By Kim-Jenna Jurriaans
For Joan Meadows, former library assistant, the last five months have been turbulent. In February she was one of four library workers burdened with the task of keeping a highly understaffed Olive Kettering Library running after the unexpected death of Joe Cali. Now she is filing for unemployment as one of 20 staff members who were the first to lose their jobs after the announced closing of Antioch College by its Board of Trustees in June. The board claims continuing financial deficit on the part of the College as reason for its decision.
“We did a cash flow analysis. And it became clear that by mid 2009 the college would be in catastrophic circumstances,” trustee Dan Fallon told answer-seeking alumni at a crowded NYC meeting, two weeks after the official announcement.
While leaving the college for some, like Meadows, has already become a reality, a growing number of faculty and alumni are putting their heels in the sand to keep the college from entering what the University refers to as “a suspension of operations,” for four years or “as long as it takes to create a viable self-sustaining Antioch college.”
The 40 faculty members of Antioch College who have received a letter that their contracts will be terminated by June 2008 filed suit against Antioch University in Greene County, last week Wednesday. They claim the board breached contractual obligations by not consulting with the faculty and Adcil prior to the decision, amongst other reasons. Joining the faculty in opposition to the boards decision are Yellow Springs town’s people and a rapidly growing number of alumni, whose fund raising efforts so far have brought together 5.3 million dollars in cash and pedges.
What for many ivy covered colleges is natural post graduation engagement is a notable change in dynamics for the alumni base of Antioch College, whose graduates in the past were more likely to run into each other at an airport than a tea and scones meeting of reminiscing alumni. The last eight weeks has seen large scale online organization and the creation of a high traffic forum, Antiochians.org that has become the clearinghouse for strategy and organization. The number of local alumni chapters has risen from six to 39, with branches in London, and Paris.
Inspiring say some, too little too late it is in the opinions of others, both on the Board of Trustees and on the ground. “It’s about time,” says Foster Neill, recent grad from 2007. “Students were raising flags in the summer of ‘06 that things were going badly. When we talked to alumni during reunion then, we would hear things like ‘well, in my days these buildings were boarded up, it’s not that bad.’ Something really drastic had to happen before the alumni would do anything.”
In response to the question why the Board did not sound an alarm bell to alumni sooner, vice chair of the Board Dan Fallon told NYC alumni “We have tried but there was no response. It was no secret that the College had been in financial trouble for a long time” “I was called once since ‘75,” recounted alumna Liz Adler at the same meeting. “There clearly was failure to let alumni be aware of what the severety of the situation was.”
Indeed, poor organization was not limited to the alumni faction. The College too had been largely neglecting its almni base, in part due to scarce resources which made the school invest their funds and energy in other areas. In addition, the breed of students the college traditionally attracts does not make it easier for the Alma Mater to keep in touch with its off-spring. “You all are moving a lot. It’s hard to keep track,” Development officer Risa Grimes told gathered alumni in July.
In an interview with The Record in March, then chair of the Alumni Board John Feinberg explained: “Students come to mother Antioch and they have this idea of mother Antioch’s continuing nurturing. Their experiences at the college, whether they’re from the 40s the 50s or the 70s, are strong. Their experiences at the college, whether they’re from the 40s the 50s or the 70s, are strong.
Then they graduate and fly on their own, but they desire more contact and they don’t always get that. Whether it is them or the college not sending information, it makes them feel neglected.” This together with accounts that contacted alumni receive an always-sunnyweather account of the state of the college contributed to a dormant state the College alumni have been in for decades. Feinberg: “Being an Antiochian, by their nature they question authority. They seek to know controversy. No news makes them feel skeptical. They like hearing about what’s going on at the College.”
“I know it’s a very sensitive issue to talk about the fact that the College is in such dire straits, says Laura Marmer, Antioch trustee from 2003 to 2005 and co-drafter of a letter currently signed by 27 former members and chairs of the Board that urges its current members to take bold action. “You’ve got a campaign going; you’ve got to raise the money. But clearly they knew the writing was on the wall two or three years ago when I was on the board.” Marmer was member of the board during the implementation of the renewal plan, widely cited as a factor in the drastic decline of enrolment numbers in 2005. She believes that current trustees indeed felt like they were choosing the only real option when presented with the numbers. According to her steps should have been taken three years ago, but that instead poor leadership ‘let the college go down the tube.”
“I honestly believe there are good people on the board and they love the College, but they have other jobs. I know from my time very few people ever read financial reports. A lot on the board that were not on the finance committee did not understand the fi nances and they would sort of trust somebody else to watch the store. But this is true for most boards. I’ve been on a lot of boards and staff can easily lead a board down a path they want them to go.”
Board and University leadership stick to the position that closing the college was the only viable option at the time of their decision. “It is immoral” trustee Dan Fallon told a crowd of 60 in New York City “to ask working single parent moms to pay for the deficit of the College,” referring to the money the College has traditionally been receiving from its advanced learners spinoffs in the University structure.
In addition, the university points to an preveously unknown five million dollar budget hole after restricted funds had been used for other purposes as one major factor in the decision to file financial exigency for the Mother institution in the five campus University.
“This is standard procedure in higher education, says LaPierre, spokesperson for the University. “Every University has restricted funds you can borrow from until tuition comes in. Some of those restricted funds had been used for cash flow purposes and some of that money was not payed back.”
Of the 20 people, she was one of the lucky six who were union, says Joan Meadows. She will be leaving with some security and time to look for another job. One person retired, the remaining staff members leave with little to nothing.
All the while the Board, University and stakeholders are preparing for the Board meeting in Cincinatti.
Alumni will be walking in with 5.3 million in cash and pledges and a business plan that they hope will convince the Board to reevaluate its decision to suspend operations by July 2008.