4. RENEWAL

The Renewal Plan, implemented in 2005, was marketed to alumni and donors as a third great generation of Antioch College, after Mann and Morgan, preparing Antioch College for the challenges of the 21st century. But that was only part of the story: It was also a last-ditch effort by the Antioch University Board of Trustees to fix the growing fiscal problems at the college. This was the desperate cry for help from the Antioch University administration, but it was never publicly portrayed as such.1 Certainly there was an internal understanding of the necessity for change at some level, alongside the understanding of the dangers posed by an aggressive turnaround attempt. For example, then vice-chair of the university board, Art Zucker, told a college faculty meeting that the Renewal would be funded by the board for five years.2 Two years into the Renewal Plan, Zucker chaired the board that voted to close the college two years later.

The Renewal Plan was initially described as a multi-part project, with each of its parts intended to fix or improve the college’s financial situation. Only the first component, a curricular overhaul, was ever implemented–and a promised overhaul of the institution’s governance structure never came to fruition.

The core of the Renewal Plan was a reshaping of the college’s educational model to be focused on “Learning Communities.” Instead of the discrete classes of one-class, one-professor (the most common form of college education), learning communities involve multiple professors teaching larger numbers of students in a variety of different disciplines build around a single theme. Learning Communities in American higher education are uncommon but not unheard of—many schools offered them in part, and Evergreen State College in Washington (often considered a peer of Antioch’s) has built its entire curriculum on the concept of multiple professors teaching classes on general themes–indeed, an Evergreen administrator served on the Renewal Commission. One Antioch example was the “Revolution” learning community which involved professors of political science, media, and philosophy, while “Water” included a poet, a chemist, and a biologist.

In theory, the learning communities would allow Antioch to maintain its academic credibility while also making the student-teacher ratio more sustainable financially—Antioch was about 7:1 when the Renewal was announced, and it had the express goal of a 15:1 ratio, with 45 students in a three-professor community. That was an important potential financial advantage.

The educational advantages of learning communities were also exciting to some: They allowed professors the chance to work with respected colleagues and gave them the chance to make implicit connections between classes more explicit. And while relatively rare, learning communities were hardly unknown. The fact that many colleges, especially Evergreen, used learning communities gave Antioch a decent amount of data from other sources during implementation. And, theoretically, this would bridge a divide on the Board of Trustees between the academically-oriented and those more interested in finance.

Despite those apparent positives, the Renewal Plan was a disaster. Enrollment fell by two hundred students between 2003–04 and 2005–06, thanks largely to a tiny entering class of 60 in fall 2005. Many of those students weren’t even aware that they were guinea pigs in testing Antioch’s new educational form, and quickly left. This was in large part because they weren’t supposed to be the first Renewal class–the plan was initially scheduled for the next year, but it was launched twelve months early.  Fewer than 20 of the 60 remained by the college’s final year; this “lost class” was widely cited as a primary reason that the board of trustees closed the college.

Even if one accepts that the developers of the Renewal Plan had the best of intentions, the process by which the Plan was created and implemented made it a dubious proposition. The key issue: The Renewal Commission was detached from the college community. The people whose decisions it most impacted were largely disconnected from it, a stark contrast to the college’s history of the community being involved at all levels of governance.

The Renewal Commission was announced to the college community in the summer of 2003, after that term’s Board of Trustees meeting. College President Joan Straumanis reported its creation to the community after the meeting, but she didn’t announce its importance. In a Record report on her description, she described the search for a new Dean of Admissions as “of most importance.” The article is written as a summary of her speech, apparently in the order she gave it, and the Renewal is buried toward the end. There are a few ominous quotes from Straumanis—she says the Commission was appointed because the board was “scared, and because they care.” Then she shifts to discuss accreditation and fundraising (the latter of which she describes as in a “pre-emergency state.”)3

News like this could have been somewhat worrisome for the campus community, but worrisome news from administrators was common in 2003, as was committee creation. (Straumanis created six total in both of her two convocation speeches across the first year of her presidency.) The idea that this committee was reshaping the entire institution was a shock to the general campus community when the plan was unveiled in 2004. The Renewal Commission’s meetings had been largely secret, and often took place away from campus. Its membership contained a few token college community members, but was largely administrators and outsiders.4 And it received its charge to alter the college from the Antioch University Board, instead of the college’s primary power structures: the college faculty, the community-elected Administrative Council, or the president.

Once announced in the spring of 2004, the Renewal Plan was greeted with almost uniform dismay by the campus community. Massive changes were being forced upon the college, dramatically altering a system that, educationally, was working.5 Yet despite the negative reaction, despite the long history of the ideal of community involvement in decision-making, the college community had very little recourse to counter the Renewal. The Antioch College community, it turned out, had no power to prevent the Antioch University administration’s actions against it.

But what was Antioch University? How had it come to dominate Antioch College’s decision-making process? It wasn’t the college which was founded 150 years prior, nor was it the college which had the reputation the Antioch name was attached to. It was the corporate owner of Antioch College, and over the course of the previous four decades, its interests had come to diverge from those of the college.

Next >> Part 5, Expansion

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