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A few years ago, I was one of a dozen brave souls who tried to save Shimer College — a small “great books” college in Chicago — from falling enrollment, bankruptcy, and a dysfunctional cultural atmosphere.
Then an anti-reform faction of the board of trustees conspired with disgruntled staff and fired the president, purged reform-minded board members, and generally behaved very badly. You can read about it in my 2010 resignation letter from Shimer’s Board of Trustees.
So how has Shimer done since the inmates took it over? A ranking of colleges published by Washington Monthly in October — based on cost of tuition, student indebtedness, and graduation rates, and adjusted for the percentage of students who are minority or low-income — ranked Shimer the worst college in America.
That’s not a typo. Shimer College isn’t just bad, or near the bottom. It’s the absolute worst college in the country.
How does a college get to be that bad? A reporter for the British newspaper, The Guardian, was curious and visited the school to find out. His report, in which he noted Shimer is “the very zenith of terrible,” makes for entertaining reading, at least for those unfamiliar with the history of the institution. The Guardian’s Jon Ronson writes:
According to the Huffington Post, Shimer was the second smallest college in America in 2012, after the Alaska Bible College. In its 1960s heyday it had 400 students. In 2011 there were 126, which slipped to 112 in 2012, then down again to 97 in 2013. And now they have 74.
Seventy-four students? That’s not a college, it’s a book club —which has long been the rap on Shimer College, and something we reformers set out to change.
Nearly all the reformers were kicked off the board of trustees or had resigned by the end of 2010. How different would the college be today if the anti-reformers had put the interests of college ahead of their self-interest and ideological agendas? We’ll never know.