Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wall Street Journal Smears Shimer Student Alliance

So far, the only "journalism" that has come out in clear support of President Tom Lindsay's action at Shimer College came from the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a right-wing organization whose Board once seated Lindsay himself. The two NAS articles were rife with ignorance of both Shimer's history and the current issues and both articles painted Lindsay’s opponents -- at this point, roughly the entire Shimer community -- as stubborn children.

Unfortunately, freelance journalist Emily Smith followed in the NAS’ footsteps with an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal. Smith’s article both misrepresents the situation and comes out in clear support of Lindsay and his supporters' hostile takeover of our college.
Like the NAS, Lindsay himself, and some of Lindsay’s followers, Smith depicts Shimer's political conflict as a simple debate over management:
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?

This is a sorely inaccurate characterization of the conflict. A wealth of information is available at numerous blogs, Shimer’s student newspaper, several non-Shimer publications, and from representatives of our college that very clearly indicate that this conflict is not solely centered on college governance. Indeed, one of many charges against Lindsay is that he has unjustly transgressed his authority. But the issue runs far deeper than that. The conflict is also over the fact that Lindsay is attempting a profound re-branding of the school, empowered by a Board who is beholden to a single donor. As one might expect, the students and long-standing faculty are trying to defend the College's traditions and its politically neutral image and atmosphere. To the contrary of Smith's implication, the Shimer community is not pushing an ideological agenda on Shimer College or President Lindsay. The reality is that Lindsay faces opposition to his attempt at unilaterally seizing control of our College and radically transforming it.

Smith continues this effort to falsely depict Shimer's stance later in the article, when she writes, “What seems to be irking faculty and students are the President's classically liberal politics, which are out of tune at a campus that invited ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers to be a speaker in 2008.” Ayers, of course, was one of many guest lecturers that were invited to speak at Shimer. His lecture was on education and, as stated in a press release issued by Shimer shortly after Ayers' visit, "hearing and scrutinizing the competing views of others on important topics such as education is essential to Shimer's core mission." Smith's attempt to characterize the attitudes of the student body with the mention of Ayers' talk is an instance of irresponsible generalization and poor, propagandist journalism.

Had Smith been genuinely interested what's "irking” the students, her investigation might have incorporated the views of students. Students could have shown Smith the handbills that they distributed at the latest board meeting, which read, in part:
We strongly protest the poor management, intimidation, and disrespect offered to both the employees and the body of the College at large. This mismanagement has resulted in a general malaise within the College that affects the atmosphere that makes genuine discussion with the administration unlikely.

If Smith were interested in what's irking the faculty, she could have read the faculty's collectively penned letter to the Board, which made no reference to the President's “classically liberal politics.” Rather, the faculty took issue with, for one, Linday's presumed entitlement to define the College's mission:
The Faculty and Assembly together, rather than President Lindsay by himself, have the standing to define the College's mission. [....] President Lindsay has maintained that he wants only to clarify the College's mission, not to change it. An unsympathetic redrafting of the entire mission statement is not a clarification. Further, his intransigent insistence on the rightness of his views on education, even in the face of considerate attempts to qualify them and to offer alternatives, only betrays how little he understands or adheres to the College's principles for cooperative dialogue.

And in reference to Lindsay's conduct, the faculty wrote:
President Lindsay presumes to use his mission statement as a test of the Faculty's continuing commitment to the college. He has indicated to us that if the Board adopts his statement, he would ask us individually to confirm our support of it. The implied alternative was to seek employment elsewhere. Let us be clear: we reject with one voice such tests of our loyalty to Shimer College or to President Lindsay.

While some of us do disagree with Lindsay's personal politics, our chief concern lies in his forceful imposition of his politics on our school and the consequences of that imposition. An honest look at the situation quickly reveals that students and faculty are dismayed by President Lindsay's disrespect for the College's long-standing traditions, mismanagement of the College, and his hostile treatment of the College community. (Smith makes no mention of overwhelming alumni opposition, something worth considering since the President's primary responsibility is to cultivate donors.)

Smith's article, along with misrepresenting the current struggle, misrepresents history. After an inaccurate summary of the Assembly's inception, Smith misrepresents recent history when she claims that:
At the time [when Lindsay was hired], Shimer faculty, staff and students were eager for Mr. Lindsay to join their tiny school, which enrolls about 100 students, and lead it to happier times. Less than two years later, many of the same people who once cheered Mr. Lindsay's arrival now denounce him as a "conservative menace," calling him "authoritarian" and "autocratic."

Smith neglects to point out that after the entire Shimer community chose and evaluated three final Presidential candidates, trustee Patrick Parker slid Lindsay in for an interview during the Summer, when the majority of students and faculty weren't able to meet him. We weren’t “eager” for Lindsay to join us; in fact, we already had three capable candidates and most of us had never heard of Thomas Lindsay. Nevertheless, Smith depicts Shimer's community as indecisive and accusatory ideologues who flip-flopped – in “less than two years” – from “cheering Mr. Lindsay's arrival” to condemning his character.

It's telling that in a discussion of the Assembly-supported mission statement, Smith deems the term "responsible action" a "1960s buzzword," as it is apparent that Smith is unconcerned with responsible journalism. Smith leads the reader to believe that our criticisms of Lindsay lack substance by omitting our actual criticisms and fabricating others. Despite irrelevance, Smith quotes President Lindsay at length discussing his opinion on the ideal views of “liberals,” while our criticisms of Lindsay's action are summarized in two-word sentences or sentence fragments.

Smith’s journalistic dishonesty, however, shouldn't be a surprise, considering that in writing this article, she faced a serious conflict of interest. Though this particular article was published by the Wall Street Journal, the organization that employs Smith is partially funded by Barre Seid, Shimer’s formerly anonymous donor, a businessperson and philanthropist who funds all of the newly-appointed board members that support Lindsay. It's clear that Smith's article was no attempt at journalism but propaganda, characterized by the same dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance that fuel President Lindsay and his supporters. Nevertheless, we can remain hopeful, for their dishonesty will lead to their loss.

1 comment:

  1. Shade(s) of Leo Strauss at St. John's Annapolis where he taught for the final 4 years of his life (1969-73). The neo-conservatives are apparently determined to dominate the culture because that is the nature of their beast.