A Deal to Revive Antioch

Path-breaking liberal arts college, shut down by university, will gain full independence with a plan to enroll students again in 2 years.
July 1, 2009

Antioch College is poised to come back.

On Tuesday, leaders of the college's alumni association and the Antioch University Board of Trustees -- which suspended operations of the college a year ago -- agreed on a plan to make the college fully independent of the university. The college will gain its campus, the endowment (about $19 million), the ability to use its name, and the literary journal The Antioch Review. Most important to many, the college will have its own board and will not answer in any way to the university. The college's alumni supporters will pay the university about $6 million in return for the assets being turned over.

Leaders of the college alumni group anticipate admitting a new class of students -- 100 at first -- in two years.

Before the process can move ahead, various regulators need to sign off on the plans, but approval is expected. The deal ends two years of intense negotiations to save the college -- a process that alternated between enthusiasm and recrimination as various efforts moved forward and fell apart. The negotiations were revived and advanced in recent months with help of the Great Lakes College Association, whose involvement was praised by both the university and the college for keeping the talks going.

Matthew Derr, who serves as chief transition officer for the college alumni team, said in a briefing Tuesday that the alumni board overseeing the transition is committed to reviving a college in the Antioch model -- mixing liberal arts education with career experiences. Further, he said that board members believed strongly in tenure for faculty members and expected to rehire some of those who lose jobs.

"We have our work cut out for us," he said. "There is a strong feeling on the part of the alumni that to do that swiftly, we need people with experience in the traditions of the college. That's a critical piece for us."

The intensity of feeling that has surrounded the question of the college's future reflects its significant -- and at times controversial -- role in American higher education.

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 female 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. The campus -- designed for 2,700 students -- saw fewer and fewer students enroll. 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.

Many at the college also for years resented the role of Antioch University, which came into being as the college launched branch campuses around the country. These campuses primarily offered graduate programs taught by non-tenured faculty members. A central administration and single board ran the college and the branch campuses -- and college supporters said that the board didn't pay enough attention to the college. When the board announced plans to suspend the college's operations, many supporters of the college denounced the trustees, saying that they had sacrificed the very heart of the institution.

The university will maintain its headquarters and its distance education arm in Yellow Springs. The remaining university endowment is about $3 million.

Art Zucker, chair of the university board, said that after the initial decision to suspend college operations, the university board had the "responsibility" to rebuild the college and wanted to do so. In explaining the decision to agree to make the college independent, Zucker said that "it became clear that the funding would have to come from alumni, and rightly or wrongly, we think wrongly, many of the alumni felt an antagonism toward the university, so we felt the best best was to ask the alumni association to take over."

Many alumni have pledged to up their donations to the college, post-independence. Derr said that one good thing that has come out of the turmoil of the last few years has been renewed activism and philanthropy by alumni on behalf of the college. As planning gets started on the revival, he said that support "is critical."


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