Those Conflicting Elements Exposed

Understanding the Grotesque Internecine Struggle


In Mountus Carollium collegium absurdium est qui (motto) Non minestrere sed pecunia est qui nomina Shimera est Shimera delenda est...

song during 1966-67 school year

By now it was the mid-1960s and there were changes afoot across the nation, including in the somewhat isolated berg of Mount Carroll. Shimer's Dean of Students Albert Bades Fernandez reflected, in a June 2000 presentation at the University of Chicago, that with very few people noticing, Shimer was getting into financial trouble:

"The late 60's and the 70's was a period during which quite a few small private U.S. colleges shut down. In the case of Shimer, as I gather from both written records and folk memory, there were many causes for the financial crisis. For one thing, the railway that served Mt. Carroll, which has always been a small town in the sticks, stopped running. The glory of the College in the sixties led to financial hubris. The school did not downsize its budget after enrollment went down. Attempted fiscal cures only made the disease worse. A lethal rift opened up between the administration and the Dean, a conflict known to Shimer oral history as 'The Great Internecine Conflict,' a.k.a., 'The Grotesque Internecine Conflict.'"
Campbell Library

Bellairs no doubt thought Shimer idyllic, a step up from the stogy, strict life no doubt found in the Catholic women's college in Winona. "Shimer was full of smart, neurotic kids and with a lovely Georgian campus in a bucolic town with a railway link to Chicago," Pat Thomas says. "I think John loved it in many ways and many of us were brokenhearted by the disintegration of the place over the course of an academic year."

"The intellectual life was intense and exciting, and for those of us who accepted the Shimer philosophy, it was a secure refuge from the foibles of the outside world - including the academic world at large," Alan Dowty says.

Dowty was a 1959 graduate of Shimer and was invited, along with his wife Nancy, to the campus as visiting professors for the 1966-67 school year. "It was a possibility that we might stay on if things worked out. Both of us were Shimer graduates had gone on to the University of Chicago, and in 1963 to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but the return to Shimer was in some ways a homecoming. Perhaps under ordinary circumstances John and others, myself included, would have found a long-term home at Shimer; in many ways it was Plato's academy in a rural setting. But it was not to be, because that year at Shimer was one of crisis, and in fact a turning point that set in motion the decline that led to bankruptcy and the loss of the Mt. Carroll campus."

David Weiser

What brought matters to a head, explains Dowty, was a letter that former Dean of Faculty David Weiser wrote fairly early in the 1966-67 academic year. Some of the veteran faculty, in fact many of those who comprised the vital core of what made Shimer work, began suggesting that it was time to begin a search for a new president - in short, a campaign for the resignation of Shimer's President, F. Joseph Mullin (1906-97). Their feelings, based on a long history, was that "his leadership had become increasingly autocratic and was beginning to erode the foundations of the college's excellence; in particular, a number of outstanding teachers had left or been forced out in recent years."

Mullin, who became president in 1954, was a product of the University of Chicago, where he was dean of faculties in the Biological Sciences Division and the School of Medicine – an area not exactly the inner circles that were the source of the Hutchins Plan, or existing Shimer curriculum.

Francis Joseph Mullin

Says Dowty: “It's not clear how committed Mullin ever was to what made Shimer unique, but he had ‘saved’ the college in an earlier crisis, in 1956, when it was about to go broke. Mullin recruited Nelson Dezendorf, an automobile executive who was reached through a common Episcopalian connection (and thus Shimer's later but brief affiliation with the Episcopal Church). Consequently Mullin solidified his hold by filling the Board of Trustees with his people to the point that the power structure at Shimer was, as described in an independent to the Board of Trustees, "a medieval fiefdom stuck somehow in rural Illinois. There was constant tension between Mullin and the core ‘Hutchins’ people over his total control, his caprices, and his efforts over the years to ‘conventionalize’ the program (though in my recollection, attempts to dilute the Hutchins Plan were only a small part of the conflict). There was always a steady drain of the most committed and most capable faculty over the years, although the program itself continued to attract exceptional new faculty because of what was unique about it. What these new people learned fairly quickly was that there was a large contradiction between the principles that Shimer supposedly represented and the way the college was actually run."

When Weiser approached him about resigning, Mullin reacted “like the tinpot dictator that he was” by running to the Board of Trustees and receiving, practically overnight, a new multi-year contract. This led to tensions and hostilities, as can only be expected when academics feel that their basic values and principles are being challenged, and a split of the faculty into warring factions. This then was what became known as the Grotesque Internecine Struggle.

The splintering put to rest any chance of Shimer becoming a long-term teaching home for Bellairs – perhaps the "perfect campus" image was forever shattered in his mind – because he formally resigned before the end of his first semester on campus. On November 30, 1966, Bellairs sent a typed resignation to the Dean of Faculty, Denis Cowan, saying, "This is to inform you of my resignation as of the end of the current school year. I am going to go to England to write for a year or so."

1967 picked up from where much of the previous year concluded: the GIS dominated campus life, there were frequent faculty resignations, and the administration made life uneasy for those on the 'wrong' side. In the midst of this was John Bellairs, attempting to keep his students focused while chaos reigned all around, while attempting to fight the good fight through the end of the school year.

Former student Warner Johnston validates that Bellairs "took the GIS very seriously,” remembering Bellairs’ role in a protest march with other faculty members and students to the President's residence. “Bellairs was one of the four pall-bearers, along with me, who carried a full sized coffin that contained the Spirit of Shimer,” Johnston recalls of the event, also described by Bellairs in a February 22, 1967 letter to friend John Drew. Drew notes that the letter just goes to show how radical everyone was in the 1960s: "what a contrast with today. John certainly seems to have stepped out of one of his own books here - a militant protest in burnished armor. But, under the fancy dress, he shows there was a serious concern about educational principals.”

We are in the midst of a violent faculty revolution here. You may read about it in Harper’s magazine later this year. I am in on the fun, along with 15 or so of the faculty, including several of the best liked and most experienced ones, so it’s hardly a Young Turk thing.

John Bellairs
in an undated letter to John Drew,
c. February 22, 1967

Handy Summary:
That Wonderful Year

A month-by-month rundown of the 1966-67 Shimer College school year.

Like Bellairs, Alan Dowty would only remain on campus until the end of the semester. Both Alan and his wife, Nancy, had actually attended Shimer as students earlier in the decade and were all too familiar with Mullin's leadership. Now as guest instructors in a sort of homecoming, they, along with Bellairs, were quick to side with "the good guys," since the division in the faculty seemed to fall – in Dowty’s eyes – “between the competent people who made the college what it was and the hangers-on who would not have been there but for their unquestioning loyalty to existing authority.” As the year wore on, more people fell away when they realized that in the short term it was impossible to get the attention of the Board of Trustees. And with more resignations, the more the faculty that would return knew the future of Shimer would be a cold and unfriendly place.

There was one bit of hope, an independent report to the Board that Dowty remembers took the side of the dissidents, describing them as the 'heart and soul' of Shimer. If the Board had acted quickly on the recommendations in the report, Dowty feels the campus might have been saved, and perhaps John, as well as many others, would have had long and happy careers in Mount Carroll.

Mullin’s control over the levers of power proved to be overwhelming in the short run, with many people being driven away by the way Mullin reacted to the criticism: “such as publicly blaming the affair on drugs and permissiveness, which was absolute nonsense,” Dowty says. Former students Johnston and Tanty agree that when Mullin blamed the school’s problems on drugs, it showed how sheltered and out of touch with reality he was and that he did not want to acknowledge the real problems. Mullin also made public statements Dowty remembers, that denigrated the faculty, reputedly belittling the faculty to the Board of Trustees, bragging that he had more publications than the entire Shimer faculty put together.

This was the 1960's and in terms of student life, Dowty notes that Shimer was not immune to what was happening everywhere. As to be expected, the students reacted to the problems on campus by taking an active interest in the daily discord but they were never initiators in the struggle, Dowty explains, though they did get pulled into the turmoil: “most of the students sided with the dissidents because they knew who the good teachers were and also what Mullin was like. Mullin used excuses like drugs and sex and the general counterculture movement as a cover to hide the deeper conflict that was actually going on. He was a puritan at heart who, when I was a student, routinely expelled any student caught drinking or with alcohol, a policy backed up by surprise inspections of students' rooms while they were at the weekly required assembly. He had not been able, however, to stem the tide of the 1960s, so that by the time I returned as a teacher, things had loosened up considerably. But it was still not a den of iniquity. Pot was widespread on the student side; I was somewhat taken aback, about a month or two after arriving, when a student casually offered me some pot when I was visiting his room. I never witnessed any pot, or other drugs, in gatherings of the faculty, though I assume some faculty smoked pot with the students from time to time. At any rate, it had nothing to do with the GIS.”

Tanty echoes these viewpoints:

"Mullin was old and old school. The school was old school, a staid, forgotten college in a backwater farming community of northwestern Illinois. The buildings looked old and stately with huge gates at the main entrance and a history that went back before the Civil War. Then the sixties happened and sixties kind of students came. New teachers were young and probably cut the average teacher age in half. Older pictures of campus activity showed women marching in twos to town in their Sunday finery. Now they would be braless. It was a culture clash identical to that that was happening throughout the country. In that way, I think that Shimer was no different than UC Berkeley. It wasn't any one act; the times were changing."

Other changes that took place between Dowty’s time as a student and his year as an instructor was that students were now allowed cars and could consequently travel to other towns to drink, and dating between students and faculty was not considered taboo, at least as long as they were open relationships and did not conflict with any academic considerations.

In the end, the GIS did not have the same effect on all students or faculty. Former student George Tanty watched both the strife and the results the following school year (1967-68). One of the first orders of business was the resignation of Mullin, replaced by the recently- retired editor of the Chicago Sun Times, Milburn "Pete" Akers. Tanty recalls the new president as one "who smoked Lucky Strikes, swilled martinis, regaled us with stories about going to Alaska to cover the earthquake with Abe Fortas, attending a birthday party in a tent city in a desert of the Shah of Iran, and so forth. Obviously this falls outside of Bellairs' time on campus but I think he would have liked Pete lots more than Mullin."

Of course, President Akers had demonstrations and protests during his administration, too. Did he go about combating these differently than his predecessor? Yes, says Tanty. "His first step was that he sent out for coffee and doughnuts and had them delivered to the students doing the sit in."

For further reading of the era, Tanty suggests the copy of Look magazine, with an article about drugs on campus and where Shimer was called "The Midwest Mecca of the Marijuana Mystique." Also, notes Tanty, "The Chicago Tribune ran an article around 1968 with my all time favorite quote which I still remember from memory: 'Despite its nodding countenance of budding tranquility, Shimer College plays devil's advocate to the Big Ten and ivy league schools.'"

Dowty adds an arresting portrait of Shimer in the 1960s is in an autobiography of Mark Benney, “another remarkable Shimer figure who visited Shimer in between my years (1959-1966). The book is Almost a Gentleman; the passages on Poffy's will tie in with John's account, and Benney's account of how Mullin forced him out will shed light on the power structure at Shimer."