Salt in the Wounds at Antioch

After another round of negotiations that some thought would keep college open, university board rejects deal to do just that.
May 12, 2008

Almost a year ago, Antioch University's board announced a plan to shutter Antioch College for several years, saying that it lacked sufficient students or funds and needed a substantial overhaul. In the months since, proposal after proposal has surfaced to prevent the college from shutting down, and one after another, those proposals were killed.

It happened again Friday, with the announcement that a plan from an alumni group to donate $16 million and to gain 10 board seats (of a total of 19) had been rejected by the university's trustees. The announcement follows a similar impasse, announced in March. The latest collapse appears to make it a sure thing that -- barring legal intervention -- the university will proceed with its plans to close down the college and some alumni and professors will proceed with their plan to start offering an Antioch-style education off campus.

Supporters of keeping the college operating are pointing to Friday's news as evidence that the university's leaders never intended to negotiate in good faith to save the college. The vote to reject the idea came after an earlier, preliminary vote to accept the deal, according to alumni leaders and others familiar with events. In addition, alumni leaders note that the final offer they made and that was rejected appeared to have met numerous earlier demands by the board in terms of amount of money committed and protections for the parts of Antioch University beyond Antioch College.

“It almost defies belief that the trustees could reject this extraordinarily generous offer by a group of major donors,” said Eric Bates, co-chair of the Antioch College Continuation Corporation, the alumni group formed for the negotiations. "This was a win-win opportunity for the entire university, and the trustees squandered it.”

Bates and numerous other donors or would-be donors to the college have said that they do not trust the current board leadership and that they would not be willing to give to the college unless assured of a change in board control. The alumni announcement contrasted the pledges of $16 million with $25,000 in contributions this fiscal year from board members.

Paula A. Treichler, an Antioch alumna who last week left the Antioch board and who is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, blasted trustees for refusing to accept the deal. She said last week's vote "does violence to the college and its alumni, the Village of Yellow Springs, progressive higher education, and acceptable standards for the governance of academic institutions." She said that the university's chancellor, Toni Murdock, and "the uncritical trustees who have applauded her every move are living in a dream world of their own making," engaged in "bullying, fear-mongering, selective presentation of facts and figures, legal intimidation, self-righteous proclamation, and secrecy."

While the trustees have "won" the right to shut down the college, Treichler said that they will have done great damage to Antioch. "As the full story of these negotiations, hidden agendas, and
squandered opportunities emerges over the coming months -- and it will -- we will have to conclude that the actions and decisions of this university administration and this university Board of Trustees have been among the most unethical, academically and economically irresponsible, incompetent, and politically cowardly in the history of American higher education."

Part of the history-telling of the negotiations is taking place -- much to the consternation of the university's board, which has threatened a lawsuit -- on the Web site called The Antioch Papers, which features leaked documents about the university and the debate over the college. Fresh postings include the plan that was originally accepted and then rejected by the board.

While the current university board has not responded in detail to the various charges made on Friday, it did issue a statement confirming the vote to reject the alumni plan, an defending the general course of action taken by the university board. The statement said that the plan from the alumni "would have resulted int he forced resignation of existing university trustees and created an untenable leadership structure for the remaining five-campus university system nationwide." The board statement also said that the alumni proposal didn't have enough financial benchmarks to be viable -- even though the alumni group pointed to very specific pledges on when money would be delivered.

To many Antioch College alumni, the board has been too focused on the university system and not on the college that was the first part of the university. In the board statement, Art Zucker, the chair, both asserted the board's commitment to the college and its need to think more broadly. "The spirit of Antioch lives on in Antioch University," Zucker said. "While we remain committed to renewing the operation of Antioch College in a workable model for the 21st century, we continue to serve Antioch's education mission through the remaining five campuses unaffected by Antioch College's temporary closing."

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 at the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus. Antioch was particularly notable in that the education was focused on the liberal arts, and the college was known for turning out graduates who went on to play major roles in intellectual life and social activism, people like Clifford Geertz and Stephen Jay Gould and Coretta Scott King.

More recently, however, Antioch’s history has been more troubled and sometimes controversial. The campus — designed for 2,700 students — has seen fewer and fewer students. The college’s long association of liberal politics attracted more students in the ’60s than 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.

While the university has created campuses from California to New England — boosting total Antioch enrollment to around 5,000 — that development has worried many supporters of the undergraduate liberal arts college. These supporters felt that the attention of the board shifted too far away from the undergraduate institution that once was Antioch. While board leaders and the chancellor have repeatedly stressed the importance of the campuses outside Yellow Springs, alumni of that college have questioned whether the institution would still be Antioch without its historic center. With the university saying it will operate without the college for at least a few years, and with defenders of the college vowing to set up their own operations, the fight over Antioch's legacy and mission seems likely to continue.


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