It can't be called a reprieve, at least not yet. But for the first time since the June announcement that Antioch College's operations would be suspended after the coming academic year, the Antioch University Board of Trustees is on record saying that there might -- and the key word is might -- be a way to keep the college operating.
The board released a statement Monday saying that it had agreed to give alumni leaders until October to develop a business plan that would demonstrate the "financial and academic feasibility" of keeping the college running. For now, the plan to suspend operations and the declaration of financial exigency for the college remain in place. But the board is now willing to consider a new plan in October that would not involve a suspension of operations. The board's willingness to even consider a change of course follows two months in which board leaders have said that there could not be any realistic plan to keep the college running -- but those two months have also seen Antioch College's alumni base mobilize, raise money, and demand more control over the college, which they fear has not been well managed by the university and its board.
Recent relations between the university board and the college's supporters have been tense, at best. But Monday's announcement appeared to signal a cease fire, with both sides speaking respectfully of the other and hopeful that the college's operations might not be suspended.
Antioch has a notable history in American higher education. It was founded in 1852, with Horace Mann serving as its first president. The college played a role in the abolitionist movement and was an early institution to admit students who were women or black. In the 20th century, Antioch was among the pioneers in “co-op education” in which students alternated positions of work all over the country with their education at the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus. More recently, however, Antioch’s history has been troubled and sometimes controversial. The campus -- designed for 2,700 students -- has seen fewer and fewer students, such that only 300 were expected this fall, before the suspension announcement.
The college’s long association of liberal politics attracted more students in the ’60s than in the ’90s, when a policy requiring explicit verbal consent before any sexual act made the college a favorite target of pundits seeking to mock political correctness. In recent decades, the college that to many is the heart of the institution played a less central role in the university, which created campuses from California to New England -- boosting total Antioch enrollment to around 5,000. But with that growth, many college alumni and professors came to believe that the attention of the board had shifted too far away from the undergraduate institution that once was Antioch.
In an acknowledgment of the tensions over how the college fits into the university, Monday's board announcement said that trustees had also approved plans "to consider the possibility of establishing a board of trustees for Antioch College with significant authority within the framework of a larger Antioch University." Just how significant that authority would be remains to be seen and could be a key issue in the weeks ahead. Supporters of the college have said that it needs a board with just about total authority -- control of top appointments, the endowment, the budget -- while university officials have talked about the need for all decisions to ultimately be reviewed by the university board.
Nancy Crow, president of the Antioch College Alumni Board, said she believed that her group's plans -- which focus on increased fund raising and student recruitment, and governance reforms -- can be viable. "I consider this very significant," she said. The announcement "offered hope for uninterrupted operations" at the college, she said.
Crow said that trustees clearly appreciate "not just the passion, but the the real thoughtfulness" of alumni who have pushed to keep the college open. She stressed that the goal was not a one-time fix, but a plan that would sustain the college indefinitely. "We're playing for the long term," she said.
Mary Lou LaPierre, vice chancellor and chief spokeswoman for the university administration, stressed that much remains uncertain. She said that the alumni who have been pushing to keep the college open have not had full access to the college's financial records, which they will now receive to help them. At the same time, she said, specific benchmarks will be developed to be sure that any plan is realistic in terms of keeping the college running. Those benchmarks will involve fund raising, budgets and student recruitment.
"If they show that this could be done, the board might make a different decision," she said. Board members are concerned about the long-term situation, LaPierre said. Trustees don't want to approve a plan that would "just keep it going from one year to another, from crisis to crisis."
Ultimately, she said, board members decided that they "had to give them a chance" to come up with a plan.
Timing remains a big issue. While courses are being offered this year, the college has expected students who aren't seniors to focus on transferring, while faculty members search for new jobs. Board members discussed timing "at great length," LaPierre said, given that people will need to make plans one way or another, and that the college can't recruit new students until it knows that there will be a place for them to enroll in the fall.
Crow said that the alumni chapters, which have been galvanized by the debate over the college's future, will be ready to shift immediately to student recruiting, should their plan to keep the college open be accepted.