Revived Antioch Gets a President

Mark Roosevelt, who earned praise for leading Pittsburgh schools, says he was drawn by the college's mission and history.
October 18, 2010

The new Antioch College, which is currently accepting applications for its first class as a revived institution, has named its first permanent president: Mark Roosevelt.

Roosevelt has had a career in both government and education. A great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, he was involved for many years in Massachusetts politics as a Democrat, serving in the legislature and losing a race for governor in 1994. He has been widely praised for his work in his current position, superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, where he has pushed through reforms, landed major foundation grants, and been credited for promoting good working relations among various parties that had in the past bickered to the point of stalling progress.

His skills in fund-raising and consensus-building are both likely to be key in his new job, which he will start after the first of the year.

The original Antioch was founded in 1852, with Horace Mann 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 such as Clifford Geertz, Stephen Jay Gould and Coretta Scott King.

But the last decade has been difficult for the college, with enrollment dropping, funds perpetually short and increasing tensions between the liberal arts college and a university that grew up around it (and controlled it) as Antioch created branch campuses around the country. The board of Antioch University in 2007 announced plans to shutter the college, setting off an extended fight over control of the college -- with an alumni group eventually winning the right to create a new Antioch on the Yellow Springs campus -- although the college was shut down and its faculty dismissed.

In an interview Sunday, hours after he was named president, Roosevelt said that "mission" was the single factor that most drew him to Antioch. "I really admire the history of the school and the role it has played in liberal arts education in America," he said. "This is an extraordinary opportunity to work with an institution with this incredible history and an opportunity to shape an innovative, very modern approach to what liberal arts education will look like."

He said that he envisioned "lots of what was Antioch being retained," including a commitment to liberal arts, the co-op program and "a form of community governance." He also said that he saw tenured faculty as part of what would evolve at Antioch, but noted that the original faculty will be few in number.

Antioch's students, faculty and alumni are known for passionate commitment to the college -- and the expectation is that those on the campus will debate all key issues and play a real role in decision-making. To many Antioch alumni, that tradition of self-governance is a crucial part of the college's legacy -- and one that is uncommon in American higher education today.

Asked if his reference to "a form of self-governance" was a suggestion that Antioch needed a new approach to this issue and to the expression of dissent, Roosevelt was deliberate with his words.

"I think Antioch was always, for both good and ill, a very active, tumultuous place," he said. "I think it drew its strength from that, and it drew its kind of individual nature from that, and perhaps that also had its downsides. There is going to have to be a careful weighing of how much disturbance is productive. But I would not quickly say that disturbance is something Antioch shouldn't have. It has created the energy and drama that propelled so many Antioch graduates to be particularly interesting and successful people."

He added that "in forging a new Antioch, one has to be careful to respect even some of the messy things" about the college's history.

One of the key questions that will face Roosevelt is whether to rehire those faculty members from the closed college who lost their jobs and who have not moved elsewhere or retired. Some alumni and others have called on the college to do so, but the interim team leading the college has declined to make a commitment.

Roosevelt said it was too early for him to take a stand on that question. He said it was important to remember that the college is, "as a legal structure, not a succeeding institution" but a new one. But he said that he has "enormous respect" for those faculty members who worked for the former college, and he called the question of their potential employment "a complex issue both legally and ethically." He said that he would "urge people not to draw lines in the sand on this issue."

A Harvard University alumnus (undergrad and law school), Roosevelt said that he still had much to learn about Antioch and its challenges. He said that he views the problems that the college experienced before it was shut down as primarily financial. When he visited the campus in advance of being named president, Roosevelt said, he was struck by the comment that he heard about the institution having been "chronically impoverished."

As a result, he said that fund raising will be his "No. 1 issue."

He said that, particularly at the beginning, support will have to come primarily from alumni, who he noted have "clearly shown their willingness" to support the college in their fight to preserve it in recent years. But he said that once the college can grow and show it is on solid footing, "the mission itself will be attractive to other funders and there will be lots of ways to seek funding from outside the Antioch base."


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