YELLOW SPRINGS Ohio
Hanging by a chain from the ceiling in the main hallway of Antioch Hall is a black sign: “Office of Transition.”
The placard points Antioch College students to the place that can help them transfer away from the private, 155-year-old liberal-arts school nationally known for nontraditional approaches and social activism, now on the brink of shutting its doors.
But the administration’s plan to temporarily close the school has rallied its former students to the kind of buck-the-establishment cause they were steeped in here.
In e-mail campaigns and gatherings across the country, Antioch alumni have raised about $15 million in cash and pledges.
At a meeting Friday they are ready to press their plan to keep the school operating, including fundraising, retaining a solid core of faculty members and renovating dorms as finances allow.
“This is the only chance we’ll ever have because if we blow this, it’s gone,” said Rick Daily, executive director and treasurer of the Antioch alumni association.
“It is almost unspeakable,” said alumna Catherine Jordan, 58, of Minneapolis. “I haven’t cried yet because I don’t believe it can happen.”
Then she began to cry.
School officials announced in June that because of declining enrollments, heavy dependence on tuition and a small endowment, Antioch will close after spring term in 2008, reorganize, and reopen in 2012.
“Our financial situation hasn’t changed since the June meeting,” Toni Murdock, chancellor of Antioch University, said Friday. “The financial situation was extremely severe regarding our cash flow to the point that the entire university was in jeopardy.”
Murdock believes the alumni must have a plan to sustain Antioch College not just for next year, but for the next three years.
Antioch, which costs $36,000 a year to attend, has an $18 million operating budget and a $2.6 million deficit.
The alma mater of Coretta Scott King, “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling and two Nobel Prize winners, Antioch doesn’t grade classes, encourages students to develop their own study plans, and combines academic learning with experience through a co-op program in which students leave campus to work in various fields.
After each graduation ceremony, graduates recite in unison the phrase coined by the late school President Horace Mann, an educator and a statesman who advanced the cause of universal, nonsectarian public schools: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Over the years, activism and civil disobedience became part of the school’s fabric, with anti-war protests and weekly peace vigils in the 1960s.
In 1994, students took over a campus building to protest plans to turn it into an admissions office instead of a student-activity center. In 2000, Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 and then on death row, gave a taped commencement speech at students’ invitation. Supporters argued that Abu-Jamal had been targeted for political reasons and framed, as an outspoken radio journalist and former Black Panther activist.
Antioch feeds off the 4,000-resident village of Yellow Springs, where nostalgia for the 1960s has nourished businesses such as the T-shirt Art Studio, the House of Ravenwood Metaphysical Rock Shoppe, and Earth Rose, which sells Birkenstocks and Peace Trek Family coloring books.
Students and graduates have a fierce allegiance to the college, citing the co-op program, the friendships they formed and the school’s track record of producing notable graduates.
Emma Emmerich, a 19-year-old second-year student from Cincinnati, said she’s not interested in any other schools but Antioch because it is inclusive, diverse and addresses sexism and classism issues.
Jordan, a 1972 graduate, credits Antioch for her own success. She is CEO of Achieve Minneapolis, a group that got summer jobs this year for 630 inner-city teens.
“Antioch wasn’t for everybody. But it attracts a kind of young person that is self-directed, creative, is willing to take risks and learns how to build leadership,” Jordan said. “A lot of us are mavericks. You have to know there is a place somewhere where we belong.”
Current students and teachers also are trying to keep the school open.
Students marched through Yellow Springs as part of the college’s Founders Day celebration to generate support for Antioch.
“We are living in a very precarious situation,” said Jeanne Kay, 22, a second-year student from Cadenet, France. “The closeness of the community is tighter than ever.”
Twenty-three of the 37 teachers are suing Antioch University, charging that it violated faculty personnel procedures by deciding to close the school when less drastic remedies to the college’s financial problems existed. Antioch University governs the college and adult-education universities in Yellow Springs, Keene, N.H., Seattle and Culver City and Santa Barbara, Calif.
Art Zucker, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Across this campus, 15 miles from Dayton in southwest Ohio, “SAVE Antioch NOW” signs are taped to dorm windows. But a school that teemed with 2,000 students three decades ago now has 230.
Recent enrollment declines have been blamed on the poor conditions of dorms and classroom buildings. Efforts to balance the budget over the years through faculty and staff reductions and program changes have eroded the confidence students and parents have in the academic program, the college said.
The financial squeeze is evident.
The school has reduced bricks-and-mortar spending and cut staff and services in the admissions office. The number of hot breakfasts at the school cafeteria have been reduced, hours at the two bookstores rotated so one is open when the other is closed.
The uncertainty has Antioch officials operating on two different tracks.
During the day, Admissions Director Angie Glukhov is helping students transfer to other colleges for next year. At night, she’s planning a student-recruiting campaign in the event Antioch stays open.
“We are all trying to find our way,” said Andrzej Bloch, Antioch’s chief operating officer.
Ben Horlacher, a first-year student from Mechanicsville, Va., says he has avoided thinking about transferring.
“I have no space in my mind right now for the idea that it will close,” he said. “But there was more of an urgency to come here because it was closing. You’re not going to get something like this anywhere else but here.”
Jordan said there are future college students out there who need Antioch in order to test their wings and learn to be leaders.
“We have taken this for granted,” she said of the school. “Now we have to fight our damnedest to make sure we don’t lose it.”
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