Shimer College
Unknown - Unsung - Unusual

Time Magazine - April 19, 1963

Under the spring sun of the rolling farmlands around the northwestern Illinois town of Mount Carroll, tiny Shimer College wears a mask of nodding tranquillity. It might be some 19th century prairie academy trying to drive a little erudition into the neighboring pumpkin-heads. Instead, Shimer is one of eleven U.S. campuses that have an ideal "intellectual climate" in the opinion of Syracuse University Psychologist George G. Stern, writing in the current Harvard Educational Review.

"Shimer has fewer courses than any college going,"says its president, F. Joseph Mullin, 56, and he means it as a boast. Largely unknown and unsung outside the Midwest, Shimer (rhymes with rhymer) aims to be not a training school of the professions but a "community of scholars." The Episcopal-related college has no departments, and teachers move through the school's three areas—humanities, social sciences and natural sciences—as easily as do the students. The chaplain, for example, teaches drama.

The 32-man faculty (13 of whom hold doctorates) is free of the race for rank, since Shimer has no professors or assistant professors as such. At the same time. Shimer's students are free of the fight for classroom attention. The faculty recently cut the class-size limit down from 25 to 19, despite the fact that this would give some teachers as many as nine classes a day. The reduction was voted through without a plea for increased salary—in fact, no Shimer faculty member has asked for a raise since 1954, and two men who were offered raises this year declined so that the money could be put in the school's general fund.

Nine Days of Exams. One in every five of Shimer's 275 students is an early entrant, some coming on campus after completing only two years of high school. Many of the college's top students either flunked or dropped out of other schools, but in Shimer's stimulating atmosphere came back to intellectual life. Students take three courses a semester are encouraged to integrate the subject matter of one as fully as possible with the others. Because it is small, integrated in subject matter and undepartmentalized, Shimer can give year-end comprehensive exams that thoroughly test the student's total knowledge. Each "comp" takes an entire day. The first set of comps covers logic, rhetoric and analysis; the second, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences; and the third, history, philosophy and foreign languages. Only in the fourth year can students begin specializing.

The system works: in the 1959 graduate-record tests of seniors conducted by the Educational Testing Service, Shimer ranked first of 222 colleges in the humanities and natural sciences, tied for first in social science. Says the University of Chicago's dean of admissions: "We're always glad to get a student from Shimer."

Classes in Bistros. For most of its 110 year history, Shimer was just another women's junior college going nowhere. For a while it became a feeder school for the University of Chicago. Then, in 1949, it woke up to find itself with an $80,000 debt and only 65 students. The next year, Shimer adopted the University of Chicago's general education plan, went co-educational for the first time since the Civil War. But it took more than that to get the college moving.

In 1954, Joe Mullin, a burly, bespectacled physiologist with a West Texas drawl, came from a professorship at the University of Chicago medical school to become president of Shimer. By virtue of having taught doctors, he had on driving conviction—that professional men by and large are too narrowly educated, and need a broad liberal schooling before going into graduate schools.

Since Shimer has no endowment, Mullin began to pass the hat, now raises as much as $150,000 a year as compared with the $5,000 typical of the early '50's. He has doubled faculty salaries (the average Shimer salary is now $6,100), and doubled the faculty too—always with an eye for the man who would fit his concept of a community of scholars.

"Corny as it sounds," says Chairman of the Humanities John Hirschfield, "people here are treated as human beings. The most amazing things can happen to you." Two years ago, a group of Hirschfield's students were weighing the pros and cons of a year of study abroad. They wanted to go, but hated to give up Hirschfield's courses in humanities and history. "They got to talking with me about it," says Mullin, "and I said, why not just send Hirschfield along?" He did, and a tenth of Shimer's student body got both Europe and its favorite teacher, who taught them mornings in Paris bistros. "And you know," Mullin adds, "they all did better on their comps than the rest of their classmates."

Mullin's thoughtfulness pays off in student seriousness. Said one Shimer boy last week: "You've got a responsibility to the instructor, the rest of the class and yourself. They expect something of you."