Antioch University announced Tuesday that it would suspend operations of its main undergraduate college -- which has played a historic role in American higher education -- at the end of the next academic year. All of the approximately 40 faculty members teaching at the college will lose their jobs. Antioch's other campuses, which focus on graduate programs and nontraditional students, will continue.
Antioch's official announcement  said that the college could reopen as soon as 2012, in some new form. But in an interview Tuesday evening, the university's chancellor used "if" to describe a prospective reopening. And several people at the college said that they were not sure how the financial problems could be solved and the campus rebuilt in a few years.
Low enrollment and a small endowment were blamed for the decision. For the coming fall semester, 125 new students had been expected, which would have brought total enrollment to just over 300.
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.
Tullisse Murdock, chancellor of the university, said Tuesday that the board was very sad about its decision, but felt it had no viable option to offer a high quality education. "Liberal arts institutions are tuition dependent and endowment dependent," she said, and Antioch lacks not only enough students, but enough money (the endowment is about $30 million). The campus, she said, "has a tremendous amount of deferred maintenance" that also needs to be fixed.
Murdock said that the board was committed to trying to reopen and to doing so in Yellow Springs, but she acknowledged that "you can't guarantee anything."
The university's board declared financial exigency, clearing the way for the faculty members to lose their jobs. Students will be educated this year and will be helped to finish up at other Antioch campuses or to transfer. Murdock acknowledged that for the 125 new students, they will be receiving this news just weeks after they put down deposits and in some cases turned down other colleges. But Murdock said that the board was "watching enrollment numbers carefully," hoping to find another way to deal with the problems.
A team of scholars -- some from Antioch and some from outside -- will work to develop a new plan for the college and a new curriculum that might attract more students if the college reopens, she said.
Eli Nettles, assistant professor of mathematics and associate dean of of the faculty, was among the 15 or so faculty members who were on campus Tuesday (during a between term period) and who were told in person that the college was being shut down and that they would lose their jobs. "I don't think anybody thought this could happen," she said. "There were tears. There were people shocked. A lot of our faculty were students here. They came back after they got their Ph.D.'s -- this is the only place they wanted to be," she said.
Even as she faces unemployment, Nettles said that she does not blame the current leadership of the college or university. "We didn't use our money well 30 or 40 years ago," she said, and so the college never saw its endowment or fund raising base grow as it needed, leaving the current leaders without any good options. "You cannot be a small liberal arts school that is this tuition-driven," she said. "Every time we lost a student, we felt it. If we'd had more money to work with, it would have been easier to deal with."
Other faculty members are more critical.
David LaPalombara, a professor of art, said that there was no doubt that the decision "could have been avoided," and that there are "a lot of responsible persons who could have done something." While he said he did not want to name names, he said that the Board of Trustees had responsibility.
He said it was difficult to envision how the money would now flow in. "It's hard to imagine supporters of Antioch ever wanting to give money now to whatever the future of Antioch is."
"I think this is a tragedy. This is a school with 150 years of illustrious history that is apparently over," he said.
LaPalombara recently accepted a job at Ohio University, but he said he had no idea that the college would be shut down and that he is as stunned as everyone else.
The idea that deferred maintenance and physical plant were being discussed as key problems bothered LaPalombara. "We've always been a little rough around the edges," he said.
Chad Johnston graduated in 2001 and is among the alumni who have been worrying about the college closing and monitoring the situation through a group called Save Antioch.  He too said that university officials shouldn't be focused on buildings.
"Look at photos from the '40s and '50s. The facilities were always needing work," he said. "But there was a simple eloquent beauty in that at this school, you learned what it meant to run an institution and to survive."
During his time at the college, Johnston said, he saw the student role in governance diminished, and more authority shifted from the college to the university -- changes he said paved the way for Tuesday's news. "It's been a downward spiral of college autonomy," as the university focused more on its far flung campuses, which he acknowledged brought in money. He said it angered him to see the university focus on these regional campuses for financial reasons, while still using the Horace Mann legacy, prominently using a Mann quote -- "be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity" -- on those campuses' Web sites, while letting Mann's legacy in Yellow Springs disappear.
All afternoon, he said, he has been e-mailing and on the phone with Antioch alumni all over the world who are devastated and angered by the news.
Antioch is about social justice, he said, not making money, so the college should have stayed the institution's top priority. "Of course it's a struggle" for the college to manage financially, he said. "But it's always a struggle to be a liberal arts college and to do some radical things for education."