Thursday, April 05, 2012

Antioch College rises from its own ashes — maybe

Back in 2008, the fate of my alma mater, Antioch College, received some formidably cranky attention in this corner of cyberspace. Little wonder. Over the decades, the college had found scores of ways to screw itself – and ultimately to screw its faculty and students.

Its small endowment got squandered. It followed over-ambitious plans to expand into a nationwide university – a university with an oedipal instinct to destroy and devour the little Ohio college in Yellow Springs that fathered it.

Meanwhile, on the Yellow Springs campus, more than a century of academic and cultural rigor had been flushed down the toilet in favor of backstabbing and doctrinaire insanity. The college became a “radical boot camp” where people got “called out” for having political opinions contrary to those that were popular on campus, militant feminists put out almost the equivalent of a manual of how and under what circumstances people could engage in sex, and at least one professor discouraged reading of authors who had points-of-view that did not comport with her own.

Little wonder the transfer rate was high, while precious few good students continued to apply. At the same time, the college and its finances began to rot. As the budget sank, buildings literally decayed, the campus landscaping began to look ratty. Members of my graduating class, back for a reunion, shook our heads sadly and told each other, “I won’t let my kid go here.”

A passion, a Roosevelt, and a revival

The university finally decided to shutter the college. That’s when the original college’s alums and some faculty, passionate about the great college Antioch had been, revolted in outrage. I won’t take you through all the twists and turns, but this academic year, after a two-year closure, the college was again open for business, independent from Antioch University – at least for now – and undergoing what appears to be a renaissance.

It’s led by a new college president, Mark Roosevelt, a descendant of rough-riding Teddy. The first new class is reaching the end of its freshman year. Roosevelt, who has little choice but to play guts poker with precious dollars, has decided to let the first four classes since the revival attend college tuition-free. The result has been spectacularly positive.

Thousands of eager high school students have applied for a few limited places, giving Antioch a pick of students that some first rate colleges would envy. But it’s a gamble both for the students and for the college’s trustees, alumni and staff.

Guts poker for students, too

The students know from the outset that the college does not yet have accreditation. The process of regaining its credentials is long and onerous. If the college succeeds, the accreditation may be granted some time after the first new freshman class graduates. If the college fails to gain accreditation, an Antioch College degree will become almost as worthless as that of some of those on-line, for-profit institutions' degrees.

But the risk extends further. If the college fails to get accreditation, the students, faculty and stream of money is likely to vanish. And the University, under a contract that set the college free, will recapture the college’s assets – campus, buildings, bank account, logotype and all.

For the moment, the college is financed in part by generous alums and in part by the sale of one of the college’s assets, the Yellow Springs Instrument Company, which was founded over 70 years ago by the then-president of the college, Arthur Morgan, as an income generator.

That sale gave the college $35 million to work with, according to the college’s President Roosevelt, who spoke at a New York alumni meeting that I attended last week.

There’s an opportunity here for foundations, wealthy individuals and alumni to keep building the college’s wealth so it can survive.

Perhaps you ought to be one of them.  Yes, it’s guts poker. But I’m betting Roosevelt is holding at least a couple of aces.

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