Monday, July 21, 2008

This man has a brilliant and thoroughly out-of-the-box plan to save beleaguered Antioch College. Is anybody at all listening?

Antioch College, a once-great institution, is currently in a state of suspended animation, a product of neglect and worse by its trustees, administration and some alumni over the last 20 years. Officially, the college is closed. The alumni have a plan to re-open it, using $18 million in cash and pledges they have gathered – if they can come to agreement with the University trustees.

I’ve already pointed out that with a piddling $18 million its hopeless to try to restore a college like Antioch to greatness.

That $18 million would have to renovate an ailing physical plant with over 20 buildings. It would have to replenish the dwindling faculty with new recruits – not easy for an institution with a now-shaky reputation. Ditto, it would have to attract high quality students – a task that was proving extremely difficult even before the college's parent Antioch University revealed just how shaky the college really was.

And, if Antioch wants only first-rate students, it will have to keep going with a too-small student body until its reputation can be restored and it can attract all the talented students it needs. Nice trick if you can do all that with $18 million.

A reorganization plan that creates
its own income stream

Now it turns out that over a year ago, a 1965 Antioch College graduate had worked out an extraordinarily innovative plan that might actually save the college – and provide an economic stimulus to the adjacent village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, at the same time.

His name is J. David Coldren. His plan works in part by creating an income stream to supplement tuition. At the same time, it reinforces what was special and traditional about the college, including its once-famed work-study plan, its equally pioneering study abroad program, its once-respected insistence on academic excellence, and its tradition of community government.

Other features in Coldren’s plan include a “green” campus, studies in ecology, environmental protection, and urban planning, and “using Antioch’s extensive land holdings for field studies and work projects.” Importantly, Antioch would not do what it has considered doing – sell off any of its land. Instead, the beautiful campus and adjacent Glen Helen would “not in any way cede its properties or inherent powers to any other entity.”

Hidden in plain sight

For just about a year now, Coldren’s plan has been hiding in plain sight on the Internet. I wasn’t aware of it until I accidentally stumbled across it about two weeks ago. You can find it by going here and then clicking on either “Internet Slideshow” or the PDF file link.

The plan has many facets, but as I see it, one of its key factors is what Coldren calls an “intergenerational learning environment.” What this boils down to is constructing a facility on campus that would be part assisted living center for about 250 senior citizens (Coldren calls them "seasoned citizens") and part freshman residence hall. Assisted living residents, he says, would be encouraged to “take certain classes, attend cultural events, and be active in Community Government.”

Coldren believes that “Enriched experiential education will benefit both students and the seasoned citizens,” and that a required core curriculum should include “an extended seminar to help students process their experiences with mature, aging persons.”

This plan harnesses, he told me, two demographic trends: A projected decline of college-age students in coming years, and an increasing number of what he calls “active seasoned citizens.”

And one other thing very much worth noting: A byproduct of the center would be money for the college.

Where’s the income stream?
Also hidden in plain sight.

Coldren’s presentation of his plan notes:

Antioch’s President and administrators should be supremely competent academic leaders and terrific fund raisers. They need not be particularly knowledgeable or adept about food services, residential care, maintenance, security, or telecommunications. Much of that can be contracted for – and should be…

By partnering with a developer to develop an urban village around the college core on Antioch property and by building only the most essential academic and residential facilities for students (such as a single dormitory–like residence hall for 1st year students and co-located with an assisted living center), the college should be able to shed lots of overhead and maximize its revenue stream from leases and rentals.
Coldren is quick to admit that the college will still need an endowment. His estimate of $50 million of endowed startup costs is certainly greater than the $18 million now at the disposal of the alumni, but not beyond reach.

The reaction? Hostility, negativity
and an undertone of fear

You’d think that a plan that gives back to Antioch everything it ever stood for plus one more thing – a new raison d’etre – would be greeted with at least a little bit of enthusiasm. Think again.

Knowledgeable about Antioch and therefore wary of reactions among the Alumni Board of Trustees, the parent university’s Board of Trustees and others, Coldren says:
"I chose to send an earlier version of the presentations to friends on the two Boards plus the Chancellor. They were welcome to circulate it as they saw fit. Apparently some did…. "
But unfortunately, “If there was a favorable reaction I haven’t heard about it,” Coldren told me just before I posted this story. In fact, there was plenty of unfavorable reaction when Coldren posted a presentation of his plan on some of the “Save Antioch” forums.

You’ll find one of those forums here. Keep following that thread to see the plan wildly accused of extraordinary crimes and misdemeanors, from attempting to turn Antioch into a “theme park,” to an attempt to turn it into a “Halliburton franchise,” to a declaration that the plan would try to “sell” Antioch like a product. Heavens to Betsy! How can you attract sufficient numbers of faculty, students and donors to that dead hulk without “selling” the virtues of what it could offer?

There was even an impassioned defense of the graffiti that now defaces many of the buildings on the Yellow Springs, Ohio campus.

All of this tends confirms what Coldren told me next– that when he posted in the forums:
I got so much disparaging and downright hate e-mail that only confirmed for me that there had been – and still was – and illiberal and so-called toxic culture at Antioch College for years. Civility and respect for other opinions had vanished.
If only Coldren were left-leaning
might his plan have a better chance?

Sometimes I wish I could be saved from my own political allies. Certainly that's so in the case of my liberal allies' reaction to the Coldren plan to save Antioch. It may not help a brilliant idea that its parent has leaned toward politically conservative thinking since his college days.

Were Coldren only as "liberal" as, say, The New York Crank, and if he avoided certain liberal rage-triggering words like “outsourcing” in his presentation, the alums might be rallying to his plan instead of disparaging it.

Antioch, Coldren said in his presentation, should not be a “boot camp for the revolution.” In fact, it was no such thing when Horace Mann founded it, nor when Arthur Morgan reinvisioned the college in the 1920s and turned it – at least for the next 50 years – into an experimental but excellent place to get a well-rounded college education.

Unfortunately, some people who usually agree with me on other matters have developed a self-crippling case of doctrine blindness. Throw a word like “outsourcing” or “globalization” into the works and the whole progressive educational machine crashes like an overloaded computer. Mention that a plan that could support and propagate mostly liberal ideas and policies comes from a conservative, and you may as well have dumped 50 pounds of anthrax spores into the local drinking water.

A “breeding ground for revolution”
a breeding ground for educational failure

If the alumni continue to see the college not as a place to propagate educational excellence and innovation but as a breeding ground for revolution – whatever they mean by revolution – their efforts to revive Antioch will fail and I predict the campus will be sold off, quite possibly to some entity that many of the alums will truly hate, such as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

On the other hand, if they adopt Coldren’s plan, or even just cherry pick the best parts, perhaps the college can survive and become great again.

But don’t hold your breath that the alumni will see the light.

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