James Russell is taking a leap of faith.
The 23-year-old Texan, who left a traditional college and has been working as a journalist, is moving to Yellow Springs, Ohio, this week to be one of the 35 new students who will bring life to Antioch College’s Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus next week after a three-year lull in operation.
“It’s very risky what we are doing, as Antioch has made very clear that no one has really done this in higher education,” Russell said. “But I’ve always been a risk-taker, and I’m honored to have this privilege.”
Antioch University announced it was closing the system’s main campus in June 2007 due to flagging enrollment and stagnant funds. The liberal arts college was founded in 1852 and has been known as a hub for progressive thinkers. But as the Ohio campus began to falter and branch campuses around the country flourished, university system leaders closed Antioch College. This prompted a fight between university administrators and alumni, which led to the college's upcoming reopening as an independent institution.
And now as the college is poised for freshman orientation in just a few days, President Mark Roosevelt said the time off has given administration and faculty the chance to create a sustainable economic model. Roosevelt said the college has about $50 million in its endowment, but still has to be creative as it moves toward a financially stable future. The college is seeking out partnerships with other area colleges for cost efficiency and focusing heavily on fund-raising to ensure long-term success, he said.
“Starting new gives us a great opportunity to do that,” Roosevelt said. “The toughest part of doing that is not only deciding who we are, but who we are not. We cannot be everything to everybody.”
Sustainability is a major theme for the college as it reopens, he said. With six full-time professors and a number of adjunct instructors on board, the curriculum will mirror the Antioch of years past, while also striking out on a new path. “Antioch has done this before, we’ll do it again,” Roosevelt said. “This is a finessing process, and at times folks will be very enamored of something that was that is not still.”
Horace Mann, education innovator and abolitionist, served as the college's first president. It produced students who would go on to play a role in social activism and intellectual advances, with alumni including Clifford Geertz, Stephen Jay Gould and Coretta Scott King. In the early 20th century, it made waves with its “co-op education,” requiring students to alternate study terms on campus with job terms spent working all over the country.
But in recent years, Antioch University opened non-residential campuses in places including Los Angeles, Seattle and New England. And when the university’s board of trustees announced it was shuttering operations at the main campus in Ohio, Antioch College alumni fought back.
After rounds of negotiations, the alumni group wrested control of the Ohio campus in 2009, gaining independence from the university system and purchasing the college’s assets for $6 million.
New curriculum features of the newly independent college require students to take interdisciplinary global seminars focused on sustainability issues, design individualized majors and complete a rigorous language component. But the Antioch education alumni are familiar with still runs strong through the curriculum, Roosevelt said.
Students will work at co-op jobs for several terms, but this time around they will be required to do their final job assignment abroad or in a multicultural setting that pushes them to use their language skills. It also sports nontraditional academic departments and a strong focus on working in the community.
Hassan Rahmanian, vice president for academic affairs, spent more than two decades at Antioch before it closed. Working with faculty on the new curriculum as the college prepares to open has been an emotional experience, he said.
“Antioch means more than just a job or teaching at a place,” Rahmanian said. “I think there is a lot of strong building of humanity that takes place. I’m glad that I’m part of this new journey.”
He said he will look to the class of 2015 to be the next generation of Antioch leaders in whatever field they choose to study. All 35 students are Horace Mann Fellowship award winners, which covers full tuition for all four years. Sixteen of the students have completed some college coursework; 18 speak a foreign language and are from as far as Mexico and as close as Antioch's home state of Ohio. The college lists next year's tuition, with room and board factored in, at $35,702.
Christian Feuerstein, a 1994 Antioch graduate, was a member of the alumni group that fought to bring Antioch College back. She said it’s a dream come true to see her alma mater open again, but, to be honest, “I’m really irritated that I’m not an 18-year-old right now,” she said.
“I’m extraordinarily excited by the curriculum,” Feuerstein, who is now in publishing, said. “Keeping a global eye on things is exactly what Antioch, in my opinion, needs to do.”
Feuerstein said the intimate setting for this year’s inaugural class is both good and bad. Students will have the chance to really shape the college’s future, but they also have the hopes and dreams of countless alumni weighing on their shoulders.
“It’s going to be a very interesting ride, but like a number of things Antiochian, it’s a situation that doesn’t really exist anywhere else,” she said. “Having said that, there is nothing else this exciting in the higher education landscape.”
On top of alumni dreams, Roosevelt said he expects the new students to be active participants in reshaping the college — self-governance being a trait Antioch students have long held. “We don’t expect them to be passive participants in their education,” he said.
But with this also comes a “leap of faith” from the students, as Antioch continues down the path to accreditation, which Roosevelt hopes to acquire after the first year of operation.
Russell — who plans to study anthropology, literature and political economy as part of his self-designed journalism track — is ready to be a part of the diverse inaugural class of the newly reopened Antioch.
His wish? To help make Antioch last, “so we don’t have Antioch 8.0 or 9.0,” he said.
“The culture is part of a legacy, but the reality is what we present to our students next week. The reality of how we treat each other and how we are thinking about our education and our courses and our interactions with each other will be an example for our students,” Rahmanian said. “I hope we can practice what we preach.”