Antioch U. Trustees Reject Plan to Save College and Offer to Sell It

Board says proposal wasn't financially responsible. Alumni and donors blast board and plan to try to operate the college by themselves.
March 31, 2008

Negotiations to keep Antioch College running after this academic year collapsed last week, ending for now a chance at what many believed was the best possible way to preserve the institution. The board of Antioch University, of which the college is a part, rejected a plan under which a group of alumni would have purchased the college and its assets. The board said that the plan put forward didn't do enough to protect the financial interests of the university -- while alumni leaders accused trustees and administrators of obstructing a deal. As a result, the university will move ahead with plans to eliminate the jobs of all faculty members and most other employees at the college.

Alumni and faculty members are now planning a series of suits against the university, while also trying to move the college off-campus to a new "Nonstop Antioch" in which professors would continue students' education without the imprimatur of the university. But more legal fights could be ahead, especially if the new institution uses the name "Antioch."

And in an additional complication, university officials said over the weekend that if another buyer for the college emerged -- willing to pay for the college with cash immediately and willing to let the university keep Antioch's NPR stations -- a sale was still possible. This prompted a mock ad on Craigslist that said: "Antioch College no longer holds any substantial meaning or value to its Board of Trustees, beyond what it can be sold for on the open market. Offers by alumni groups promising to operate the college in a continuous manner, beholden to its traditional values of openness and academic freedom are particularly loathsome. Real Estate developers with proven military-industrial success are preferred. Contact the Board of Trustees at their Corporate Headquarters in Yellow Springs for more info."

The disintegration of the rescue efforts for which many had high hopes was announced Friday, and followed months of intense negotiations to try to save the college. In June, the university's board announced that it would be impossible to continue running the college after this academic year and that it would be shuttered for several years while funds were raised for it and curricular and other changes were considered. The Yellow Springs, Ohio, college is the best known part of the university, but for years now has enrolled only a small minority of its students, as new non-residential campuses sprouted up around the country, generally focused on older students and operating without tenured faculty members. The original college is known for its progressive politics from the abolitionist era on and for education innovation, encouraging an active student role in shaping education and a mix of liberal arts and practical work experience long before such qualities were common.

Supporters of the college -- many of whom never liked the focus on the new campuses -- reacted with fury to the plans to close it, even temporarily. A series of efforts were started to preserve the college, and the effort that collapsed last week was viewed by many as the best possible outcome. A group of alumni raised money to purchase the college from the university -- a crucial shift because many alumni so distrust the university structure that they would give money only to an autonomous college.

A statement from the university said that negotiations fell apart because the alumni group, which offered to buy the college for $12.2 million, was able to provide only $6 million in cash immediately, and wanted to pay off the remaining sum over the next few years. The lack of security made the deal impossible for the board to accept because the university's creditors wouldn't have liked it, said the statement. (At least one trustee, however, reported that there was never a formal vote on the matter and that some trustees might well have accepted the condition.) The statement went on to pledge support for the revival of the college at some point in the future.

Leaders of the Antioch College Continuation Corporation disputed the board's statement. Eric Bates, co-chair of the group, called the board's statement "mostly incorrect" and said that he was "shocked" by it. Specifically, he said that his group had offered to use the physical campus of the college to back up its financial pledges, so that in fact the alumni had offered something of far more value than the funds it would have still owed the university.

"It's clear to us that the chancellor and the university negotiating team seemed far more interested in creating obstacles than in finding solutions," Bates said. "I think the trustees are allowing the best and perhaps only opportunity for Antioch to continue to pass them by, and that's tragic. They have treated the [alumni group] as a hostile agent." (While criticizing university trustees and leaders in the strongest language possible, some of it unpublishable, has become common for many Antioch College supporters, Bates' anger is notable as he has throughout the negotiations refused to criticize the university's leaders.)

Not only had the alumni group raised millions to buy the college and infuse it with funds, it had also recruited Frances Degen Horowitz, president emeritus of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, to work without pay to manage the hoped-for transition.

Art Zucker, chair of the university's board, said he shared the disappointment of the alumni leaders, but said that he hoped to work with them "to rebuild Antioch College." Asked how the university would raise money when the most generous donors have just said they would give only to an independent college and are furious at the rejection of their plan, Zucker said that "it's going to be difficult at first," but that he believed that "over time, we can build a renewed Antioch College of the future. It will take a couple, three or four years, but we're hoping people will still want to support it."

Bates is dubious. "The university has failed to be able to persuade alums that it deserves their contributions. That is part of what got the college to the place it is, and that is not going to change," he said. In fact, he said that because the university rejected a workable plan to preserve the college, alumni trust of the board is "drastically worsened."

In a sign that the only way alumni will give money is if they can gain control of the board, the alumni group on Sunday went public with an offer to give $10 million to Antioch immediately in return for 10 of the 19 seats on the university's board. The alumni group said that trustee donations have been minimal and this infusion of funds would be another way to keep the college open. A university spokeswoman said that the board had not seen the latest statement and so had no response.

Some alumni, students and professors are now moving ahead with plans for Nonstop Antioch to keep the college running, away from university control. Ellen Borgersen, acting president of the College Revival Fund, said she had hoped that the negotiations would succeed but that the resolve of college supporters was stronger than ever now that the university trustees had acted.

Borgersen called the trustees' decision "outrageous" and said that they had dragged out the process without intending to sell the college. "These people have proven themselves over many years to be grossly incompetent at best and very possibly disloyal to the very core of what Antioch College is supposed to stand for," she said.

When plans for Nonstop Antioch originally surfaced, many hoped it would only be needed for a few months, as negotiations were completed for a turnover of the college. Borgersen said that she still hopes Nonstop Antioch is temporary and that one of the lawsuits will force the university to keep the college running, or that the board will change its mind about the college. But she said that alumni and faculty leaders are prepared, if necessary, to work to convert Nonstop Antioch into a new institution if that's the only way to keep the college's ideals going.

Zucker, the university board chair, indicated that if the new institution uses the college name in any way, there could be additional legal action. "Once faculty have completed their contracts with the institution, they are welcome to do whatever they want with their lives. We can't inhibit that," he said. "At the same time, the Antioch name is the property of the university. So I don't know what might or might not be done. There is some concern that others, not associated with the university, would use the trade name."

Asked if that meant that the university would sue Nonstop Antioch, Zucker said that he "would expect" some action if the Antioch name is used.

Borgersen said it was shameful for the university to claim the name. "I do not accept that this Board of Trustees has any right to the Antioch name," she said. "They are trying to build a University of Phoenix clone out of the ashes of Antioch College and we will not let that happen."


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