Who Should Control Antioch?

After announcing resignation, president of college calls for autonomy from university -- giving new force to governance debate.
July 30, 2007

Ever since Antioch University announced plans last month to suspend the operations of Antioch College, Steve Lawry has been a man in the middle.

As president, he had pushed hard to raise money to keep the college going and was seen as a strong advocate for the college -- the storied liberal arts institution known for its progressive values and co-op program -- within the university. Many students, alumni and faculty members who distrust the university's chancellor and board trust Lawry, even though he didn't explicitly break with the university administration. He was expected to play a key role in planning the college's revival, while helping current students and employees adjust to the college's disappearing for several years.

Lawry's role changed on Thursday, when he announced that he was resigning, effective at the end of the year -- and called for the college to have its own board. By itself, calling for the college to have its own board may not seem significant: The university's chancellor has talked about the idea of creating boards for the college and other units of the university.

But in an interview Friday, Lawry was explicit about the powers that he believes the board for the college needs: full control over the budget, endowment, curriculum and the hiring and firing presidents. Without that control, he said he believes that plans to revive the college at some future point in time won't attract donations and are doomed to fail.

"Skeptical alumni will not give financial support until the college is governed by a properly empowered board," Lawry said. In taking that approach, he was largely endorsing the views of alumni who have been raising money that they say they will not give to any entity controlled by the university.

In a separate interview Friday, Toni Murdock, chancellor of the university, reiterated her belief that the college needs its own board, but also stressed that regardless of how much power is delegated, key decisions would be made in concert with her, and final authority would rest with the university's board. "We are one corporation and all the assets are owned by one corporation," she said.

Their differences over governance are coming at a crucial time for Antioch. The university is trying to take new steps to persuade dubious alumni to trust the board. For example, the university is planning a series of Webcasts at which financial information about the decision to suspend the college will be shared.

Those efforts do not appear, at least yet, to be winning over many of the angry alumni. And a new dispute may further damage relations. Reports are circulating on the campus that Antioch University will shutter the Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom, a center for which the late civil rights leader and Antioch alumna gave permission to use her name. People involved in the creation of the center in 2005 say that King was specifically promised that the center's future would be secure -- and some see the uncertainty about the center's future as a betrayal of King and of the college's values.

Questions of Governance

Antioch was founded in 1852, with Horace Mann serving as its first president, and for most of Antioch's history, the college was the institution. The college played a role in the abolitionist movement and was an early institution to admit students who were women or black. In the past few decades, however, Antioch became a university, opening campuses around the country, and a distance education unit as well. Unlike the college, these units are not residential, not focused on undergraduates, and do not have a system of tenure. These campuses have attracted students -- boosting total Antioch enrollment to 5,000, only a few hundred of whom are enrolled at the college, in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

As the university has grown, it has remained governed by a single board. Trustees and university administrators say that by nurturing the new campuses, the board has spread Antioch's philosophy and promoted financial stability. But many at Yellow Springs believe that the board spends so much time on the other campuses that it ignored the heart of the institution, setting up the current crisis in which the board says that there is not enough money to keep the college going.

In the interview Friday, Lawry said that there is a direct relationship between the university's governance and the decision to suspend the college's operations.

"I don't think there's any question about that. This board is limited in its ability to really focus in a direct way on the needs and problems of any of the campuses. So I think that there's evolved a kind of detachment," he said.

He stressed that he believes such a change would help all of Antioch's programs, not just the college. And -- based on fund raising work and discussions he has had with hundreds of alumni -- he was firm that a separate board for the college would not work if it reported to a universitywide board.

For Antioch College to come back, he said, a new board needs to attract a certain caliber of trustee "willing to give time and money." Having approached such people, he said, "if those powers are shared or retained ultimately by the university board, you are not going to attract people to the board."

Asked about an appropriate role for the university central administration and board, Lawry said he could see roles in supervising a joint Ph.D. program in leadership that was recently created involving multiple campuses, or looking for ways that the different campuses might collaborate.

Lawry declined to discuss in detail the discussions he had with Antioch University leaders and trustees prior to the university board's decision to suspend the college's operations. But several sources who were parties to those discussions confirmed that Lawry had a plan -- shot down before the meeting at a session with the chancellor and the heads of the other campuses -- that would have avoided suspending operations by making budget cuts and raising more money, in part through the governance changes Lawry is now advocating in public.

The analysis Lawry offers about governance is consistent with what critics of the university's central administration have been saying for years -- although it may carry more weight coming from someone who had had a position of real authority at the institution.

Susan Eklund-Leen, a professor of cooperative education, said she was pleased that Lawry is going public with the depth of his concerns about governance, and she called it "critical" that the college president report to a college board, and not a central administration. "Right now, everything from the president of the college for the board is filtered through the chancellor, and at this point, it's safe to say that the university administration is not supportive of the college," she said.

Eklund-Leen said that she was concerned about the impact of Lawry leaving. "With Steve's departure I worry more about the coming year than I had previously. With the messages we have received from the board and the university administration I feel like we've lost our only ally."

Murdock, the chancellor, said she agreed that the university has grown in ways that make it hard for a single board to provide enough leadership for all of the campuses. She said boards for individual campuses would have "a huge responsibility for fund raising" and that they would probably make curricular and presidential hiring decisions, although these would be "in coordination with the chancellor."

While Murdock said that university leaders believe that some power must be delegated, she referred to the campus boards under consideration as "quasi governing boards" and said that "there would still be one oversight board." She also stressed that the university's board is just starting to consider these ideas, and has not made any final decisions.

Murdock rejected Lawry's view that alumni will not get behind Antioch College fund raising if the college reports to a university board. "I know Steve feels very strongly about that, but I'm not of the same thought," she said.

"I have been in contact with other alums, who do not hold [a separate board] as their priority," Murdock said. These alumni, she said, "believe that because the college has had such a difficult history in balancing their budget, managing their funds, that there is a feeling that there needs to be greater oversight in order to assist them to try to reach an area of sustainability."

The Coretta Scott King Legacy

As Antioch debates governance, it is also considering the fate of various parts of the campus -- and of the Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom, which was created to provide programs to promote diversity. King features prominently in the college's materials about itself, testimony to Antioch's record of educating black women when relatively few non-historically black colleges did so. King and her family carefully guarded use of her name, and she agreed to have her name associated with the Antioch program only after extensive discussions.

Many of those involved with those negotiations believed that King was explicitly promised that the program was secure -- which she specifically asked about because Antioch's financial difficulties were well known at the time of the negotiations.

Dana Patterson, director of the center, confirmed Friday that she has been told by Antioch officials that unless she is able to quickly raise a lot of money, the King center will "go offline with the college" when the college's operations are suspended next years. The future of the center would depend on the college, she said. Patterson, who is new in her job, was not involved in the negotiations with King.

Barbara Winslow, an alumna who was a donor to the center and formerly was an Antioch trustee, said that the potential closing of the King program made her "even more distraught" than she already was about the suspension of the college. "The commitment of our college to civil rights may be symbolized by Coretta Scott King," said Winslow, a professor of education and women's studies at Brooklyn College. "The college's historic commitment to civil rights and racial justice is so enormous. To the outside world, this looks like questioning the college's commitment to its past."

Paula A. Treichler is the Antioch trustee who was designated to lead the delegation that spoke with King about the center. Treichler, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is not only an Antioch alumna, but grew up around the campus, as her parents taught there. Her mother was King's adviser.

Treichler said she was "deputized" by the board to reassure King, who was worried about "the instability" at the college. With the full support of the university, Treichler said she told King that "her name and the center would be protected." Treichler said she saw the King programs as a perfect fit for Antioch and Yellow Springs, once a key stop on the Underground Railroad.

In not assuring the center's future, she said that Antioch leaders have "betrayed" the promise they made to King.

Murdock, the chancellor, said that the university "really hasn't made a decision" on the King center. She said she would like to work "to determine whether we can keep it operating and sustainable and look at it in terms of how the university could serve the center, and how the center could serve the university until we re-open the college. We really need to talk about it -- and see if there is a role that the center can serve at the university."

Asked whether the university had made commitments to King, Murdock said that "we need to get our legal counsel to see what the documents state. We haven't looked at that issue yet."

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