Antioch College to Suspend Operations (Probably)

University announces its belief that negotiation of a possible transfer of control aren't far enough along to stay open next academic year.
February 25, 2008

Once again, it looks like Antioch College won't be operating in the fall. Antioch University's Board of Trustees announced Friday that it had "reconfirmed" plans to shutter the undergraduate institution in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for several years of planning on how to revive the institution academically and financially. That's what the board first announced in June -- igniting fury from students, alumni and professors -- and leading to several proposals to keep the college operating.

Trustees said in June that the college lacked the students or resources to operate, and that there were no possible ways to keep it open. Facing both outrage and lawsuits, the board agreed first to negotiate with alumni leaders on plans to keep the college operating as part of the university. More recently, the board has been negotiating with a small group of alumni over plans to not only keep the college operating, but to make it independent of the university. That prospect has been particularly desirable to many fans of the college, who view it as a victim of a university structure that grew up around it and didn't appreciate it.

With the university's leaders saying that they didn't know how to manage the college -- and college supporters saying that they needed to be free of the university -- many hoped that the latest round of negotiations would yield a plan to keep the college going. While board leaders characterized the announcement as just affirming the status quo, many on the campus were deeply disappointed. About 100 students will now push to finish degrees this semester while another 100 must prepare to transfer -- and all faculty members need to look for new jobs.

The question for many is why the negotiations -- which both sides say are continuing in good faith -- haven't succeeded, and what will come next. Sources with knowledge of the negotiations say that sticking points have included control of the university's endowment and what financial compensation is appropriate for the college to provide to the university in return for its freedom from the university. These questions are extremely sensitive for both sides because the college is the historic base of the university and many of the donors coming forward to try to save it have made clear that their donations will go only to an independent institution, not to bolster the university. There are also signs that some students and alumni -- fed up with the pace of negotiations and with their secrecy (which would probably be standard at most institutions, but which is uncharacteristic for Antioch) -- will look again at protests, lawsuits and other strategies for keeping the college going.

Antioch 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 in Yellow Springs.

Known for leftist activism and student participation in governance, Antioch has a very loyal alumni body, but in recent years has had only a few hundred students on a campus designed for 2,700. A university structure grew up around the college, creating campuses from California to New England -- boosting total Antioch enrollment to around 5,000. Tensions have run high between college loyalists, many of whom blame the university for ignoring the college or subsuming its interests to the new campuses, and university officials, who say they have been trying hard to save the college.

In interviews Saturday, the chairs of Antioch University's board and of the alumni body trying to gain independence for the college both declined to discuss why negotiations hadn't concluded, but both also hinted at the difficulties in the talks and at the (slim) possibility that college operations might not have to end with the conclusion of this academic year.

Art Zucker, chair of the university board, said that Friday's announcement was "not a new decision" in that the board has said since June that barring some dramatic change, operations would need to be suspended. Even if an agreement takes place in the months ahead, he said, "it's felt by the administration that there might not be the right faculty and the right course structure even if everything went positively," he said. The announcement Friday was to encourage students and faculty to plan accordingly, he said.

At the same time, Zucker acknowledged that if the university turns the college over to its own board, that board might be able to do something not currently envisioned to prevent a suspension. "Perhaps that could be the case," he said.

As to why such a deal hasn't been reached, Zucker said that this is "a very complex financial transaction." He declined to comment on reports that the university wants some sort of payment for the college, but said that the negotiations were based on two goals. One is "full transfer" of the college, and the other is that "in this transfer, the university shall not be harmed."

Eric Bates, co-chair of the alumni group, said he didn't agree that it was impossible to envision the college operating next year. He acknowledged that "the clock is ticking," and that students and faculty members need to plan to be elsewhere. But he said that if an agreement materializes, alumni leaders see it as desirable to avoid a suspension of operations.

"If I were a student right now, I would make other plans," Bates said. "If in April or May or June or whenever, there is announced a plan that enables the college to keep operating, you can always come to Antioch," he said. Bates said that he believes an agreement that gives the college true independence will lead to an outpouring of donations that might create options to keep the college operating.

At the same time, he said that barring an agreement, the university is making that decision -- and has said it can't run the college. For the alumni leaders, he said, there is a balancing act. "We said all along that we've been in a position of wanting to give hope but not false hope," he said.

So if the university says it can't figure out how to keep the college open next year, and an alumni group has donors lined up who want to do just that, why isn't there a deal? "That's an excellent question," Bates said. "That's exactly what we think -- that this is good for the university, too."

Bates declined to comment on whether the university wants money from the college, but said this about the lack of a deal: "The generous answer would be that it's very complex. There are a lot of assets involved, a lot of details involved, what goes where. How do you make sure that the university isn't financially harmed in the transfer of those assets? That's harder than it sounds."

There is also another challenge, he said.

"The people who are negotiating this deal for the university -- this is not their preferred choice of how things would play out. These are people who believe in the university and want the university to continue," he said. While they have come to the negotiations to try this approach sincerely, it is "to their credit" that they are there but also true that they "are being asked to negotiate something that is not really the outcome they would like to see."

For the alumni, he said, "it's easy for us to be at the table because this is the outcome we want."

Bates stressed, however, that the financial contributions his group is making (and encouraging from others) will happen only with independence. "The whole reason we're having these discussions is the only way to really get contributions flowing by alums is a structure where it's very clear that all of that money is going to and for the college," he said.

For now, he said, people need to be patient. "I know that it's enormously difficult for everybody in the Antioch community to have to sit by and be told month after month that they can't be told anything," he said. "The level of anxiety and distress that provokes is extreme and understandable and it breeds all kinds of speculation."

On campus and in student and alumni e-mail discussions, all kinds of ideas are being discussed. One main point of contention is whether to hope the alumni group can secure a deal or to assume that won't happen and to resume some combination of protests and lawsuits to try to force the university to change course. Organizers aren't ready to tip their hands, but some who had high hopes for a deal by now to give the college independence were clearly frustrated and angry.

The Blaze, a student publication at Antioch, has gone so far as to organize discussions about creating "Antioch in Exile" in which courses would be taught off campus if the university doesn't permit the college to operate. A statement from the Blaze on this plan says: "We refuse to accept what has been handed down to us. We want to secure the spirit of the current community and enable it to be passed on to the next generation of Antiochians. We are not ready to let it die!"

Tim Noble is an alumnus who has been involved with The Antioch Papers, an effort to post leaked documents about the college online, in an attempt to argue that university leaders are responsible for the college's difficulties. Noble said it was time to stop negotiations with the university and to explore legal and other ways to challenge the university. The reason many people have supported the negotiations was the belief that they might prevent a suspension of operations, and the university is now taking that off the table, he said. "The university is clearly more interested in its financial well being" that making a deal, he said.

Added Noble: "This process has been exceedingly closed, in a particularly non-Antiochian way, and it has helped the university stall all progress, and has allowed them to run out the clock."


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