Antioch Rises From the Ashes

An old campus sustains new life

Madalyn Ruggiero for The Chronicle

"If we do this right, I'm convinced that we'll make it," says Mark Roosevelt, the college's president.
April 08, 2012

In late March, Antioch College's 33 students wrapped up their winter quarter amid pink clouds of magnolia blossoms, the cacophony of a building renovation in the middle of the campus, and guarded optimism that their newly reopened, 159-year-old college has a future.

Having a future means, first and foremost, having applicants. And the college does: Thanks to a pledge of four years' free tuition for members of the initial four classes, Antioch received 3,200 applications for next fall's 75 first-year spots, even though accreditation is still at least several years away. Having a future also means having money. Surprisingly, Antioch has that, too—the unexpected sale of a technology company that got its start at Antioch in the late 1940s brought a check for $35-million last year, kicking the endowment up to about $52-million.


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Antioch Rises From the Ashes 2

Madalyn Ruggiero for The Chronicle

Much of the campus's space, like this classroom in Antioch Hall, is not used. Some buildings will probably have to be torn down.

Antioch Rises From the Ashes 3

Madayn Ruggiero for The Chronicle

Cezar Mesquita, Antioch College's dean of admissions and financial aid, says he's honest with prospective students about what Antioch has to offer. Next year's class will be housed in North Hall (above), now undergoing renovation.

Antioch Rises From the Ashes 4

Madalyn Ruggiero for The Chronicle

A stage stands empty inside the unused Antioch Hall. Burst pipes flooded the building several winters ago, after the college's central steam plant was shut down.

But having a future will also require an achievable and appealing academic vision. That, in turn, will have to be tied to both a solid marketing plan and a sustainable business model, all overseen by clear-headed trustees and capable administrators. "If we do this right, I'm convinced that we'll make it," said Mark Roosevelt, Antioch's president for just over a year, on the final day of the quarter.

Mr. Roosevelt, the 1994 Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate and later a Brandeis University political-science professor, is accustomed to challenges: He had been Pittsburgh's superintendent of public schools since 2005, pushing a controversial reform agenda that required him to have police protection. After five years in the job, "I felt I had one major gig left in me," he said.

Reopening a college that had been shuttered for three years certainly qualifies—especially a college with a rich history that, at this point, is equal parts blessing and burden. The tiny start-up has a spacious, picturesque campus, for instance, but it once housed 2,000 students, far more than the new institution anticipates enrolling. Most of the buildings are empty, including the iconic, towered Antioch Hall, and the deferred-maintenance list is beyond daunting.

Similarly, the college's name is well known, but to many people it's a brand synonymous with the kind of liberals, leftists, and hippies who used to be the subjects of photo essays in Life magazine. Yellow Springs, a funky, lively hamlet half an hour from almost anything else, is also a mixed blessing. And while Antioch owes its reopening to its articulate, engaged alumni, they're opinionated and sometimes fractious, with impassioned memories of what the college was like while they were students.

As Mr. Roosevelt sees it, Antioch will stay true to its history of innovation only by continuing to evolve. Antioch is believed to have been the first coeducational American college to give a female faculty member the same status and pay as her male colleagues, and the first to make women eligible for the same degrees men got. After World War II it made a successful push to recruit black students. Now the institution must balance "a respect for the past and the obligation of looking at the delivery model," he said.

Curriculum's Core Remains

So far, the delivery model seems to have worked for this year's students, who gathered the same day for lively presentations about food, the topic of the winter quarter's "global seminar"—a course in which students discussed eating "in relation to culture, science, psychology, history, politics, and socioeconomics."

Jennifer Carlson, who spent six months working in India after high school, talked about her research linking suicides among Indian farmers to a Westernization of Indian agriculture brought about by the "green revolution" in the 1960s. Adam Abraham and Justin Moore described how the college's chef, Isaac Delamatre, had taught them to skin a deer and then process its meat. And Kaleigh Harris and Seth Kaplan showed off a clever video in which they ate the same meal six ways—normally and then with each sense impaired in turn—and recounted what they had learned. Faculty members—there are six now, with six more on the way for next year—walked around chatting and asking questions about the projects.

This month, after a two-week break, the students are beginning their first co-op session, working full time at jobs related to their academic interests. The cooperative program has been central to an Antioch education since the 1920s, and it's at the heart of the new year-round curriculum, devised in 2010-11 by a five-member team of former and current faculty members.

The curriculum, which is still being tweaked, requires students to participate in a total of four co-op sessions, at least one involving immersion in a foreign language. It also promises that students will work with faculty members to design their own majors. The idea is that the majors will help them fulfill the charge that the college's first president, the pioneering educator Horace Mann, included in his final commencement address, in 1859: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

A Precarious History

When Mann arrived in Yellow Springs, in 1853, Antioch was already in a precarious position—and it hadn't even opened yet. Founded by the general convention of the Christian Connexion, a sect that later merged into the United Church of Christ, the college neglected to supervise a builder who depleted the coffers by putting up three buildings that were significantly larger than had been asked for. The new president found that the classrooms had neither desks nor stoves, and that the builder had not yet gotten around to the promised president's house.

Fund raising and healthy enrollments—the college had 400 students within a year—kept Antioch open during Mann's lifetime. But it struggled after his death, in 1859, and closed for several years during the Civil War. It closed again in the 1880s, and yet again in the early 1920s, while a new president, Arthur E. Morgan, retooled the curriculum to accommodate the unusual co-op program.

But the most recent closing, in 2008, seemed to have stung the most: The college was shuttered by the university it had spawned, beginning in the 1970s, in a forward-thinking effort to bottle Antioch's educational offerings and export them to adult learners from coast to coast. By 2008 Antioch University had five outposts in addition to the original campus—one on the other side of Yellow Springs and the others scattered from Culver City, Calif., to Keene, N.H. When enrollment here sank to just over 300, though, the university's trustees voted to shut the college down.

Recriminations and negotiations ensued, and in 2009 the college's alumni paid the university $6-million to buy the college's campus and assets, along with a beloved 1,000-acre nature preserve that adjoins the campus and The Antioch Review, which celebrated its 70th birthday last year. Alumni set about planning the reopening, in addition to arranging monthly volunteer work sessions at which they help with landscaping, renovations, and other projects. They also began raising money.

"Right now we cost $10-million a year," Mr. Roosevelt said, with the annual fund contributing $2-million of that and another $2-million coming from endowment income. Board members have pledged $3-million a year for three years, leaving Mr. Roosevelt to raise $3-million a year in major gifts. "During the board's three-year pledge, I feel pretty secure—that gives us time to create something of obvious excellence."

Even so, he said, the college will have to keep an extremely close eye on costs. "We won't compromise on the rigor of the academics, but it will be a campus without bells and whistles. We have to clearly define who we are and who we aren't, with the emphasis on who we're not. We've got to be disciplined. And the things we say we're going to do, we have to do better than anyone else does them."

On the income side of the ledger, he said, "we've got to figure out what happens as we start charging students, and that's got to be a model that will hold us together over time." The college currently values tuition at about $27,000, even though no one's paying it. Students do pay $9,600 a year for room and board, although aid is available to those for whom that would be a hardship.

One unknown, for the time being, is how big Antioch hopes to be. "I could see 600," Mr. Roosevelt said, "or 1,000." That uncertainty makes some long-term planning difficult, especially when it comes to the campus infrastructure. Right now only a handful of the college's two dozen or so buildings are open—a classroom and faculty-office building from the 1960s, the 1920s gym, the 1950s library, and one of the three 1853 buildings, South Hall, which houses admissions and staff offices. Across the campus, students occupy a refurbished 1948 dorm that includes a dining hall. And alumni volunteers are fixing up some on-campus apartments for use by visitors.

The $5.4-million renovation project now under way in the center of the campus will reopen a second 1853 building, North Hall, to house the coming fall's class. The architecture firm that planned the renovation, Mac­Lachlan, Cornelius & Filoni, is working through other questions, such as how to reopen only a portion of the college's four-story science building—perhaps half of two floors, according to Christopher D. Brown, an architect for the firm. The college got through this year by renting a trailer equipped with a lab.

A big physical-plant challenge has been the university's 2008 decision to mothball the college's central steam plant. Although university officials said they would make sure water was drained out of all the buildings, pipes burst in both North Hall and the main building that winter, resulting in serious floods. And now stand-alone heating and air-conditioning units must be installed for any buildings that are reopened.

As for the rest of the buildings—the other dorms and academic buildings, the student center, the art building, the theater, Antioch Hall—leaves gather in their doorways. Sooner or later, Mr. Roosevelt said, some will probably have to be torn down.

About Accreditation

If Antioch sounds like a college with marketing challenges, it is. Reopening a college is "a huge, huge undertaking," said Cezar O. Mesquita, who took over as dean of admissions and financial aid late last summer after being hired away from the College of Wooster. "The biggest challenge is to have students and families listen to me when I tell them about the college," he said. "The majority of students, all they hear are the liabilities. You hope they hear how genuine we are."

Mr. Mesquita tells people that Antioch hopes to earn accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools after it graduates its first class, in 2015, and that the accreditation will be retroactive. In the meantime, other colleges in the Great Lakes Colleges Association have pledged to consider transfer applications from Antioch students if they want to leave. And with no tuition, it's not a problem that federal financial aid is unavailable at unaccredited colleges.

Mr. Mesquita said he is "very open and honest" about the college's limited offerings and uncertain future when he heads out on admissions tours with other small, prestigious institutions in the Colleges That Change Lives organization, a 41-member group based on Loren Pope's book of the same name. The college also depends on alumni to refer potential applicants, and on ties to unconventional private schools that have always sent students to Antioch—Waldorf schools, the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, the Putney School, in Vermont.

Free tuition is, of course, a big draw. When the college announced in January that the offer would be extended to members of not just the first class but the first four, the story got picked up widely and so many applications flooded the four-person admissions office that Mr. Mesquita had to call for volunteer readers. In the end, about 1,000 of the 3,200 applications were "viable," he said. The college has offered admission to about 160, and expects to enroll about 75.

Mr. Roosevelt is particularly proud of the admitted group's majority-minority demographic, which he said mirrors that of Americans in the fourth grade and younger. While that would doubtless appeal to Horace Mann and many of Antioch's liberal graduates, whether it can help assure the college's survival is less certain. On the other hand, Antioch's proud supporters see the risks here as well worth taking: "The best way to honor Antioch's past," Mr. Roosevelt said, "is by forging new ground."