Letter from Jean Gregorek in response to Ralph Keyes

Jean Gregorek, Associate Professor of Literature, responds to Ralph Keyes’s “Present at the Demise” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Web Editors Note – Accessing Ralph’s letter at the Chronicle of Higher Education website requires a login but Ralph also recently posted this article here : ilfpost.org/?p=230 and this is the link provided above.

The comment thread on this article at the Chronicle is here: chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,39968.0.html

I would like to respond to Ralph Keyes’s essay “Present at the Demise,” which offers his observations on what has led the Antioch University Board of Trustees to announce the closing of Antioch College. I have been teaching literature full time at Antioch College since 1994. While Mr Keyes makes some comments that strike me as valid, on the whole my experience here has been quite different. I do sympathize with Mr Keyes’s dismay over the deteriorating physical condition of Antioch buildings, especially the Antioch Library. I believe that he is correct to say that this neglect exemplifies an ongoing lack of appreciation for our excellent collections as a priceless resource, and represents the misplaced priorities of successive college and university administrations. I can also attest to the damaging and destabilizing effects of frequent administrative turnover. However, Mr Keyes’s lengthy discussion of alleged illiberal behavior on the part of students and faculty creates the impression that this administrative turnover—and, indeed, the college’s proposed closure itself–are primarily due to an endemic culture of intolerance. Instead, I would argue that a bad-spent endowment, and the increasingly constricting and unbalanced relationship between Antioch College and the larger University have led us to this sad point. Residential liberal arts colleges with beautiful historic buildings are by their nature expensive propositions, and this one has been ill-served by a University Board which has become more responsive to the needs of the satellite campuses that make up the University than to the original College which created them. My point is that, given a governance and funding structure which disempowered the College, the proclivities of College students may make for sensational reading but are largely irrelevant.

The far more serious threat to the intellectual freedom and culture of inquiry which Keyes claims to champion comes from the hiring practices of institutions like Antioch University which disavow tenure and the academic independence it maintains. The University campuses rely on adjuncts and faculty on short-term contracts. As these campuses focus on the delivery of a few revenue-producing programs, they admittedly have a very different mission from the traditional liberal arts College. However, this is no excuse for employment practices which go against widely-accepted academic standards and which cannot ensure faculty imput into programs, curricula, and budget decisions. Nor indeed, basic all-American freedom of speech–employees at Antioch University campuses can be (and, it appears, have been) fired at will if they happen to disagree with administrators. A June report by Scott Carlson presents the alarming information that faculty at the McGregor campus “would not talk to the The Chronicle about the college’s closing or its future, fearing that to do so would put their jobs in jeopardy.”
However, since the issue of supposedly intolerant students shutting down free speech has been given so much air time, I would like to say for the record that teaching Antioch students has almost always been a delight. Unlike Mr Keyes, I find piercings, tattoos, and discussions of safe sex practices in the student newspaper unremarkable. I have encountered very little disrespect in my classes during my thirteen years of teaching here (which I could not say, incidentally, about my time at Ohio State). When I have come across what I perceived as immature behavior or intellectual irresponsibility, I have done my best to model fairness and open-mindedness along with intellectual seriousness. Yes, years of dwindling support staff and student services have contributed to a particularly unsettled atmosphere on campus, and this needs to be addressed. But to focus on examples of individual students ‘acting out,’ at the expense of the structural inequities that have created an environment plagued by scarcity is, as former Trustee Barbara Winslow wisely observes, to mistake the symptom for the underlying cause. At this moment, when the future of Antioch College as a liberal arts institution hangs in the balance, it is high time to put aside the diversionary strategy of blaming Antioch’s so-called “toxic culture.”

Mr Keyes makes another major misjudgment when he characterizes controversial student choices of commencement speakers as yet another sign of a self-absorbed student body. Quite the opposite.

Far from expressing “student indifference to outside concerns,” providing the opportunity for the condemned prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal to be heard via audio tape during the 2000 Antioch commencement ceremony (the official speaker was Leslie Feinberg) was a deliberate political statement in support of an international campaign for a new trial. This campaign was organized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the National Lawyer’s Guild, and the NAACP, among others. The students’ decision to provide a platform for Abu-Jamal was accompanied by teach-ins and extensive media outreach in order to promote conversations about free speech, the death penalty, the explosion of U.S. incarceration rates, and the persistent racist bias in the U.S. criminal justice system, a bias well-documented by sociological and legal research (see, for example, the website of The Sentencing Project, www.sentencingproject.org or 360 Degrees of Criminal Justice, 360degrees.org/ddata/index/html). In the winter of 2000 the Republican governor of Illinois announced a moratorium on the death penalty in his state due to ongoing revelations of false convictions. To express concern about the fairness of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s trial by the state of Pennsylvania under these conditions ought to be, it seemed to me then and seems to me still, a relatively uncontroversial matter. Reasonable people have disagreed on whether or not Mumia had grounds for an appeal; in December of 2005 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia did in fact decide in his favor. Yet Antioch was vilified in the press and our decision drew a barrage of harassment, hate mail, and death threats. About 600 angry police protestors and their allies descended upon the commencement ceremony to register their opposition. “Now Mumia sits in a six-foot cell–but soon he will burn in HELL!” was one of the milder signs outraged demonstrators were waving that day. To their credit, both the Antioch Community and the Village of Yellow Springs remained calm and resolute in the face of such intimidation and the ceremony proceeded peacefully. I view that commencement day as another example in the long history of Antioch College’s taking highly unpopular stands that ultimately turn out to be not so crazy after all—the abolition of slavery, support of women’s rights to higher education, resistance to Red Scares in the 1950’s, support of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, opposition to the Viet Nam War in the 1960’s and 70’s, attacking the widespread problem of date rape in the 90’s—the list goes on.

Finally, I feel that in the midst of lurid accounts of student squabbles, ‘street talk,’ and alleged sexual practices, a fundamental fact is being obscured: Antioch students have continued to succeed academically in the most rigorous and competitive environments. However much conservative commentators may choose to abuse the intellectual abilities of Antiochians, those who actually teach them every day tend to come to different conclusions–and so have the nation’s best professional schools, graduate programs, and grant-awarding agencies. I am currently in contact with former students who are attending the Berkeley School of Law, the Columbia School of Journalism, and the Library Science Program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; with students who are completing doctorates in Anthropology at Cornell University, in Philosophy at the Sorbonne, in International Studies at George Washington University, and in Literature or Cultural Studies at the Universities of Washington, Virginia, and Ohio State. At least four students have received Master’s Degrees from the University of Chicago. Creative Writing students are attending (or have attended) top Master of Fine Arts Programs, including New York University and the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Houston. Recent graduates have received Fulbright Fellowships and been accepted into the prestigious School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University. These are but a few of many possible examples I could cite, and every faculty member could produce his or her own list. By the measure of graduate admissions rates (and that, of course, is only one measure) we continue to outstrip that of larger and far more financially stable colleges and universities. This high rate of academic success is also due to Antioch’s innovative Co-operative Education program which requires that students work at jobs around the country and around the world in between their study semesters on campus. And our tradition of student involvement in community decision-making and college governance yields leadership skills and a sense of efficacy that few if any other educational models can match.

Antiochians are currently waging a valiant fight to save their college (see the website Antiochians.org for details).

Our brave and distinctive small liberal arts college deserves much more respect than it has been receiving for its production of so many independent-minded, creative and socially-committed scholars and citizens.

At this moment our future is uncertain: we could be closed down in June of 2008 to make way for a high-tech University of Phoenix-clone staffed by instructors and adjuncts and become just another bland addition to the corporate educational landscape.

Or we could rise again.

If the fomer comes to pass not only will this particular faculty and staff be unemployed but the larger struggle to maintain the tradition of tenure–and the related principle of the independence of higher education from commercial interests and pressures–will have taken another significant step backwards. Anyone interested in preserving spaces for genuinely free thought in this country, as Mr Keyes claims to be, should be working for Antioch College’s salvation, not morbidly applauding its premature demise.

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