Antioch: Report From Ground Zero

Paula Treichler, who recently resigned from the university's board, offers an inside look at the turmoil of the last year as trustees moved to close a beloved college.

July 10, 2008

Antioch University was given an advance copy of the following op-ed, with the permission of the author, and offered the chance to respond with its own statement that would have appeared simultaneously with the publication of this piece, so that the university could offer its views and analysis of the issues discussed. After initially indicating that it would do so, and confirming as late as Wednesday afternoon that it would do so, the university stopped returning calls or responding to e-mails about the op-ed piece and indicated through an outside public relations official that it would not respond at this time. At the same time, the university's lawyers sent a letter objecting to any use of the phrase "NonStop Antioch," the former name of an effort mentioned in this op-ed.

Hundreds of Antioch College alumni returned to Yellow Springs, Ohio for a reunion in June, and they packed Kelly Hall for the Alumni Board’s update on talks to save the college. Even as the Antioch University administration was proceeding with its plan to close the college at the end of the month, Antioch faculty took the stage to tell the audience about what was then being called "NonStop Antioch," an ambitious and indeed inspiring enterprise that will keep the Antioch spirit alive and in the village of Yellow Springs for the next two years: Without campus classrooms, dorms, or services, faculty will nevertheless design and teach courses in which students as well as community members will enroll while fund-raising staff work intensively with alumni to raise the money needed to reopen the college and begin its restoration to health. Several professors from surrounding colleges will teach NonStop courses and seminars gratis and individuals and organizations in Yellow Springs will provide teaching and study locations -- which they aren’t calling “classroom space” but “sanctuary.”

Longtime Antioch faculty member Hassan Rachmanian captured the spirit of the effort when he told the Kelly Hall audience that the university administration “may have taken the college’s body but we have its soul.” Ironically, the creators of this initiative cannot utter the words “NonStop Antioch” because the university has threatened legal action against any unauthorized use of the name “Antioch.” So old-fashioned call-and-response filled Kelly Hall: those on the stage shouted “NonStop!” and the audience, not subject to the university’s legal threats, roared back “Antioch!”

Some professors will offer their favorite courses. Others will create new courses designed to capitalize on Antioch’s co-op tradition as well as the town/gown relationship. In one such course, combining political science with investigative journalism, students will track the presidential election by conducting videotaped interviews in traditionally liberal Yellow Springs as well as in nearby Clark County, long considered a bellwether district in nationwide voting.

Inspiring as this weekend was, and brave as NonStop is, we have to ask: How did it come to this? How could the university’s Board of Trustees have decided to turn down three reasonable deals with great potential to save the college -- and at considerably less cost and effort than will now be required? As a board member from October 2001 until last month, I can offer my perspective on events since June 2007 and on what’s happening now.

As those who’ve been following the Antioch story know, the Antioch University Board of Trustees voted a year ago both to declare financial exigency at Antioch College and to suspend operations at the end of June 2008. Presented to the board by Toni Murdock, the university chancellor, the exigency and suspension recommendations were accompanied by a bleak financial analysis. I opposed both decisions, but an overwhelming majority of the board found the financial presentation indisputable.

The chancellor’s presentation also included a sweetener -- a plan to re-open the college in 2012. The plan had a couple of hitches: the chancellor would have to find corporate funding, and she and her “team” would direct the design of this “new Antioch College.” A lot of alums were skeptical the minute they heard “corporate funding” and “Antioch College” in the same sentence. And college faculty saw at once that the plan’s target date of 2012 would enable the university to terminate tenured appointments without violating AAUP requirements that faculty be rehired if the institution reopens within three years. (An earlier draft suggests that the plan’s original target date was 2011. If Murdock made the strategic change to evade AAUP censure, it would make sense. In her prior position as president of Antioch-Seattle, which like all of Antioch’s regional campuses operates without tenure, she had advocated eliminating tenure at the college and tried to ignore AAUP concerns about the dismissal of several Seattle faculty members.)

Last year’s reunion took place just two weeks after the board’s closure bombshell and elicited from alumni on behalf of their alma mater an outpouring of love and commitment that university administrators and board members had claimed did not exist. With 250 alums scheduled to attend, more than 600 showed up and turned the reunion into an old fashioned revival meeting that raised hearts, hopes, and more than $8 million dollars. Over the following year, alumni submitted a series of proposals to the trustees that sought to keep the college open, establish its autonomy from the university, and create an independent board. The critical argument was that alumni and other significant donors would support the college under conditions of independence but not when it remained within the university structure. Then on May 8 of 2008, the board rejected the last of these proposals, a move that most trustees must have hoped would finally bring this fraught and exhausting year to an end. But this wasn’t to be. When the board convened on June 5 in Keene, New Hampshire, trustees found campus advocates awaiting them with statements, arguments, petitions, and media packets, and promises of more to come. Unexpectedly, at the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to direct the Antioch Alumni Association to develop a plan to save the college that would include taking over its operations for good.

Thus this year’s reunion, too, came hard on the heels of a startling announcement from the Board of Trustees, and no one knew exactly what to think. While the June 2007 decision was the frustrated outcome of decades of heartache and hand-wringing by a series of boards about the college’s financial problems, this board’s vote in May 2008 to reject the last of the proposals not only acknowledged its own failure to solve those problems but also its stubborn determination to “stay the course” despite the massive re-engagement of alumni, the commitment of significant funds, and ongoing publicity critical of the university and the board. Though the board leadership spent incalculable hours and travel dollars in negotiations and acknowledged the college’s materially changed outlook, they treated the June 30, 2008 closure deadline like a holy grail. I joined the board in October of 2001. I resigned on May 7 this year, the day before that final negative vote, because I had violated the board’s cult-like oath of confidentiality that by then we were each required to renew at the beginning of every meeting and conference call. A number of trustees during the past year objected to the board’s secrecy, but largely in vain, and this helped doom all three plans to save the college. "Secrecy is for losers," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but secrecy was a winner in the decision to close Antioch.

Of course, just about every board that hasn’t adopted radical sunshine laws conducts some of its business in confidence, notably personnel matters and especially the hiring or firing of chief executive officers. But our board, as the year proceeded, enlarged the cone of silence to encompass just about everything we did short of picking turkey or veggies for lunch.

Was this destructive? Yes. It helped isolate board members at a time when we badly needed outside voices and independent expertise. Information technology, for example, was a fairly large line item in the university’s reckoning of college expenditures, but many campus community members said IT was a joke: Faculty, students, and even administrative staff told me that they often had to leave campus to find a functioning computer and Internet connection, and there seemed to be only one working copy machine available to the whole campus. A more serious discrepancy involved the role of the college’s assets in providing security for the university’s capital expenditures. Professors charged that the assets -- including the endowment -- were used as loan and bond collateral for buildings on the adult campuses, including Antioch-McGregor’s controversial building in Yellow Springs. The university administration and the board categorically denied this charge.

Ironically, the board’s commitment to “transparency” served to obscure such discrepancies. True transparency, if such a thing can be achieved, is fine: It aims to illuminate what is not readily visible, acknowledge and articulate competing interests, identify the historical and cultural contexts that have shaped divergent positions, and vigorously articulate counter-arguments and interpretations. True transparency means less control, more contradiction, more openness.

The board and administrative leadership and the university’s legal counsel repeatedly espoused and asserted transparency, with Exhibit A being the chancellor’s PowerPoint forecast of financial doom in June 2007. But as negotiations continued and pressures mounted, presentations became dogmatically non-transparent. They had their version of the truth and selected facts, arguments, and documentation to support it. Sometimes the efforts were laughable: With hundreds of alumni and others loudly protesting Antioch’s closure each week in letters, e-mails, and national media, and with Google Alert making updates immediately accessible, board members would be forwarded only expressions of support for their decision: An e-mail complaining about the college from an embittered 1980 alum, a letter from the pissed-off mom of a recent college drop-out, a George Will column. More disturbing were the memoranda prepared for us by the university’s lawyers with their relentlessly narrow and corporate interpretations of our fiduciary responsibility and duty of care, the nature of trusteeship, and our risk of personal liability. The chancellor at one point characterized the college’s alumni as “chaotic” because they do not speak with a uniform or unified voice. These cautionary directives from the university’s legal counsel, in contrast, were designed to promote a unified voice on the board.

In part as a result of this controlled information flow, most board members have known little of the chancellor’s behind-the-scenes aggressions against the college this past year. She would no doubt say she was just doing the job we told her to do: closing down the campus. At first it just seemed like coincidence that when events took a pro-college turn, the chancellor would scorch some campus earth. But after awhile these actions began to look deliberately and unnecessarily hostile. Or, at least with regard to the first example, just callous. Just after the June 2007 announcement of closure and the negative outcry in the local and national press, a homeland security simulation had been scheduled by one of the chancellor’s minions. To be held in beloved Olive Kettering Library on the Antioch campus, the scenario called for several Antioch students to simulate being dead; even the Yellow Springs cops thought that under the circumstances this was a tad insensitive and offered alternative space. No, said the minion, the SWAT team wanted to practice in the library stacks, so -- as documented in the film “Antioch Confidential” -- the simulation went forward.

At the end of August, the board, together with the university administration, scheduled two days in Cincinnati to hear testimony from most of the college’s constituencies. By the end of the meeting the board, quite moved by the presentations, voted all but unanimously to step onto the slippery slope and support the Alumni Association’s efforts to keep the college open. So that the alumni could assemble a proper proposal with fund-raising targets and a business plan, the chancellor was directed to share all necessary financial data and to help. I left that meeting optimistic and full of respect for my fellow board members who, it seemed to me, genuinely wanted this initiative to succeed. And Steve Lawry, president of the college, said he was satisfied with this turn of events and would now be able wholeheartedly to resume his visits to potential donors.

Within days came frantic phone calls and emails from Yellow Springs: the chancellor had returned from Cincinnati to campus, fired Steve Lawry, and prohibited contact with alumni and donors. She also, via the minions, sent home staff members in Alumni Development and Institutional Advancement, changed the locks on their office doors, and put automatic reply messages on their computers: “I am out of the office ‘til after Labor Day!” In other words, the chancellor took the steps that would most immediately and directly impede communication, development, and fund-raising activities, precisely the activities most urgently needed to complete the plan and save the college.

The minions then created a management-sanctioned alumni newsletter, as though the professional alumni development staff were irresponsible cranks: In place of the familiar graphic of the Antioch towers, alumni opened their e-mails to the inaugural issue of “Good News!” with its upbeat account of the “positive” and “collaborative” meeting in Cincinnati. Alumni, also receiving the “real” alumni newsletter from the college development staff as well as the Yellow Springs News and the Antioch Record online -- all with reports of what had already been dubbed the Labor Day Massacre -- were understandably astonished and outraged. Yet when they, and I myself as a board member, asked Art Zucker, the board chair, to account for these actions, he denied their significance and impact. He characterized Steve Lawry’s dismissal as the decision any responsible CEO might make, changing the locks as “standard operating procedure,” and campus reactions as “over-reactions.” A member of the board’s executive committee chided me privately for questioning the chancellor’s actions; she was “following our mandated process” and was quite in order to take control over an unruly college staff. Whenever you shut down a division, he added, “you gotta expect anxiety and fallout.” In this instance, and thereafter, “fallout” was rarely discussed formally by the board, but the leadership did start issuing regular statements of praise for the chancellor, while “the board’s mandated process” became a familiar mantra.

Then in November, following a regular board meeting in Yellow Springs that seemed to last forever, the board voted to lift the suspension of operations. Students rang bells in the campus towers, but the vote turned out to have changed nothing: With financial exigency still in place, the chancellor argued, there could be no student recruitment, no renegotiation with the Ohio Board of Regents of the college’s degree-granting and accreditation status, no extension of faculty positions or student graduation dates. The chancellor had her marching orders and it was her legal and fiduciary duty to honor the timeline, no matter how many bells were ringing. Legal counsel chimed in.

In a 2006 essay on communication at Antioch University (posted on the Antioch Papers Web site), the chancellor clearly expressed her preference for top-down, fully controlled communication, with everything authorized or supervised by the chancellor. So when the alumni leaders scheduled an open meeting to talk with the campus community, the chancellor wanted to close the campus to them, and to outsiders in general -- anyone who might foster the free flow of information and specifically deliver misleadingly hopeful messages about the college’s future. As one of the minions said, “Hope is creating the problem.” Trying to close the campus to the alumni leaders also reflected the university’s position that they were not a group of alumni but a rival corporation seeking to engineer a hostile takeover of the college. In the same spirit, the university even forced the Alumni Association to rent back its own campus buildings for this June’s reunion and, with dorms already shut down, alumni had to sleep in tents or off campus; there was no cafeteria service because the university is suing the village over its chiller unit.

Such ways of thinking are common in corporate culture and most of the board seemed familiar and comfortable with them, but they’re at odds with academic principles and practices. While the university is, indeed, a corporation and the chancellor is its CEO and the members of the board are its directors, an academic institution is distinct in many ways from other corporate bodies. Not only Antioch but most American colleges and universities subscribe to principles advocated by the American Association of University Professors, widely regarded as a leading authority on sound academic practices. Most famous is the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which the Antioch College faculty references in their lawsuit against the university. Like other academics who’ve served on the board (sadly, a shrinking constituency), I’m an AAUP member who’s raised issues about academic practices, including “shared governance,” the association’s principle that the administration, board, and faculty of an academic institution should work together to shape its life and future. But the board and chancellor appear to have rejected shared governance, declaring financial exigency without prior or subsequent faculty consultation and even stating at one point that “shared governance may apply to the Antioch campus but does not apply to the relationship between the campus, the university administration, and the board.” I believe the AAUP would consider this interpretation incorrect.

As the scorched earth campaign continued, the chancellor found new ways to disrupt fund raising and alumni relations, and board deadlines came and went. College support staff would find their corporate credit cards canceled, so they couldn’t schedule fund-raising trips or meet with alumni chapters (in June 2007, eight alumni chapters existed; today there are nearly 50). Or they would be told that as college employees they couldn’t raise money for an outside corporation, or their reservations for meeting rooms would be canceled without notification, or they’d be prohibited from contacting certain donors or accessing certain records, or a minion would be installed as their supervisor, or they’d be threatened with being audited or fired. Alumni leaders were regularly summoned to mediate conflicts, further delaying progress. And the campus grew dimmer and grimmer. Housekeeping and security services on campus were sharply curtailed, buildings were closed, long-time faculty and staff members were fired. The Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom, opened in March 2007, was closed, and a funding proposal from its director was rejected. When the chancellor learned that many of the confidential documents posted on the Antioch Papers Web site had not been leaked by insiders but legitimately acquired by members of the public from Antiochiana, the institution’s archive, where board materials were routinely sent for storage, she changed the archives’ locks and restricted its hours and access to the public, including the alumni who have donated many of its holdings.

Some actions were taken without full board notification, consultation, or approval. Although many of them will radically increase the financial and administrative burden of re-opening the college and its campus, the full board never directed her to explore putting off the deadline for closure. They just let her run out the clock.

So now it’s July 2008. Students, faculty, and staff have left, retired, taken other jobs, or moved to the NonStop campaign, while the physical plant is on a forced march to oblivion. Historic G. Stanley Hall Hall has been razed along with the huge trees that surrounded it. Heat and air conditioning have been turned off. Furniture, equipment, curtains, and carpeting will be discarded. The buildings will accumulate moisture all summer and be subjected to a hard freeze when cold weather comes. The minions found algae in the campus pool and drained it, depriving the Yellow Springs community of a long-shared facility. Next year zero-occupancy rules apply. If, or when, the Alumni Association’s plans for the college come to fruition, the buildings may not be permitted to reopen unless they meet current construction codes.

Of course we’re joyful that we still might get our college back. But are we like Charlie Brown, eternally wooed by Lucy’s promise that this time will be different -- this time she won’t pull the football out from under him, this time she’s on his/our side? Or is the chancellor determined to wreck the college by any means necessary? As one of my Antioch friends channels her, in a screech, from the Wizard of Oz: “I’ll have your college -- and your little dog too!”

Some alumni believe that if they can raise enough money, the board will now cooperate.

I agree about the money. And I agree that the board has moved in a significantly different direction. But the reign of terror against the campus and its ongoing human cost, which I have sketched briefly here, are significant realities as well.

Scholars of conflict, like anthropologist Victor Turner, tell us that during prolonged conflicts, especially under conditions of structural inequity or ambiguity, the less powerful are likely to paint the more powerful in apocalyptic terms. In writing here about Antioch, I have likened the chancellor to the wicked witch, hinted that the board and university leadership share qualities with the George W. Bush administration, and even used “ground zero” in my title. But when I look coldly at the outcomes of this past year, I see something more mundane: a failure of imagination, an aversion to risk, a regime fixated on management instead of governance, and ultimately an overall pattern of incompetence.

“The chancellor calls the alumni chaotic,” said one community member recently: “This is a woman who can’t even change a lock without throwing the whole campus into chaos.”

Whether apocalyptic or mundane, the college struggle has not unfolded on the flat playing field trumpeted by Toni Murdock’s idol Thomas Friedman. The chancellor is still the CEO of this corporation. The board is still the decider. The university is still the entity its legal counsel prioritizes and protects. Against such odds, alumni and Antioch’s other friends must continue financially and politically to support the activities and organizations that can still provide direction and leverage: Direct action, legal services, NonStop, the Alumni Association and the College Revival Fund, the Antioch Papers, and the many creative projects that help document the Antioch story. Even as we hope for a happy ending, we have to stay vigilant. In the largest sense, this means we all have to be involved, NonStop.


Paula Treichler, who graduated as a philosophy major from Antioch College in 1965, grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio; her parents served on the Antioch faculty for 34 years. With a Ph.D. in linguistics and psycholinguistics, she has held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1972. She has published numerous essays on higher education.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top