Letter from Callie Cary

“In our society the two institutions commissioned to provide the substance of a democratic public sphere, as a place for critical nquiry, are the news media and academia.�
This quote comes from a review of David Horowitz’s book “The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America� by 1979 alumnus Robert McCheseney entitled “David Horowitz and the Attack on Independent Thought,� “ in which both McCheseney and Antioch alum Gordon Fellman ‘57 are included.

Robert McCheseney is a Research Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Changing campus culture in the name of intellectual freedom is certainly not a new theme in the higher education community. The larger question is how is the term intellectual freedom being defined and by whom? Are the standards universally applied to everyone in the community, and who or what are the arbiters of those standards? And finally, what are the intended educational outcomes of these cultural changes?

It was made clear by President Lawry in his first address at Community Meeting last spring, as well as at subsequent meetings with the Alumni Board and alumni groups around the country, that he seemed to arrive with an agenda, a preconceived opinion about the campus culture and the governance system.

According to the President’s assessment, as stated in “Lawry Challenges Campus Culture; Students Troubled� (Yellow Springs News, 10/5/06), students are too confrontational, lack mutual respect and social maturity, are self-indulgent, use menacing language, and speak irresponsibly, and all these behaviors lead to an anti-intellectual, closed community that prevents students from being able to “embrace the full spectrum of ideas and opinions, without prejudgment….� The article goes on to say that Lawry feels that “A less threatening campus…will help the College retain some of the students who tend to leave Antioch because they feel attacked by other students.�

Where did the President’s perspective come from after such limited exposure to the student body, or anyone else in the community? Is this based on anecdotal information provided by those who oriented him before his arrival? In his presentations, Lawry sites a conversation he had with a student while he was on campus being interviewed for the presidency- a student who had said that he might transfer out of Antioch because he felt uncomfortable with the campus culture. Lawry has also mentioned how a student wearing Nike sneakers got attacked for not being more sensitive to the scourge of sweatshop production. OK, but is there some concrete data to support the theory that the campus culture is the main reason we lose students, or why students don’t come to Antioch? Past data from the exit interviews conducted by the Dean of Students Office over the years has shown that students leave for a variety reasons, including financial, social, academic, developmental, and finding a dream co-op, but very rarely because of campus culture and climate. According to existing data, there has never been one overriding reason for student attrition.

And so, it’s been almost 10 months since this message was first delivered. What steps have been taken to change the campus culture? Apparently, the governance system has been targeted as an axis of confrontation and is described as “out of control� and combative with the administration.

I am puzzled by this assessment. I served on Community Council (ComCil) in 05/06 and was extremely impressed with the high and civil level of discourse between faculty, staff and students, the student chair’s oversight of the meetings, the humor and creativity of the members, and the overall sense of responsibility members felt for the community. We debated, persuaded, challenged, changed our minds, built consensus and agonized over some difficult and frustrating situations on the campus. We also made every effort to engage with the administration to orient the new President to the Council’s purpose, and to express concern over some of the decisions that were being made without any consultation with Comcil, decisions that had historically been brought to Comcil for deliberation and input.

Although at times a very frustrating experience, for me as an alum, it defined one of Antioch’s core values and part of its mission – to create informed risk takers through participation in a laboratory of democratic decision- making. It would be a mistake to define Antioch’s system of governance as a locus of power for all decision- making, but it would be equally misguided to discredit and ignore the significant educational implications of the decision-making process that happens within this system.

Community governance at Antioch provides one of the most unique educational experiences the College has to offer and, if properly facilitated, allows all community members to feel some ownership and responsibility for the community in which they live and work. For students, these skills are further developed and tested in the various co-op communities they enter around the globe. It is this praxis that, with trial and error, teaches students some sense of humility and cultural mobility. It is the ingredient that helps to turn out so many interesting, entrepreneurial, and, yes, outspoken graduates. Last year Antioch College had three graduating students receive Fulbright awards. That sort of intellectual inquiry doesn’t happen in a vacuum!

I have never understood the concern that oppositional perspectives, be they conservative or radical, are somehow oppressed at Antioch.

Antioch alumni, young and old, have always been represented throughout the political spectrum. I know for a fact that Republicans and radicals (some now democrats) actually sit side-by-side with each other as Trustees and Alumni Board members! The alumni work in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors, many are organizers, artists and educators, but regardless of their path, most feel passionately about their values. The alumni take Antioch’s first President Horace Mann’s dictum “Be ashamed to die until you win some victory for humanity� very seriously.

There are some very real challenges facing Antioch right now, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with working on creating a campus that promotes open dialog, the administration needs to be sure to walk the talk and to create a forum that builds consensus around what the walk is…and maybe what shoes should be worn. I would also hope that energy is quickly shifted to other institutional priorities with specific steps being outlined on how best to address the recruitment and retention of students and faculty of color, improving the physical plant, supporting faculty moral, professional development and the integrity of tenure, and building a culture of mutual respect and labor incentives for the union workers, exempt staff and middle managers.

Top-down decision-making rarely has any educational value and it generally doesn’t promote a climate of mutual respect or intellectual freedom. If retention, recruitment and fund raising are the priorities right now (as they have been for decades), the entire Antioch community should be embraced as ambassadors, future alumni, future donors, future leaders, and advocates of an extraordinary educational experience that has held a truly unique place in the landscape of higher education.

Callie Cary ‘84
Second-generation alum and former Director of Alumni Relations