An Open Letter About Antioch's Future

March 18, 2008

In June 2007 my partner Paula Treichler and I attended a series of events at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Paula was on stage as a college alumna and member of the Antioch University Board of Trustees; I was in the audience as an alumnus and national president of the American Association of University Professors. The board had just announced that the college would close within a year. The message delivered by the chair of the board that day was clear: The college is hemorrhaging money; if we don't stop the flow, the whole university will die.

One may disagree with the financial analysis, taking issue, for example, with the impact of depreciation calculations on the college budget. One may wish the board had chosen a less drastic action, perhaps by issuing a challenge (with a deadline) to alumni and other donors. One may certainly insist that the faculty should have had an opportunity to offer alternative solutions. But the fact that the college was suffering financially was not in doubt.

In the months since, alumni have rallied dramatically, raising $18 million as a way to keep the college open while further solutions are sought. But many potential donors balked at supporting the six-campus
university. They wanted the college freed from the university structure. To break the deadlock, and on the board's recommendation, a group of nine distinguished alumni formed the Antioch College Continuation Corporation (ACCC) and offered to buy the college from the university.

Certainly one might say, as numerous alumni did, that the "purchase price" should be $1. After all, the potential buyer is neither Dow Chemical nor Dubai Petroleum. The ACCC is a group of alumni acting out of love for the college and willing to use their expertise and resources on its behalf. But others argue that the university has an obligation to guarantee its own robust future by extracting the maximum price possible from the transaction. Yet that position vitiates the argument the board put forward last June,
where the stated motivation was to avoid disaster, not maximize corporate profit. What has happened to the rationale publicly put forward in June?

The ACCC has taken a middle course, offering the university about $10 million dollars, motivated in part by the desire to assure the university's stability. Raising more money from other alumni is not an option: They are interested in donating to the college, not the university. So the members of the ACCC have come up with the $10 million themselves. They have also submitted a provisional though detailed financial and operational plan for the future; only one of us knows its details, and they are confidential, but the bare fact of its existence is not.

The offer from the ACCC presents an extraordinary opportunity to the university Board. The careers of current faculty, staff, and students are at stake. The Antioch legacy thousands of us carry in our hearts hangs in the balance. Now the board, paradoxically, has the chance to join the heroes of the Antioch revival. The pain so many have internalized for months can be alleviated. The board may fairly claim its tough love challenged alumni to save the college. It can preserve tenure, rather than abolishing it. It can
make the issue of financial exigency moot. All it has to do is accept the ACCC offer.

Only days ago Antioch University put its free speech heritage at risk by threatening legal action against "The Antioch Papers," a web site run by Yellow Springs community members as a place for faculty, staff, and their friends to share college history and respond to the current crisis. That is merely the most striking instance of a preoccupation with confidentiality. After publicly pledging "complete transparency" in June, the board chair immediately imposed an obsessive and hostile form of secrecy on all negotiations. There is the uneasy feeling the university has severed its connections with Antioch's values.

Accepting the ACCC offer can reverse that trend. Indeed, an amicable divorce may make it possible to share the children. The college and the university could write contracts to operate some programs jointly. Antioch Education Abroad is one obvious choice. Does this guarantee the college will be thriving a decade from now? No one can. Alumni and their friends will have to give as never before. But the ACCC has extensive fund-raising experience. The current board has neither given generously nor raised significant sums. The ACCC has already done both. Indeed its members have been traveling the country obtaining conditional donations -- conditional upon reestablishing Antioch as an independent residential liberal arts college with a tenured faculty. Long-term success will also require many hundreds of students to choose Antioch College as their undergraduate school. Plans are now being developed to achieve that

Meanwhile, the board has a stark choice: close the college immediately, or hand it over to alumni capable of keeping it open. Sufficient funds are in hand to keep the college operating next year and the year after. Extraordinarily accomplished people are working hard 24/7 to guarantee its long-term survival. It is a choice between certain death and hope. Both Paula and I trust the board will choose hope.


Cary Nelson teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He graduated from Antioch College in 1967 and is president of the American Association of University Professors.

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