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Sudden Departure at Deep Springs

January 4, 2008

Louis Fantasia -- an acclaimed Shakespeare scholar and theatrical director -- has been ousted as president of Deep Springs College after only six months in the position.

Fantasia's sudden departure, announced with little detail on New Year's Day, stunned many alumni and others who have since learned of it. Fantasia would not comment, and board members released only a vague statement indicating a "divergence of visions" for the college by Fantasia and the board.

Sources familiar with the conflict at Deep Springs say that the difference of opinion had to do in part with fund raising, although how the issue is framed depends on whether the sources are more sympathetic to the former president or to the board. (This story is based on interviews with current and former Deep Springs employees, students and donors -- all of whom insisted on anonymity, with several saying that they had been urged by trustees and others not to talk about what was going on.)

According to those who are sympathetic to what the board did, Fantasia did not understand the unique nature of Deep Springs governance (although he had taught there several times) or of the role of its president, and was too focused on fund raising. Deep Springs is a very small college in California's High Desert whose 26 students study -- generally in classes of just a few students to a professor -- classic liberal arts while also working on the college's cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. The students receive full scholarships for their two years of study, play significant roles in running the college, and then tend to transfer to some of the top colleges and universities in the United States.

Deep Springs enrolls only men, and periodically has had intense debates over whether to admit women, but sources on all sides of the current situation said that coeducation was not the issue this time.

Critics of Fantasia said that his interest in fund raising risked setting up a situation where donors' views might take precedence over those of students, potentially endangering the self-governance of which alumni are so proud.

Supporters of Fantasia talk about similar issues, but with a different take. They argue that he has correctly identified a need to significantly increase the college's endowment (currently about $15 million) and to make the institution more visible. By keeping fund raising ambitions more modest, these supporters say, the current board leaders are placing a higher priority on preserving the status quo than on improving the college. And these supporters express some frustration that Fantasia could have been hired six months ago without enough discussion between him and board leaders about the president's role and trustees' expectations.

The Deep Springs changes come at a time that a number of nontraditional colleges are facing difficulties. Antioch University last year announced plans to suspend operations of Antioch College, although currently the university is negotiating with college supporters to make it an independent institution. Pacific Oaks College is in the middle of a debate in which some professors and alumni believe the administration is intent on eliminating the institution's progressive ideals. And New College of California is considering filing for bankruptcy.

David Neidorf, dean and vice president of Deep Springs, has been appointed acting president.

 

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