“It’s a wild place,” I remember my English teacher in University, an Antioch College alumna from the late 70s, saying when talking about the College back home in the Netherlands. In hindsight she could not have predicted just how right she was.
Sixteen months ago I embarked on a transcontinental journey to a small town in Ohio, hoping to reinvigorate a joy for learning I once had. Little did I know that less than a year later, I would find myself amidst one of the biggest stories in US higher education of the last decade. I had taken a leap of faith and it had changed my path forever.
At times, it is still unreal how this national uprising of alumni and campus community –the Antioch Revival, as it has come to be known — came about and just how massive it is. Online listservs are buzzing at all hours of the day and deep into the night, when alumni, having come home from a long day at work and having put their kids to bed, give up on a good night’s sleep to share their expertise in areas like law, fundraising and communications in one of dozens of online planning discussions (some running 80-posts deep in your Gmail inbox), while a volunteer IT team, made up of alumni professionals from around the country, work graveyard shifts to live-stream audio of campus meetings and build websites, including that of the new College Revival Fund, which in the last 125 days has raised close to $18 million in gifts and pledges to keep Antioch College open. Things are simply going too quickly to pause and realize the magnitude of experiences we’ve undergone in such a short period of time. Yet it somehow feels organic; as so often at Antioch, madness soon became a state of normality.
For me, coming to Antioch was an escape from educational boredom, as much as it was an escape away from the person I had become within a school system that did not linger upon questions, but focused on the answers one needed to regurgitate to pass a test; questioning the validity of the information we were receiving was hardly a part of our curriculum back home, and a concern to few of my peers. I quickly lost interest in learning and by many common standards, I was not living up to my potential. Then, a year and a half away from graduating University, I took a plunge into the unknown, a phenomenon Antiochians of all generations have mastered in order to survive in a challenging environment that includes packing up your life every four months to leave on co-op somewhere in the word.
Now, one announcement of closing, one angry alumni reunion, one national uprising, one lifting of suspension and many secret trustee summits later, we are all collectively on the verge of once again plunging into the unknown to survive, as an institution and a community. After months of turbulence and a tainted victory under leadership of the Alumni Board, the cards are dealt once again this week and this time stakes are higher than ever before.
Donors have been pushing for full separation of the College and the University and the Board will vote on this today. I hope they will succeed. For the first time in 30 years, we have the potential to shape our own future. For the first time in 10 years we can shake off the shackles of a structure that has crippled us and stripped us of much our autonomy. With that loss of autonomy came a disregard for the wisdom of a self-governing community that was willing and able to shape the future for the better had it been given a fair chance.
Wouldn’t it be great to have our own CFO back and manage our own finances? Wouldn’t it be great not to pay $437.000 in IT overhead to the University while being systematically throttled with one (limited) T1 line to the college and no IT department? Wouldn’t it be great to have a governing board able and willing to fully represent the interests of a residential liberal arts college?
This is the time to bring out into the open all that has gone wrong, to analyze and to hold accountable, to push and push some more. But breaking away from the University also means we have to start living up to our own standards. It is easy to criticize the University administration for its lack of transparency in processes and overall insusceptibility for values that we at the college hold up high. If we want to remain credible when proclaiming our gospel to the world, however, it’s important that we are as critical of ourselves and current leaders in the revival, as we are towards those we are breaking away from. Things are not done better just because they are done by other people, be they “true” Antiochians or not. After all, the majority of our current trustees grew up Antiochian and they are still convinced they were doing a good job while operating in secrecy and ignoring carefully established policies of socially responsible investment. We can’t afford making those and other mistakes again under leadership of “true” Antiochians.
In moving forward, it is up to us to hold our new leaders to not just celebrate victory over the status quo, but to actually change it.
The community wants to be involved in shaping its own future and they deserve to be part of it: a sentiment the current members of the Alumni Board need to take to heart as much as any future trustee. Anyone that has any doubt about the ability of this community to do what is necessary to make this college thrive, I urge to have a closer look. Look at the students that are organizing to recruit an incoming class and spend part of their Christmas break to spread the word that Antioch is still alive. I wish people on the outside could see the number of hours that faculty are working every day and night, trying desperately to combine teaching, mentoring and personal life with serving endless hours on committees that they hope will contribute to keeping the college alive. They are doing this while reluctantly applying for other jobs, knowing that as of now, they are still fired by June 2008. Look at the tired staff that are working three jobs at a time and still somehow find the energy to smile when you step into their office. And I urge them look at alumni that have done months of research and have continuously raised key issues far ahead of time and have often been marginalized for it.
Today, while students are packing up their lives, the real revolution could begin. If our trustees are ignorant enough to pass the opportunity in front of them, I hope the faculty will succeed in their effort to once again sue the University, this time joined by the major donors with millions to last their breath. And I predict the next obituary will be the university’s. If we do get what is on the table, we have a lot of work ahead but a fair chance of success for the first time in a long time. The next months will be rough and it will take more than one leap of faith, but if we do it right, this is the moment that will change the future of Antioch College profoundly.