Antioch's Choice

Antioch College, emerging from the ashes of its involuntary auto de fé, plans to appoint a new president shortly and bring in its first class of new students in the fall of 2011.

October 12, 2010

Antioch College, emerging from the ashes of its involuntary auto de fé, plans to appoint a new president shortly and bring in its first class of new students in the fall of 2011. From the college that was the first to treat male and female students equally, that first promoted student discussion in the classroom, that practiced community-wide governance of a sort few other institutions could even imagine, that gave African-Americans scholarships before most colleges would admit them, and that invented what remained the most ambitious work/study program anywhere, this is news that matters. Now, when so much of higher education is on the verge of abandoning the liberal arts for a corporate agenda, Antioch’s presence is more important to American higher education than it has been for decades.

The reopening of the college is also, to understate the matter almost beyond recognition, both an opportunity and a challenge. It is an opportunity first of all to reinvent undergraduate education — to position academic disciplines as points of intersection with other bodies of knowledge, as platforms from which to structure understanding of both history and the contemporary world. Disciplinarity needs to become more cognizant of its others, more interdisciplinary, more self-critical, more global. But it does not need to be abandoned. Yet those working on the Antioch curriculum have also faced the challenge of creating a coherent and credible plan for what is scheduled at first to be less a small college than a nanocollege with a nanofaculty numbering fifteen or fewer.

Who is to make up that faculty? The investigative report issued by the American Association of University Professors after Antioch University announced it would close its founding (and only) residential college, and completed after a group of alumni formed the Antioch College Continuation Corporation to purchase the college from the university and reopen it, makes the AAUP’s position clear: “we trust that the Antioch College Continuation Corporation will appreciate the fundamental importance of the tenure system and will offer reinstatement to those whose appointments terminated with the closing, restoring their tenure rights.” Although, as an engaged alumnus, I recused myself from the AAUP investigation and had no hand in writing the report, I strongly endorse its conclusions. In practical terms, its recommendations mean the college could simply reinstate tenured faculty. "Could" does not mean they have to do so. The AAUP has never maintained that the college is legally required to do so. The obligation is moral and professional, not legal. If the college is determined to conduct searches for positions that qualified faculty a few blocks from campus could fill with distinction, it could include something like the following statement in its ads: "Preference will be given to faculty members who previously held tenure at Antioch College in 2008."

Antioch College has had to walk a fine line since purchasing its freedom from the university. Not wanting to assume all the contractual commitments of its namesake, the new college has repeatedly asserted it is not a successor institution. Yet on August 12, 2009, it filed documents in the Greene County, Ohio, probate division of The Court of Common Pleas stipulating that “Antioch College Continuation Corporation (ACCC), an Ohio non-profit corporation, was established with the purpose to resume the operations of Antioch College as an independent institution with its own fiduciary board of directors.” The operative verb is “resume.” But more fundamentally, at every turn the college seeks to reinforce its identity as the inheritor of the Antioch College spirit and legacy. At the June 2010 alumni reunion a two-story high portrait of key Antioch president Arthur Morgan towered over the proceedings. A 1942 film about the college was shown; it was directed by long-term theater faculty member Paul Treichler, who would later become my father-in-law. Famous graduates gave talks. An entirely new college could not sponsor any of these events and would be unable to hold an alumni reunion.

For reasons that remain unclear, neither the college’s interim president nor its Board Pro-Tem, eventually to be replaced by a Board of Trustees, has been willing to commit itself to rehiring the former tenured faculty members. Some of those who lost their jobs in 2008 have since taken other positions. Some retired, having no other way of maintaining an income. Realistically, some six to eight former Antioch College tenured faculty members would welcome jobs at Antioch College. And there lies the opportunity.

These people, most of them originally hired in national searches, share a deep commitment to the college’s rebirth. Unlike most faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities, whose knowledge of curriculum development is narrowly departmental, Antioch faculty members have experience in designing and implementing a campus-wide interdisciplinary curriculum. They understand the rich relationship between course work and the incredibly formative work experiences the college requires. They have been participants in community government. They have hands-on knowledge of the resources on campus and in the community. They are exactly the core of dedicated faculty members a new Antioch president will need to build the new college. Former Antioch faculty have made similar arguments on their new website. Indeed the first priority should be to hire those of the former faculty with the greatest leadership capacity.

With a cohort of seasoned college faculty as a core, others could be appointed who had no previous relationship with the college. But an entire permanent faculty without Antioch College experience would be unrealistic and unworkable. Worse still would be an Antioch faculty composed mostly of new Ph.D.s, absorbed largely in their doctoral research and wholly unprepared for the diverse demands of reviving an institution with a unique mission and a distinctive history. In addition to reinstating the faculty, the board would be well-advised to find ways of enrolling former students who lost the chance to complete their degrees when the college was closed. The immediate alternative — a student body composed entirely of freshmen — does not offer an ideal educational model.

A few former Antioch faculty members were hired temporarily as “Morgan Fellows” to help flesh out the new curriculum in 2009, but their title made it clear they were no longer really faculty members, and they certainly did not possess academic freedom as the AAUP or American faculty members elsewhere would define it. I participated in the search, but my expectations about the intellectual and administrative environment the Morgan Fellows would work in were not fulfilled, nor were plans to increase their numbers. They had to work on a curriculum I considered largely imposed from above. In my view no satisfactory mechanism was established to bring other former faculty members fully into the planning process. The current contracts of the Morgan Fellows specify that they are at-will employees who can be fired without notice.

The college’s new leaders, meanwhile, have put forward a number of implausible arguments about why they cannot simply reinstate Antioch faculty as Antioch faculty. In general, new institutions have greater flexibility in deciding how to hire their faulty, but college administrators have oddly claimed the opposite. But the most hollow of their arguments — sent aloft as a trial balloon in multiple conversations and meetings this summer — went “How can we rehire these people? The university won’t give us their personnel files.” I suggested in reply, when representatives of the board met in the AAUP’s Washington offices, that I could supply the names and vitas of the tenured faculty and even some of their tenure and promotion papers if necessary, but no one among the board’s representatives was interested.

More recently, vague, dark warnings have been issued in meetings of college stakeholders that the college would be placed in grave jeopardy if it hired faculty members outside national searches. But of course colleges and universities already have multiple programs to hire faculty members without searches — target of opportunity programs to hire minority faculty members, special programs to hire spouses or partners, programs to hire distinguished senior or promising mid-career faculty members. Colleges routinely give preference to teachers familiar with an institution’s history and mission. Some colleges give preference to hires from their own geographical region. The list goes on, with religious colleges, women’s colleges, and Native American colleges establishing other sets of preferences and hiring priorities.

If Antioch genuinely needs a nuclear physicist and none are available from among its tenured ranks, it can do a national search. If, however, it needs a professor of literature, theater, communications, media, philosophy, photography, chemistry, or political economy, it might do well to look around its own neighborhood. If qualified former tenured faculty members are overlooked and new faculty hired instead, grievances can be filed with the AAUP. The AAUP staff is experienced in such matters. The series of weak excuses about why Antioch cannot rehire its own faculty, however, worries some that the college’s new president will accept a different strategy: deliberately initiating searches for positions in fields that do not match those of the former faculty. One final point needs to be stressed: if alumni end up volunteering to teach in place of tenured faculty and thereby deny unemployed Antioch faculty a job and a living, labor history has a name for such people: scabs. The moral and professional implications of accepting a job so the faculty victims of the college closure cannot have one need to be confronted.

When I told a college administrator a few months ago that, as AAUP president and a college alumnus, I was likely to write something about the need to rehire former faculty members, I was urged not to do so. The candidates for the Antioch president, he argued, would be discouraged if they heard there was disagreement about whether to rehire the faculty. As it happened, shortly thereafter I was among those nominated to be president myself. Given that my views on rehiring Antioch faculty were rather different from those of most board members — and given that my employment history does not match that of the typical college president — I had scant hope of getting the job. But my candidacy was a valuable opportunity to present a different perspective to the search committee. Now that my candidacy will not be going forward and that a president is about to be appointed, I can return to my earlier intention of writing about the issue.

Because all Antioch stakeholders — including its president — need to know that many are concerned about the fate of the tenured faculty. A new president will be joining a community and interacting with alumni that have powerful convictions about the matter. And, for better or worse, the new president will be dealing with a board that has embraced a paradoxical Alice in Wonderland view of its relationship with college history. They claim to be deeply devoted to tenure, just not the tenure of their own former faculty. One pill makes you Antioch, and one pill makes you not.

The board’s stance, however, is not really the product of a legal imperative. The debates among Antioch’s stakeholders are not over whether the college is a successor corporation. They are over whether Antioch needs to make a clean break with its past, something that cannot be done unless several decades of alumni and a thousand or more townspeople contract a fatal disease and do so sooner, rather than later. The question that troubles some is whether Antioch had developed a “toxic culture” in its last decades, as some of those involved in shutting down the college alleged. The corollary question is whether the college faculty had a role in Antioch’s troubles.

The AAUP’s investigative report holds that the college was more sinned against than sinning. Antioch University deprived the college of basic information about its financial condition, then imposed artificial depreciation costs on a budget that couldn’t bear them. It reduced the admissions staff to a dangerously low level. It virtually eliminated shared governance. Its chancellor inveighed against tenure. It thoroughly alienated the alumni, who then stopped donating to the college’s annual campaign. Finally, it imposed a radically new curriculum on the college without faculty input.

Antioch’s enrollment declined, but it continued to attract students of exceptional promise and talent. They could write and talk with an eloquence more typical of faculty members. But some also had the convictions and occasional intolerance of the young. As the college grew smaller, the critical option to live off campus — something I had needed as a safety valve when I was at Antioch in the 1960s — disappeared, because the institution needed the housing income. Antioch had always been something of a hothouse community — intense, passionate, politically committed, layered at once with affection and antagonism. Certainly the experience of the faculty members I worked with then, some of whom came to the campus in the 1930s, along with the newer faculty members I have continued to meet, confirms that Antioch’s community characteristics have a long history. What was needed at the end was not less toxicity but more civility — and more skill at framing campus actions for public reception. The views people were advocating were not toxic. The college needed leadership at the top willing and able to channel the intensity that was magnified by small scale.

The Antioch faculty members terminated in 2008 who I know well are thoughtful, insightful, and committed. They are ready to preserve the best of Antioch’s progressive traditions, without which Antioch would not be Antioch, and shape them anew for new times. Most are ready to work long hours in a project they see as more of a cause and a mission than a job. These former faculty members are supplemented by an unusually talented local arts community in the Yellow Springs, Ohio, area. The members of that community are also ready to work on the college’s behalf, but not if the faculty members themselves are jettisoned.

Rather than suppress debate about the college’s history and prospects, the Board and the new president need to encourage and manage it. Otherwise, the mounting divisions and recriminations that increasingly haunt every conceivable college future will only multiply. The renewal of the college must also be a time for healing, a process that cannot be facilitated by suppressing dissent. A tendency to treat those who would modify present plans as disloyal must be abandoned. The alumni have absurdly been asked to offer their “unqualified devotion,” perhaps the most un-Antiochian sentiment I have ever heard promoted at the college. I believe the best way to initiate the healing process is to begin by reinstating those few tenured faculty members who remain available. Bringing experienced faculty members on board will also be reassuring to the larger higher education community and will help the accreditation process. It is an opportunity that need not be missed.


Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.


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