As Dr. Susan Henking told The New York Times in the series The Boss published August 25, becoming the president of a college with a student population the size of some high school homerooms takes a certain kind of chutzpah.
Until last year, Henking was a tenured professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “I’m often asked why I left a secure position there a year ago to head up Shimer College, a relatively unknown school with 125 undergraduates,” says Henking in the article. “I suppose I liked its unofficial tagline: ‘Dangerously Optimistic Since 1853.’”
Shimer College has exhibited its scrappy, upbeat spirit from the very beginning of its 160 years of existence. On the day in 1853 that Shimer opened in a church with a leaky roof, it rained. But that deterred neither the 11 pupils in attendance nor its founders, Frances Wood and Cinderella Gregory. Within a few years, Frances had married Harry Shimer, a stone mason who helped construct a dedicated building for the college and gave it its present name.
Given today’s higher education climate, Shimer’s real optimism may well lie in its commitment to a Great Books curriculum. One of the few remaining colleges to shun textbooks altogether, Shimer offers a program in which students struggle with difficult, sometimes century-old texts, reading Mary Wollstonecraft alongside Plato and Karl Marx as a complement to W.E.B Du Bois. It has no sports teams or Greek life, and students get most of their services from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the campus on which Shimer is located.
Its small size allows the discussions that start in the classroom to spill over into all aspects of community life from mealtimes to the Assembly, the self-governance forum in which all members, students, staff, faculty, and the President herself participate equally with one vote. Henking said, “There are sociological studies that show that an active community comprises 150-200 members, Facebook friends notwithstanding. That’s our model. We call it ‘The Great Conversation.’”
The focus on discussion of enduring questions is what Henking, who celebrates her inauguration this September, found so attractive about the prospect of becoming the 14th president of Shimer. In the Times profile, she says, “I’ve always been drawn to the greater challenge that uncertainty presents.” She describes her choice of career as a religious studies scholar and professor driven by an uncertainty about her belief in religion. At the same time, her biography, like Shimer’s history, is replete with moments when certainty and decisive action prevail. In this manner, Henking describes the event that made her political after coming out as a lesbian in college.
The first year of the Henking presidency at Shimer has been characterized by that decisiveness through initiatives designed to serve a wider community even as the college remains intentionally small. Shimer has recently made a splash with a new initiative that offers senior citizens 60 years old and over the opportunity to audit one of its courses free of charge. Two more new programs are coming down the pike. Beginning next January, a scholarship for community college transfer students, appropriately called The Dangerous Optimist’s Scholarship, will become available. And plans are underway for a summer college prep program that will help high school students build solid writing and self-expression skills.