Antioch College's rebirth is taking hold

Spirited alumni fuel fundraising goal


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YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio -- In his office, Matthew Derr keeps a year-old photo that shows him accepting the keys to Antioch College, a pivotal moment in an alumni crusade to buy and reopen the storied liberal arts campus.

The elation was evident that day on the face of Mr. Derr, an Antioch alumnus who is now the school's interim president. But his mood no doubt was tempered by the realization of what would come next.

Reviving a college that has been closed is not a job for those with a weak stomach or a thin wallet.

A school that plans a year from now to welcome its first 25 students since it was shuttered in 2008 faces an intimidating to-do list that, among other things, includes:

• Hiring a faculty

• Winning anew its accreditation and its right to award degrees.

• Rebuilding an admissions operation to reconnect with students who may have written off the place as deceased.

• Restoring a campus of 26 buildings, all structurally sound but with decades of deferred maintenance.

• Oh, yes, and raising $50 million over five years to pay for it all.

These are just some of the hurdles that Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, sole finalist for the Antioch presidency, will face if interviews he undergoes this week on the rural college campus lead its trustees to offer him the job.

One of those challenges -- the $50 million goal -- may not be as daunting as it might seem, given how quickly donations have flowed in thus far. Already, $20 million has been raised, not counting $2.1 million received this past fiscal year toward the school's annual fund, which pays for operating expenses.

Twenty-six percent of Antioch's 17,000 alumni are current donors, a share Mr. Derr called remarkable for a school that isn't even open. He said he hopes the fundraising climate is about to get even better.

"We were raising money for a cause," said Mr. Derr, a member of the Class of '89. "Now we're raising money for a college."

But plenty of difficult choices are ahead in the coming months.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he said. "That's why the appointment of a new president is so important. There's money to be raised and plans to be finalized."

Pioneers sought

Antioch -- known nationally for its progressive approach to education and for individualistic graduates who made their mark on everything from Congress to Hollywood -- has been a big part of the identity of this southwestern Ohio village for nearly 160 years.

For Mr. Derr, the worst part about his alma mater being closed has been the depressing silence.

"I walk around this campus and I look at the sidewalks and not seeing faculty or students walking -- it doesn't feel right," he said.

The goal is to break that silence with a pilot class of 25 students in fall 2011.

The first to enroll in a re-opened Antioch will study tuition-free, each subsidized by income from the college's $25 million endowment. They will be nominated by alumni, retired professors, school teachers and others, and they must display not only academic strength but commitment to liberal arts studies and to the school's unfolding renaissance.

"We want students who are intentionally here because they want to be pioneers," Mr. Derr said.

He said Antioch also expects them to work, noting the importance of co-operative education at a school that touts itself as the first liberal arts college in America to apply it across the curriculum, beginning in 1921.

In future years, tuition will be about $26,000, an amount intended to mirror out-of-state rates on public campuses. Antioch officials say they want an enrollment of 400 students within five years -- well below the 2,407 peak in 1972, but greater than the 286 attending when it closed in 2008.

Nationwide, there are examples in recent decades of schools on the brink of closing that were rescued by alumni or other groups, said Jon Fuller, senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

He cited as examples Wilson College in Pennsylvania, Southern Virginia College (now a university) and Shimer College in Illinois.

But the process that Antioch now finds itself in -- re-opening after a two-year dormancy -- is "pretty close to unique" in modern times, Dr. Fuller said.

"It's been really quite amazing," he said. "Even those of us who knew Antioch pretty well thought the chances of pulling this off were pretty small."

Throughout its history, the college has been tied to social causes, even adopting as its motto: "Be ashamed to die until you've won some victory for humanity."

Its first president, Horace Mann, was a pioneer in public education. The school's website says Antioch was the first co-ed college in the nation to offer the same educational opportunities to both men and women and was the first to appoint a woman to its faculty and to its board of trustees.

The campus counts among its graduates Coretta Scott King, Class of 1951; "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, Class of '50; and actor Cliff Robertson, Class of '46.

At the time it closed, Antioch was not profiled in the Princeton Review's annual "Best Colleges" book, according to a representative for the guide. But the 2006 "Students' Guide to Colleges: The Definitive Guide to America's Top 100 Schools," published by Penguin Group, noted that Antioch "has produced seven MacArthur fellows -- as many as Yale and Stanford" since the coveted genius grants debuted in 1981.

"Antioch took me as a skinny bright-enough colored girl from the narrow segregated world of Washington, D.C., and opened me to a veritable universe of ideas and possibilities," Eleanor Holmes Norton, Class of '60, and now District of Columbia delegate to Congress, is quoted as saying on a placard hanging in the entrance to the campus library.

But those on campus, Mr. Derr among them, acknowledge that Antioch became an architect of its own demise, forming dozens of branches in the 1960s and deciding to become a university. As a division of that university, the original residential college had a diminished voice.

Unsuccessful at overturning the university's decision to close their alma mater in 2008, the college's fiercely loyal alumni purchased the moribund college's independence a year later, paying $6.2 million to the university for the land and buildings, the literary magazine The Antioch Review and the Glen Helen Nature Preserve next to the campus.

Signs of new life

As Dr. Fuller sees it, one big challenge still ahead will be "convincing students to come" in an economic climate that has made liberal arts studies and higher-priced private colleges a harder sell. Another will be nailing down accreditation, he said.

Because Antioch's original accreditation remains with Antioch University, the resurrected college must secure accreditation as a new institution, said Gariot Louima, its director of communications. It is preparing to apply to both the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and the American Academy for Liberal Education, and will also seek approval to award degrees from the Ohio Board of Regents.

Walk the mostly deserted campus of brick buildings, and it's not hard to find reminders of darker days -- such as a sign affixed to the North Hall residence that says the building is closed and its plumbing has been shut off.

But there also are signs of life anew, including the reappearance of Antioch sweat shirts and mugs being sold inside South Hall, a classroom building temporarily serving as administrative offices.

On Thursday, workers in hard hats were busy pruning branches on the schools main campus cut, a tranquil green space shaded by ash, oak and sycamore trees that sits at the foot of the school's main administration building, Antioch Hall, which is closed for restoration.

Not far away, exterior work continues on the Olive Kettering Library, which remained open as a university holding even after Antioch closed, its 280,000 volumes serving village residents, including retired professors. The library now belongs to the college.

Karen Adams, 53, was part of a facilities management team in 2007 that handled the sad task of going through buildings readying them to be closed. Now rehired, she was among those working last week to ready the campus.

"I think everyone is pretty excited," she said.

A similar sentiment was heard in eateries and shops along Xenia Avenue in the village center.

Some spoke of the enrichment their small town gained over the decades by an influx each year of creative and even eccentric personalities who gave the place a counterculture feel and an occasional jolt.

"You might see a professor in dreadlocks looking into the trash to get a desk to use," said Yellow Springs resident Kim O'Brien.

Inside Dino's Cappuccinos, manager Eric Brown said "it's been a little quieter in here since the college kids left." He's looking forward to return of what he described as a bastion of culture.

"If it weren't for the college, Yellow Springs wouldn't be nearly as cosmopolitan as it is," he said. "It would be just another sleepy Ohio town."


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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