The 2001–2002 school and fiscal year would prove to be a critical one for Antioch. The decisions made in this year pushed the college’s finances from precarious to a state of near-constant crisis for the rest of the school’s life. There wasn’t a single, dramatic decision like the Renewal Plan, but instead a set of interconnected problems, policies, and social shifts crippled Antioch College.
Two events precipitated the 2001–2002 changes. The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks triggered a general economic downturn and stock market decline, making Antioch’s financial situation even less stable. The attacks also pushed national politics in a more conservative direction, making Antioch’s general left-leaning politics seem slightly more abnormal, and rendering the college an easy target, especially among an increasingly conservative Board of Trustees
Second, both Antioch College and Antioch University underwent major leadership shifts. Both college president Bob Devine and university chancellor Jim Hall had been in office since 1996, and both planned to resign during the year. This sudden instability in leadership triggered a response at the board level. In 2008, filmmaker and journalist Brian Springer published an in–depth examination of the university’s politics in that year as “Antioch Confidential,” a piece that’s critical for understanding the decision-making process while also being fairly difficult to read, thanks to its density and intense focus on the politics and people of the era.1
“Antioch Confidential” depicts an institution responding to turmoil by narrowing its circles of power and investing two men with increasing authority. The Antioch University board formed an oddly titled “Ad Hoc Committee” in June 2001, university trustee Bruce Bedford, an executive of defense contractor GlobeSecNine, was invested with the powers of chancellorship, while Antioch University Chief Financial Officer Glenn Watts was added to the University Leadership Council. Neither Watts nor Bedford were Antioch alumni, nor had either worked with small residential liberal arts colleges before. Antioch College was built on democratic processes and decision-making where the people affected by decisions were involved in making them, but Antioch University’s process had devolved into secrecy and consolidation of power.
It was not a more efficient process. “Antioch Confidential” noted that the locked-away resolutions of the Ad Hoc committee were so confusing that their seal had to be broken for the board to understand its own decisions. The board’s secrecy had rendered it unable to effectively communicate even with itself! Secrecy would remain a defining trait of the Antioch University administration over the next several years, with results that speak for themselves.
Antioch University’s Board of Trustees was now micromanaging its finances, a very strange occurrence in the world of nonprofit trusteeship—normally trustees donate money more than they manage it. But the Antioch University board in this era was remarkably bad at this seemingly core concept.2 The ideology that educational or nonprofit institutions should be run “more like a business” was clearly at play here, with disastrous results.
Long-time college Dean of Students Steve Schwerner had a saying that became known as Schwerner’s Law: “If it is an asset, it belongs to the University; if it is a liability, it belongs to the College.” Bedford and Watts set about shifting the financial balance of the Antioch University system, with the result that Schwerner’s Law became codified.
This was accomplished via a few different tactics over the course of 2001–2002. Two of the non-residential campuses were heading toward default on their loans, which was fixed by allowing Antioch University to shift revenue from the endowment—which was primarily earmarked for Antioch College—to the university as a whole. That revenue, combined with the usual subsidies to the parent campus, would have covered the college’s deficit that year. Instead, the deficit allowed Antioch University to demand the college slash its budget.
The shift of revenue away and expenses toward the college’s budget was not a one-time event. As part of the Financial Stabilization and Consolidation Plan implemented in 2001–2002, the paper expense of depreciation was pushed onto the college’s budget from the university’s. In theory, deferred maintenance costs should be planned for. As the college had the largest campus of any in the university, with dozens of buildings, it seems fair for it to pay more. But in practice, it was a body blow to the college’s finances from which it would never recover. Every following year, there was a deficit. In a budget of roughly $20 million per year, annual depreciation of around $1.5 million was usually the difference between health and cuts. It was a devastating decision at a vulnerable time.
Glenn Watts became the deliveryman of the mandated austerity planning. Antioch University demanded across-the-board cuts in the budget in 2001–2002. In a letter to the college’s CFO, Barb Stewart, dated October 26, 2001, he laid out budget requirements and recommendations. These included the elimination of summer classes (a virtual necessity at Antioch thanks to its co-op system); the elimination of 20 positions, preferably by not filling open or soon-to-be open positions but by layoffs if necessary; and in the most revealing and symbolic demand, the closing of the Kettering Building’s Greenhouse due to energy inefficiency even though, as Watts acknowledges, the college wasn’t actually paying for heat or electricity in the building. In a directly related act dripping with symbolic meaning, Barb Stewart would resign her position just weeks later; the college would not have its own CFO for another five years. Its finances were almost completely dominated by the university.
The austerity plan hurt the college’s infrastructure in the near term, but it had massive negative long-term effects. The positions eliminated included both admissions and development jobs, which are necessary for the growth of any college. They also included many support jobs, such as the college’s own IT department, academic department staff, and the Director of Multicultural Affairs. (Alongside that, the cuts also disproportionally affected women and people of color, all of which made Antioch College’s lack of effective institutional response to racially charged student controversies in 2003 and 2004 understandable in retrospect.) Another round of layoffs occurred two years later, further hurting Antioch’s growth potential. The Renewal Plan was announced a few years later in part as an attempt to break this cycle.
One of the slower and most damaging aspects of the Financial Stabilization plan was the early retirement offered to college faculty. Over the next few years, many of the longest-serving faculty left the college. At a small school like Antioch, these faculty were often the entirety of their department, and the student-centered educational model3 meant that mentorship was crucial. The biggest cause of students transferring out of Antioch was not being able to study what they wanted, which was obviously exacerbated when faculty advisors departed. To make matters worse, many of these teachers weren’t replaced. The budget crisis in 2002–2003 didn’t include any layoffs, but of the 11 planned faculty hires, largely intended to replace the retiring professors, only five were allowed. It’s no wonder the college bled students even before the Renewal Plan’s full implementation—many of them couldn’t complete their majors without teachers.
These measures were not unopposed by the college community. The Financial Stabilization plan itself was voted on in the Administrative Council, where only the tiebreaking vote of the acting president—outgoing Antioch University Chancellor Jim Hall—passed it. The elected Community Managers also piled into a car and drove all night to make a case for the college at a board meeting in the fall of 2001. The response to the next board meeting was more intentional: a representative group of students, staff, faculty, and a community manager went to the board meeting there to plead for the college. And finally, an amorphous student “Tent City” protest on the college’s Main Lawn protested many components of the university plan, including layoffs, attempts to privatize the cafeteria to an anti-union corporation, and the college’s lack of power within the university.
This is how Antioch University stunted the enrollment growth of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as laying the groundwork for both a high future student attrition rate and a lack of admissions and giving. Yet the board didn’t rectify the problem by building educational infrastructure. As alum Dan Shoemaker noted when addressing the Antioch University Board and chancellor at the reunion where the suspension was explained, the board seemed uninterested in the nitty-gritty problems of developing a successful college, preferring instead grandiose schemes like the Renewal Plan which were supposed to fix everything in one fell swoop. In Shoemaker’s most astute observation, the bizarre manifestation of this trend toward grandiosity was the board’s apparent belief that they could solve the problem of “not having enough students” by closing the college.