Who's Buying Shimer? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Who's Buying Shimer? 

A former student follows the money behind the new neoconservative bent at the local Great Books college.

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Shimer ad from the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, Marsha Familaro Enright

Shimer ad from the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, Marsha Familaro Enright

Enright photo courtesy Marsha Familaro Enright

The last time I checked in with Shimer College, late last year, the tiny, fiercely independent Great Books school was embroiled in a battle over what some saw as a right-wing attempt to take over its board and administration. That battle is still raging, with a couple new developments: a "first step" toward creating a politically conservative college within the Shimer shell and the revelation of a financial nexus that appears to be funding controversial changes.

This semester, for the first time, Shimer is offering a class called "The Morality of Capitalism," devised and taught by new adjunct faculty member Marsha Familaro Enright along with Shimer professor James Donovan. Enright announced the class in December on the Web site of the Reason Individualism Freedom Institute, described as "the foundation for the College of the United States." She also noted there that she landed the teaching gig after she was referred to Shimer's new president, Thomas Lindsay, a Bush-era deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, by Herbert Walberg, chairman of the "free-market" think tank the Heartland Institute.

Enright wrote, "When I conceived this ambitious project five years ago, skeptics—even close friends—insisted that the notion of starting a new college from scratch was crazy or impossible. . . . Now, despite the naysayers, we're well on our way.

"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.

"We will offer selections from the College of the United States curriculum to students of Shimer and [the Illinois Institute of Technology]. Then we'll proceed toward our goal of establishing the College of the United States as a full-time, accredited institution of higher learning."

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."

According to Enright, that curriculum will use the Great Books and Socratic seminars, as Shimer does, while also extending the "Montessori concept of education up to the college level."

She says her motives are educational rather than political. But 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.

Shimer moved from Waukegan to IIT's south-side campus in 2006 with the help of a big pledge from an anonymous donor. The school didn't report a gift from the Seid Foundation, Merchán says, but did report an anonymous contribution of $750,000 in 2007. Although Merchán can't account for the extra $100,000 (he says it could've come from the same source through a third-party organization like the Donors Trust), the single large donation got him thinking that Seid, a local businessman and philanthropist, might be Shimer's mystery benefactor.

Then he took a closer look at the long list of other Seid Foundation grants. They included a total of $660,575 to the Palmer R. Chitester Fund in 2004 and 2005, $500,000 to congregation Shaare Tikvah B'nai Zion in 2006 and 2007, $740,000 to U.S. Term Limits between 1998 and 2000, and more than $3 million to George Mason University between 1998 and 2006.

Chitester Fund head Bob Chitester joined the Shimer board in 2009. So did Shaare Tikvah B'nai Zion rabbi Dennis Katz, U.S. Term Limits cofounder Eric O'Keefe, and George Mason official F.H. Buckley.

Barre Seid—who Merchán says isn't a Shimer alum and hasn't been on the board or given the school a donation in his own name—heads Chicago-based Trippe Manufacturing and Michigan City's Fiber Bond Corporation. Trippe CFO/COO Charles Lang joined the Shimer board in 2008, as did Fiber Bond president John Marienau. That was also the year Heartland's Bast joined.

Seid didn't return calls for this story, and a Shimer spokesman said this week that "none of the administrative staff or board members are taking interview requests at this point." But Bast did comment, saying that if there's an attempt to change the school "I think it's an attempt to return to the mission." He added, "Many of the trustees are involved in philanthropy . . . so we have a lot of donors in common. And that's not a conspiracy."

After another five people with no previous connection to Shimer were added to the board last fall, some longer-term board members pulled together an all-alumni slate of candidates to fill the remaining available spots. (The board now has an official limit of 40.) But this slate was tabled by the nominating committee, which Merchán says is dominated by allies of the president. Merchán maintains it's the only time in recent Shimer history that a group of qualified nominees has been blocked.

Shimer has a tradition of participatory governance by an assembly that includes students, faculty, trustees, and staff. This month, in response to the president's professed intention to change the school's mission statement, both the assembly and the faculty, meeting separately,voted to keep the current statement intact. But at a board meeting February 20—while students and alumni stood outside in protest—Lindsay's new mission statement was adopted. The old one had dedicated Shimer to "education for active citizenship in the world." The new text drops those words and declares instead, "Shimer's cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political freedom enshrined in the American Constitution."   

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