News: Antioch Remains in Limbo

Waiting for the board of trustees to issue final decision on closing the college

Stephen Carter-Novotni

Antioch College students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends gathered on the Yellow Springs campus Oct. 27 to hear a decision from the board of trustees about the alumni association's offer of $12 million to help keep the school open. A decision wasn't announced, and the waiting continues.

Antioch College is a mess. Its future hung in the balance last weekend as students, alumni, faculty and the entire village of Yellow Springs waited for an answer from the school's leaders: thumbs up or down.

No decision was made, and nothing has been announced as of CityBeat's press time.

The Antioch University Board of Trustees said in June that Antioch College would close in 2008 because of a swelling deficit — $2.6 million — and a major accounting error.

"It was unbelievable," said Valerie Blackwell-Truitt, recalling the initial shock. "Nobody believed what they just said."

The campus reaction was a mixture of anger and crying, she said. It was a lot like the tone this past weekend.

As associate director of admissions and financial aid, Truitt was one of the first to have her job cut, but everyone associated with Antioch was hit personally and hard by the news.

Antioch College is the hub of Yellow Springs, about 70 miles north of Cincinnati near Dayton.

Jobs, real estate prices and the local tax base are all up in the air now, and the hang time is excruciating.

Antioch is also the beacon of liberal education in this region. It's Antioch that invited Mumia Abu Jamal — the journalist convicted and jailed for killing a police officer — as a commencement speaker in 2000. In the 1990s the school was headlined for its groundbreaking Sexual Offense Prevention Policy that brought to the public the discussion of what consent really means.

It's a school that actively supports openly gay and transgender students and was the birthplace of The Independent Eye, the first modern alternative newspaper in Southwest Ohio. This painfully beautiful institution is practically holy ground to those who have called it home.

This is what inspired the swift reaction by the Antiochians, the Alumni Association. The board of trustees said it planned to reopen the college in 2012, but the Antiochians had another idea.

They raised $12 million to save the school and drafted a recovery business plan. That plan is the subject of the board's current deliberation.

Expecting news of the board's final decision, dozens of Antioch students, faculty and alumni gathered on campus Oct. 27. A handful of board members were present to answer questions, but little was explained. Board member Paula Treichler offered that she is "optimistic. I'm very optimistic."

The thing is, while everyone hopes for the best, few have any faith in the board of trustees.

"The thing that's upsetting me is that there was some sort of corporate decision made," said alumnus Calista Hendrickson, class of 1963, of the closing announcement in June. "It was like a corporate takeover."

Associate Professor of Paint and Printmaking Nevin Mercede rhetorically demanded to know why the board didn't discuss the financial problems with the faculty before flatly announcing that the school would close. And, as to the board's plan to reopen in four years, "Nobody believes that will happen," Truitt said. "Nobody."

Without much faculty input, the board penned a renewal plan in 2003 to contend with a student body that had dropped below 600. Enacted in the 2005 school year, this initiative restructured Antioch's first year program into learning communities.

Freshmen worked with the same class and a static set of professors every day of their first year instead of moving from class to class. Despite this change, the number of students continued to dwindle.

Truitt said the board's decision to close was made too quickly and was "institutional suicide." The board members, she said, "have their own agenda, and their agenda did not include having Antioch College.

"I really feel like we were being set up to fail. No school in the country will change the curriculum in a 12-month period of time."

Rumors ran rampant on the Antioch campus. There was a great deal of speculation as to what the board would decide.

Many said they felt that the board would have to listen to the community and that the delay, while irritating, was good news. It meant that a plan was in the works.

One woman, who flew in from Asia to hear the result, said she believed that board members had already decided to close the school and were afraid to drop the bomb when so many Antiochians were gathered on campus.

Board member Janet Morgan, who has a child currently attending Antioch, said that two conference calls were scheduled this week to resolve the issue.

"It's because there are documents still being written," she said.

Morgan was confident and conveyed the board's surprise at the community response. "The turnaround was the most amazing thing I've seen in my life," she said.

Whatever the result, lingering questions remain as to why this financial crisis happened in the first place. Several board members have neo-conservative defense industry ties, and while none have been documented to be openly hostile to the school's liberal bias, there's lingering feeling that the board isn't looking out for Antioch's interests. Many Antiochians hope the college is special enough to save itself.

"If it closes, I think it's closed," said Head Librarian Debra Oswald, who left a tenured position with Raymond Walters College just two years ago to work at Antioch. "I never regretted giving up tenure and coming here. It's such an amazing place." ©

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