By Marissa Geiger
[History will help us see our present circumstances and the future more clearly. This two-part series is presented thanks to several months of work from Marissa, researched through dozens of interviews and lengthy searches through Antiochiana and back issues of the Record. –MH]
“When an institution doesn’t have lax leadership, it becomes driven by law and finance and the result is it is a fear driven institution rather than a mission driven institution” -Bob Levin (as quoted by Bob Devine)
By now you have heard the horror stories from the summer, how the renegade administration took matters into their own hands to achieve efficiency, the unjust firings and demotions, and a stagnate air to campus starting the week our President Joan Straumanis gave us her the update on the Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting. Straumanis mentioned that the BOT is paying close attention to the College, even more so and has decided to create a Renewal Commission to revitalize every facet of the campus. She also told us there were plans for a restructuring of the Dean of Students (DOS) office. And then there was the Antioch Independence Fund (AIF), calling for the centralization of the College and moving it out of the University’s control while using $1.2 million (collected from like-minded alumni) to coax University administrators to comply with their demands.
It was at Joan’s meeting that I met some feisty alumni who worked closely with the AIF. That was the start of my mission to find out about the relationship between the University and the College, since Joan’s meeting had me near panicked tears. I was determined to eradicate this growing fear within me by discovering where the deepest root of our current crisis lies. I use the term crisis lightly, as we have been in much worse condition, as I hope to point out to you. I contended most of the summer that the cause to all our woes was merely a mismanagement issue. I began by asking the question, “Who is really in charge here?”
I think that question is integral to understanding the Antioch College (AC) and Antioch University (AU) relationship and I hope to show you where the line lies between the two. I apologize in advance for holes in my research/writing. As I am limited as a student for time and limited in terms of length, I have meticulously selected what I am discussing. I am hoping this will start a dialogue on campus about our history and I welcome any corrections/arguments against what I say here.
If you haven’t heard about the summer’s course of events, allow me to clarify. The former DOS resigned in April. It was this and many other issues that led Joan to believe the position put too much responsibility and expected too much out of one individual. So goes the reasoning for the actual restructuring. People had issue, however, with how the new positions were being drafted in written form. Some people even believed certain positions were created for specific people. Joan called for a “DOS Restructuring Committee” who would pool together opinions and suggestions from the community. We held various forums and the Committee gladly accepted feedback from those off campus via email. The Committee was to report to join about their findings, and from there she was to make a decision.
The outcome is what we have in place today and it isn’t quite what the community at large suggested. But what you didn’t see, and what you don’t hear about today is that there was blood spilled along the way; people lost their jobs and others were demoted unfairly who were integral to the campus community and whom everyone loved. The AIF situation ended badly, and from the view of the community, was handled badly on all rungs of the Antioch hierarchy, starting with Joan and ending with the BOT. There were some stipulations to receiving the money collected by the AIF that seemed outright ridiculous and on the verge of blackmail, for example severing from the University, while others had been demanded since the birth of the University, for example College President would be ex-officio BOT member.
However, $1.2 million dollars is enough and a lot of community couldn’t get the bitter taste out of their mouth, thinking that more deliberation could have taken place (with the community involved) and that it appeared as if it was another situation were the Board was asserting its power. AIF gave a deadline to Antioch a few years ago that ended this past August, the money they raised being given to a bunch of secondary designations, mostly in Yellow Springs and other nonprofits.
The Dixon Years
James P. Dixon is credited with creating “the Network” (which eventually went on to become AU). Dixon’s presidency spanned 25+ years, starting in 1959 until 1975. In the early 1960’s, individual initiative caused many “centers” affiliated with Antioch to sprout up all over the country. The first established was the Putney school in Vermont (which is now a grad school known as Antioch School of New England). Less than four years later, Antioch had established 30-35 centers around the world (including a law school in DC and programs in Alaska). It was also during that time that those satellites created their own sub-satellites, as did they, and so on and so forth. There was inequity among the units, as it was difficult for Antioch College to manage an “empire” this enormous. Institutional control was virtually impossible, mainly because of geographical constraints. The College at the time had its own BOT, but when we started to expand to create the University, they had to divide their time. It was impossible to attend to all the centers, so they mainly focused on administration from centers and the College. Former Antioch Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Law, Al Denman, says, “[Dixon] was willing to sacrifice the future of the College if we were to be true to our destiny as educational leaders. And if we were to be true to our destiny it didn’t matter if we survived cause we would be setting the pace, we’d be an example, we’d help others ride with the tides even though we might go under… the job of the administration was to enable those who were catching the visions of the future that were destined to be, not stand in the way.”
Establishing centers around the globe promoting all the values and ideals of Antioch was sound ideally, but not in practice, as it turned out. Connie Pelakoudas, who was Professor of Economics at the time stated, “There was interesting motivation [to establish the satellites]- take a program to less fortunate areas. It was not intended to be permanent. It was initially intended to empower the people in the community to take charge of their education that couldn’t otherwise attend a rural liberal arts college.”
Meanwhile, back home in Yellow Springs, the campus was in the beginning stages of severe budget crisis. The bills eventually started to come in for the previous three years of expansion from all the satellites; we had overspent; all of our reserves were gone and we plummeted into great debt in a matter of months. As a historical note, the Vietnam War was raging as were campus uprisings all over the country speaking out against our involvement in Vietnam. Nixon took this personally and threatened to take away student grants.
Since most of the students here were supported by financial aid, and upon hearing the resounding threat from Nixon, the students demanded the administration promise that they would be financially supported through their four years here. Denman states, “The administration knew something they couldn’t actually tell everybody, namely they had already overspent everything (mainly on the Network), so there was no money for guarantee of student support and these messianic visionaries (the students/ faculty on strike) got together and shut down the school.” However, this was the second strike. As Stephen Duffy in the Library will tell you, the first strike was that of the newly established Union on campus. The totality of both strikes paralyzed the campus for weeks. The doors reopened, but with far fewer students than when they closed. Within a year, the enrollment plummeted from 2300 students to about 1600 students.
The BOT is AOK
Dixon was dismissed in 1974 mainly for mismanagement of the network and finances, and other controversies surrounding him and his associates. The BOT was urged to act the year before by many constituents, including students (via the Record) and faculty who claimed Dixon was incompetent as a leader, which, they concluded, clearly led to disintegration and degradation of the community (as reported in Dayton Daily News 09-23-73). The constituents also challenged the Board’s thoroughness when dealing with recent events, alluding to the possibility that they are completely ignorant about what goes on at the school. However, a commentary to the Record in 1974 by Prof. John Sparks, offers a retort and defends the position of the BOT.
He points out that, at the time, the College’s Charter states the president serves “at the pleasure of the Board”. Sparks continues by supplying evidence that Dixon did not comply with the Board and, in fact, filtered what he told them. Members of the Board mentioned in Sparks’ article stated that the President did not keep them sufficiently informed of developments for them to be able to do their job intelligently and responsibly and that they continually asked for information but were held off or ignored. Dixon acted on his own numerous times and even went to the extent of quashing AdCil’s rulings or avoiding AdCil all together.
The Wrestler Comes to Antioch
Insufficient attention was paid to the 35 units, and they were financially mismanaged and poorly run which is a violation of the financial management responsibility of the Board. Putting this into the context of our current situation, the Board does not want it to happen again to the College and according to Denman, “they do feel a grave responsibility for it.” (Maybe this explains the tightening of the financial reigns in recent years?) The Board sought out a replacement for Dixon and landed William Birenbaum from Long Island, NY.
Birenbaum’s presidency spanned from 1976 until 1984 (the period between his entrance and Dixon’s exit was covered by a joint interim president wife/husband team, Bob and Kay Levin). This period is the most crucial of all three examined here, as Birenbaum was the creator of what we know now as Antioch University (AU). He had the distinguished job to do whatever it took to keep the College alive. He was hired to cut down Dixon’s Network, to whittle away things that were hemorrhaging, entering with an axe to chop away anything that would drag the rest of the institution down. However, Birenbaum did not like Yellow Springs nor Antioch from the beginning (his wife reportedly despised Ohio), so he moved the offices to New York City. His logic was he had more financial connection and could raise more money in NYC (even when factoring the cost of his travel twice a week back to campus). As Duffy pointed in an interview, “Absence does not make the heart grow fonder. He couldn’t know the actual problems unless he was here. He only knew what he was being fed. Who does the feeding? Who’s ever ego is involved.”
It was a big mistake on Birenbaum’s part to live far away from campus. How could he grasp what Antioch was all about, both in principle and practice? His mission clearly was not to make friends, but to straighten out the mess of the previous decades. He was known as a bully and when challenged in public forum (meetings, AdCil, etc) he would ask if they wanted to step outside and wrestle, as he was a wrestler in his undergrad years. The campus, at large, generally felt hostile towards him and fought back by writing letters to the Record or attending his few and far between public appearances. When it came to him paring down what was suffering the most financially, that is where he ran into problems. According to Pelakoudas, “We had a lot of issues getting out of certain programs. Legal issues were involved in the process of closing them down”.
The Infamous Name Change
In a resolution dated Fall 1977, Birenbaum proposed an amendment to be taken to the Board of Regents of the State of Ohio to change the name Antioch College to Antioch University, and included in this “university” was the remnants of Dixon’s Network: Antioch College, Yellow Springs; Antioch School of Law, Washington, DC; Antioch-East, Maryland; Antioch-West, San Francisco; and Antioch International also located in Yellow Springs. The reasoning was “by nature of its degree offerings and organization Antioch conforms to the definition of a ‘University’”. We were no longer a small liberal arts college; we were a part of a whole. But it wasn’t (and shouldn’t be) the College that managed the Networks. According to Birenbaum, as stated in YS News, “It should clarify what Antioch is to the public”. “College” is used to describe an institution that is exclusively or primarily undergrad in nature. Administrators saw what was Antioch, at the time, operating on a university model. In the next three years, there would be three Provosts (our equivalent to AC president) under Birenbaum as he continued business in NYC.
Worst Financial Crisis in the Late 1900’s
In 1979 there was the worst financial crisis in years. Faculty and staff both worked for free, called “pay-less paydays” for weeks. AU issued I.O.U’s and most workers went on welfare programs, such as food stamps. Duffy calls it “a creative gamble to get out of fiscal exigency”. There was a huge administration created by the AU expansion, and the newly incorporated campuses were expensive, namely AC and the Law School. However, Bob Devine states, “AC actually caused it to default. AC caused the default, which caused a bank to seize part of our endowment. The drop in enrollment [is the issue], not the University that took our endowment.” The campus went into survival mode. According to stories from Duffy, students, faculty and staff teamed up during the summer and worked on the campus grounds for little to no pay. Already two years after the name change, the finances crashed and the AC community lost the little faith they had in their administrators. As Denman put it, “The entire institution was insolvent, by that we mean that there was literally no money flowing either in nor out. Nobody was being paid, no bills were being paid and nothing was being purchased. The campus was on the verge of bankruptcy. There was a great doubt as to whether we would open in the fall.”
It was during this time that Birenbaum suggested to sell off what is now Antioch Commons to the town as a form of capital; we ended up buying it back years down the road when in decent financial standing.
Al Denman answers questions with legal backing
The severe budget crisis took a toll on the campus as a whole and people started to really question the college’s current system. Denman took the summer off to research his guide to “Legal Means for Separating Antioch College from Antioch University”. It outlines many issues that are strangely echoed today: AC has fundamental cultural and general differences with AU and its administration; capital assets (endowment, alumni, property, etc) that belong to AU actually belong to AC and were stolen from AC.; an attempt may be made to close AC to save the rest of the University; and the AU administration is incapable of superintending itself, let alone the rest of the units (and their budgets). “Antioch College” cannot have standing to sue in order to separate because it is not a separate legal entity and is not a “person” in the eyes of the law.
There are correlations to today’s problems, but the most dramatic was that, according to Denman, “Birenbaum felt that the College stood in the way of the University and that the College needed to either die or be sufficiently metamorphosed so that it was no longer the Antioch College that we know but would be a different kind of creature cause it needed to give up its life so that the life of the University should continue.” (This striking historical repetitiveness bears contemplation.) Birenbaum was in close contact with the BOT, especially Leo Drey, who has given millions of dollars over the years. Without him, our College would not be alive today. But it is contended that BOT waited too long to dismiss Birenbaum, as he hostilely severed himself from the campus, and it was noted by several interviewees that during his tenure here that his judgment got progressively more clouded. But, without Birenbaum, there would be no precedence set for the entering president who would, in the long run, build a equal exchange among the units of AU, and would illustrate how all the parts of the whole funded each other through troubled times.