Antioch Closure Ends Chapter in Higher Education

A shortage of money is prompting Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to close next year. The Board of Directors hopes to reopen four years later, but many fear it will not happen. A former faculty member of the liberal arts college reflects on what the closure means for the community and this work-study approach to higher education.

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Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, appears to be preparing to close its doors after 150 years. Appears is the active verb because Antiochians are schooled to be fighters, social activists. The 500 alumni and faculty gathered there this weekend say they intend to fight the board of trustees' decision to close the college next year.

NPR's John McChesney reports from Yellow Springs.

JOHN McCHESNEY: First, full disclosure. I taught literature at Antioch for six years beginning in 1968. I was here for Antioch's most turbulent years. Antioch was a center of political activism and countercultural experimentation. So, I'm looking at the story from the ground as someone with a history here.

The alumni, twice the number expected, are meeting this weekend in the beautifully spired Victorian brick building, built before the Civil War. The meeting opened with a declaration of war by the current faculty delivered by Dimi Reber, professor emeritus.

Ms. DIMI REBER (Professor Emeritus): The faculty will be exploring legal action to stop the college's closing and preserve tenure and the college's assets. (Soundbite of applause and cheering)

McCHESNEY: The Board Of Trustees Chairman Arthur Zucker choked up as he tried to explain why the precipitous decision to close was necessary.

Mr. ARTHUR J. ZUCKER (Chairman, University Board Of Trustees): I speak for the board when I say we're sorry. We say thank you to the faculty for all you've done for so many years under difficult conditions. To the residents of Yellow Springs, we're very concerned about the impact on your world. We're sorry. We are grieving and it hurts. It hurts.

McCHESNEY: The tiny, vibrant, bohemian village of Yellow Springs was incorporated by members of the Antioch faculty way back when. It will likely be damaged by a closure.

Antioch has been on the bleeding edge of education since its founding before the Civil War. One of the first to encourage co-ed enrollment, one of the first to enroll black students - Coretta Scott King came here in 1947 -and the first liberal arts college to insist that students alternate real jobs with their academic program.

So, what went wrong? Many blame a debilitating strike back in 1973, which shut the college down for five months. Antioch's encouragement of social activism turned in upon itself. Bob Devine was here during those years and later became Antioch's president.

Mr. BOB DEVINE (Former President, Antioch College): Enrollment went from 2,470 in that year, sharp decline down to 1984, where it was on paper about 500, but actually about 450. So from 2,470 down to 450 in less than a decade is pretty dramatic.

McCHESNEY: But Devine believes that the current trustees and administration are using Antioch's past difficulties as a smoke screen. They dramatically revamped the curriculum here and promised to raise money to support it. Two years into the five-year program, the board said it couldn't raise the needed money and promptly announced the closure. Enrollment had plunged to 300 students this year. Lots of people here blame the college's problems on the decision in the late '60s to create many Antiochs around the country. Again, Bob Devine.

Mr. DEVINE: The joke was that we're becoming the Colonel Sanders of higher education. There's one on every corner and it's finger-licking-good. And actually, there is no actual count of the number of campuses and centers that Antioch had. We say between 34 and 38 because no one knows for sure because the centers were in turn spawning other centers, which were in turns spawning other centers.

McCHESNEY: The charge is that energy money and the Antioch brand were squandered in the process. Ironically, five of those centers serving students completing advanced degrees survive today, and have been subsidizing the Yellow Springs college for the past few years.

To say that the 500 or so alumni gathered here are angry would be an understatement. Carol Greenwald, the creator of the popular children's show, "Arthur" and four-time Emmy Award winner is one of them. While receiving an award from the college this year, she asked why the alumni weren't contacted before the closure was announced.

Ms. CAROL GREENWALD (Emmy Award Winner; Executive Producer, "Arthur;" Alumna, Antioch College): You bump into Antiochians in the weirdest places and when you do you always say, ah, you're from Antioch, right. You know, oh, yeah. And when you're there, you talk about the horror stories, but you also talk about the great things. I do think people have a really strong connection. And if someone had said to me, Antioch is going to close unless you step up and put your money where your mouth is, I believe I would have done that.

McCHESNEY: Julia Reichert is an alum, who is a respected documentary filmmaker, a full professor at nearby Wright State University and still teaches part-time in Antioch and lives here in Yellow Springs.

Professor JULIA REICHERT (Department of Community Health, Wright State University; Filmmaker; Alumna, Antioch College): When I first heard the news I was really shocked and devastated like a lot of people, and I was really angry because I think this thing is so poorly handled. The way that the closing was handled and announced - it was a very last-minute decision. The decision does not respect the tradition of Antioch and of us, who are grads. The way that we were not called to come and help. This is wrong.

McCHESNEY: The alums gathered here this weekend are drafting a plan to save the Yellow Springs College. One of them, Chad Johnston, echoed the motto of Antioch's early president Horace Mann, who said be ashamed to die until you've won some victory for humanity.

Mr. CHAD JOHNSTON (Alumnus, Antioch College): As community members, we evoke the spirit of Horace Mann when we say be ashamed to let it die.

(Soundbite of applause)

McCHESNEY: By this morning, they had raised $400,000 from the people here.

Unidentified Woman: One thousand dollars, $500.

McCHESNEY: Not bad, but just a pittance when compared to the $40 million goal, and they still face the daunting task of how to get students to start coming back to this campus.

John McChesney, NPR News, Yellow Springs, Ohio.

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