the last half century, the notion of restricting oneself to Western works has come to seem increasingly absurd. Shimer has accordingly revised its curriculum, incorporating some non-Western works as well as a few more works by women. But while there may be debates about incorporating this or that particular author into the curriculum, no one at Shimer advocates adding an assortment of new texts merely to fill trendy politically correct quotas, let alone dismissing some of the most crucial documents of human history merely because they happen to have been written by “dead white European males.”

Quoting Knabb again:

In any case, the essence of Shimer’s program is not so much which particular works are studied as how they are studied — namely, open-mindedly and critically. The concern is not so much that the students have absorbed certain important works as that they have developed their own capacities to tackle a variety of viewpoints in a rigorous and critical manner. Those who go through such a program usually end up being sufficiently adept at dealing with other cultures and other experiences when they come upon them (

“Great books” education has for some time now received a bad name because certain conservative authors have held it up as an antidote to modern tendencies of multiculturalism and supposedly excessive democracy. But in contrast to those authors, as Knabb notes, Adler and Hutchins did not envision their program as destined only for an elite minority: they insisted that the basic issues dealt with in the great books could and should be grappled with by everyone as the foundation of a lifelong education. If they were rather naïve in accepting Western “democratic society” on its own terms, they at least challenged that society to live up to its own pretensions, pointing out that if it was to work it required a citizenry capable of participating in it knowledgeably and critically, and that what presently passes for education does not begin to accomplish this.

What were Lindsay and his cohorts of courtesans out to achieve? Ayn Rand on steroids

This brings us to the question of what Lindsay and his allies on the Board of Trustees were hoping to achieve.

Knabb states that:

During the whole affair, they denied that they had any hidden political agenda; with an air of offended innocence, they claimed that they merely wished to cut out a little dead wood and put Shimer on a more solid financial basis. Unfortunately for them, some of their colleagues were not so discreet. A devotee of Ayn Rand was so thrilled that she had been brought to Shimer by Lindsay to teach a class on “The Morality of Capitalism” that she posted the following description of Shimer at the right-wing Campus Reform website:

“Founded in 1853, the college recently came under new management committed to free market principles and Western values. With this new management came a new mission statement, which makes a clear stand for principles of free inquiry and limited government” (

[Knabb is quick to note that: “I have been informed that the above-quoted description was written by someone else, “prompted by a press release sent by someone from within the college.” If so, it is actually even more disgraceful.” —KK]

Elsewhere Marsha Enrght, the Ayn Rand faculty waxed enthusiastic about increasing collaboration between Shimer and her own pet project, “The College of the United States”:

“Following what I anticipate will be a successful “test run” with this course, we’re aiming to expand our relationship and develop a dedicated institute to operate The College within Shimer. Then we’ll proceed toward our goal of establishing the College of the United States as a full-time, accredited institution of higher learning . . . [which will offer a] curriculum that demonstrates the virtues of Western culture, capitalism, and markets”  (Who’s Buying Shimer? A former student follows the money behind the new neoconservative bent at the local Great Books college Deanna Isaacs, February 25, 2010

Enright argues that a new college is needed because “ignorance, anemic reasoning skills, and collectivist ideas are pervasive in higher education” and only “those trained in the art of objective reasoning, and certain of its grounding in what’s true and right, can effectively combat this plague.” The College of the United States will offer a “curriculum that demonstrates the virtues of Western culture, capitalism, and markets” (ibid)

The plan seems to have been to merge this would-be Ayn Randian College into Shimer so that Shimer would be stealthily transformed into a more right-wing institution that would retain Shimer’s academic prestige. Or, if that didn’t work (which it almost certainly wouldn’t have), to simply destroy Shimer as a functioning institution (by Lindsay’s avowed intention of firing uncooperative faculty and telling discontented students they could go elsewhere), at which point the new owners would come into possession of Shimer’s accreditation. (It turns out that the latter alone is worth several million dollars, because obtaining accreditation from scratch is a long and costly process.)

The particular scenario envisioned by this Ayn Rand devotee might be dismissed as merely her own personal fantasy; but some sort of takeover was clearly in the works. If more evidence is needed that Lindsay’s supporters’ aims were consciously hostile, it suffices to note that almost all of them (there may have been one or two exceptions) continued to vote for Lindsay at a point when the entire Shimer community was fervently and almost unanimously opposed to him and when it had thus become evident to everyone that a Lindsay victory would mean the destruction of Shimer. Lindsay and his supporters were apparently quite willing to accept that destruction as long as they could retain the accredited shell to fill with their preferred content.

But there is even more evidence. 

Daniel Merchán—a Shimer alum, class of 2009—says he and others are “increasingly angry at the autocratic direction that the president and the stacked half of the board seem to be taking.” Board membership has more than doubled in the last couple of years and many of the newcomers are affiliated with politically right-leaning groups. Merchán says he became particularly interested in the Heartland Institute, which is run by one of those new members, Joseph Bast, when he noticed a headline reading “Tired of Political Correctness?” on an ad for Shimer in a newsletter published by Heartland. According to Merchán, no one he spoke with in the Shimer administration, faculty, or student body was aware of the ad. Looking into Heartland’s funding, he found through the Web site of the Media Matters Action Network that the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation is one of Heartland’s principal donors, and something else: “I discovered [that the Seid Foundation gave] Shimer College $650,000 in 2007,” Merchán notes (ibid).

 It’s all about money?  And ideology!

From Knabbs perspective he states it is important, however, to note that this was not fundamentally a left-right conflict.  From his perspective there is nothing inherently radical about Shimer’s program, except in the very vague general sense that people who have critically explored a wider range of original sources are likely to be somewhat more open to diverse perspectives and thus less likely to take the status quo for granted.

That is all to the good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily go very far. Even if Shimer students, past and present, have probably tended toward the more radical end of the political spectrum, the faculty and administration have often been relatively conservative; there have always been a substantial number of conservative students and alums who have supported the Shimer program and been happy to contribute to it without any strings attached; and some of the latter were among the first to speak out against Lindsay’s actions.

In any case, however unusual its curriculum may be, Shimer remains an officially accredited institution, with all the compromises and material constraints that that implies. (On the inevitable limitations and contradictions of institutional education within the present society, see the classic situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life. Even though Shimer differs in some regards from the dominant educational system denounced in that text, Shimer students would do well to consider which of its criticisms might nevertheless apply to them.)

Throughout the struggle there were debates about tone and tactics, some urging caution and restraint, others considering more radical direct actions. On January 25 a faculty member wrote to the Chair of the Board:

“I believe you understand that Shimer is on the brink of civil war. You may not know that, in particular, plans are being made for going to the media, legal action, strikes and unionization, and student demonstrations. Tomorrow, a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society — of 60’s fame, though now more restrained — is to be launched at Shimer. At least 27 students plan to attend the meeting, and the agenda consists largely of ideas for direct action (

The students ended up putting most of those direct-action tactics on hold, accepting the whispered pleas of certain faculty and friendly Board members urging them to maintain a “respectful” and “responsible” and “no confrontational” demeanor so as not to frighten the potential swing votes on the Board whom they were quietly trying to win over. But during the final weeks many people started becoming more confrontational in tone, if not in tactics, using blogs and other online forums to debate the issues in less restrained language, including setting up an online petition calling for Lindsay’s resignation. As more and more people signed that petition, more and more others were encouraged to speak out more and more forcefully. The momentum generated by these expressions of outrage undoubtedly helped trigger the rapid series of unanimous resolutions of no confidence by the faculty (April 13), the Alumni Association Board (April 16) and the Assembly (April 18), which in turn led to the final victory. Although that victory was attained without the use of direct-action tactics, the implied threat of such tactics probably played a role in forcing the ultimate decision.

Conclusion: No tempest in a teapot, but an inspiration to fight hostile rightwing takeovers and collectivize in the best spirit of comradery

There are two main results of this affair. The first and most obvious is that Shimer succeeded in getting rid of Lindsay. It is unusual enough for a college president to be fired, but it is almost unheard of for this to happen as the result of an open and democratic process involving an entire academic community. In this sense, the Shimerians have won a significant victory which may well inspire similar struggles elsewhere, even if glib observers will dismiss it as a tempest in a teapot because of Shimer’s small size and relative obscurity.

Second, and perhaps ultimately more important, the students have lived through an experience that may turn out to be more profound and more enduring than anything else they have learned from all their Shimer classes. On February 24, when things were still very much up in the air, one of the faculty members (currently leading a Shimer outreach program in Haiti) wrote to the students:

“I admire you more than you could know. . . . I know no better than anyone else does how this all will end. One thing I believe: The investment of time, energy, thought, and solidarity that you are making in this struggle will certainly bear fruit. Whatever Shimer is in the years to come, you will all be something even greater than you are right now because of this experience at fighting a good fight (Shimer Student Alliance, February 23, 2010,

Many of the participants had already noted the remarkable sense of community that was developing among hundreds of people, people who were of extremely diverse views and circumstances and whose connections with Shimer ranged across six decades, but who were coming together around a single shared concern. This is a modest example of a phenomenon that can be seen in many social struggles. When passive consumption and isolation are replaced by active communication and participation, people look around and notice with astonishment how much more vibrant and creative they have become. In the process of trying to change something out in the world, they find that they themselves have been transformed.

Knabb correlates the situation by stating:

“A radical situation is a collective awakening. . . . It’s not a matter of numbers, but of open-ended public dialogue and participation. . . . In such situations people become much more open to new perspectives, readier to question previous assumptions, quicker to see through the usual cons. Every day some people go through experiences that lead them to question the meaning of their lives; but during a radical situation practically everyone does so all at once. . . . People learn more about society in a week than in years of academic “social studies” or leftist “consciousness raising.” Radical situations are the rare moments when qualitative change really becomes possible. Far from being abnormal, they reveal how abnormally repressed we usually are; they make our “normal” life seem like sleepwalking” [The Joy of Revolution]

In such situations, the ostensible political issues may be less important than the participants’ new experiences, as they break through their habitual conditioning and get a taste of real community. One participant in the 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley estimated that within a few months he had come to know, at least as a nodding acquaintance, two or three thousand people — this at a university that was notorious for “turning people into numbers.” Another movingly wrote: “Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering in ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting.”

Unlike the Berkeley students, most Shimer students probably do not look on their school as an alien institution. They struggled alongside their teachers and most of the administrative staff to defend their school against an alien invasion. But in both cases an alien entity gave rise to a positive, creative response that utterly transcended the original grievance. As one alum charmingly put it in a Facebook post:

“Dear Thomas Lindsay, thank you for giving me a reason to get acquainted with so many wonderful Shimerians from before and after my time. Now, please leave us” (

As Knabb notes in closing his perusal of Shimer and its victory by alumnae, students and administration:

“It remains to be seen what these newly united Shimerians will do with their newly discovered enthusiasm and camaraderie. Will they merely try to go back to how things were before? Or will they take advantage of this crisis and the publicity it has generated to tackle broader and deeper issues? After the euphoria subsides, they will continue to face the many grave problems in present-day society as a whole, problems that are not going to go away just because a few people in a tiny college examine some important texts with a bit more lucidity than usual. They will ultimately have to figure out how to address those problems, within or without Shimer. We will see if their much-vaunted great books education enables them to come up with correspondingly great ideas about how to go about this” (ibid).

Perhaps Shimer is just another example of people across this country tired of well-heeled prevaricators attempting to hijack education and turn it into dogma and hierarchical indoctrination.  Maybe Shimer will add itself to the list of public schools that are fighting the same hand to hand combat with the lovers of materialism and the fornicators of critical thinking.  We can only hope so, for this would add a curl to the great wave of pushback and resistance that is now fighting in hand to hand combat with the oligarchs and plutocrats intent on diminishing education from the reign of the ‘Great Books”, to the bloody rule and tyrannical autocracy of the ‘great crooks’.