The final years of Antioch College are a textbook example of institutional confusion, with its multiple different tracks operating not so much in parallel as splitting off perpendicularly. On one hand, there was notable evidence of stability at the college. The major administrative turnover of 2001–2005, with four different presidents in that timespan, appeared to come to an end with the hiring of Steve Lawry in that role.1 Tall and charismatic—patrician, even—Lawry certainly looked the part of a president of a stable institution. There were other indicators. Lawry managed to hire a chief financial officer for the college for the first time since 2001, while renovations for the Renewal Plan were filling some of the most embarrassing holes in the campus’ physical infrastructure, such as lack of Internet and phone service in many dorm rooms. A new “Coretta Scott King Center” opened. And with the Renewal Plan, of course, there at least seemed to be a plan with the goal of putting Antioch College on the right track again.
Yet forces within Antioch University continued to work against the college. Around the same time that Lawry took office at Antioch College, Antioch University hired a new chancellor. Tulisse “Toni” Murdock would become the college’s antagonist, introducing the resolution to close the college, and later leading the university’s rejections of alumni offers that would have kept the college open.
Murdock was hired from the presidency at Antioch Seattle, and seemed to embody the cultural difference between the college and the university branches. In her first board meeting as chancellor, for example, she distributed copies of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat to the assembled trustees as an ideological model. It’s hard to imagine someone more antithetical to Antioch College than Friedman. In simple political terms, Antioch College tended to oppose globalization and the Iraq War, both of which Friedman’s writing provided strong, public, “liberal” support for. At a deeper level, Friedman’s cheerleading for correcting market inefficiencies with outsourcing and technology stands in stark contrast to the liberal arts education built on “inefficient”-but-effective local, specific, occasionally idiosyncratic teaching methods.
The separation between Antioch College and Antioch University grew even more literal in the mid-2000s. Barbara Danley, President of Antioch McGregor (the adult-oriented Yellow Springs branch of the university) had consistently worked to separate her school from the college where its classes took place. For example, she built relationships with the Dayton-area military business community2—Danley was the person who initially connected powerful trustee Bruce Bedford of the Ad Hoc Committee with Antioch University. This was directly implied in initial press about the new building: “”This is a much larger issue than merely adding another building; it is about driving significant economic development that will benefit the entire Dayton region,” said Danley. The connection between McGregor and the college was broken when Danley succeeding in funding the construction of “Campus West,” a building for McGregor on the outskirts of Yellow Springs. The new building makes a certain kind of sense—while the Antioch College campus may have had certain charms, it was difficult to advertise as state-of-the-art. And for an ambitious school president like Danley, creating the physical distinction between the college and McGregor is understandable.
Yet it’s difficult to convey the physical facts of Campus West via mere words, as compared to the feeling of seeing it when driving into Yellow Springs. The village of a few thousand people is filled with small houses and flat buildings; Campus West looks like a squat yet sprawling mall. It has “Classrooms of The Future,” a label that might have been ambitious when it opened in 2007 but which is just embarrassing now. The facility’s windows don’t open, and a ditch outside gives the appearance of a moat, as if the building needed any more demonstration of its separation. That separation is important: The spatial division between it and the college campus, as well as the level of investment required to build Campus West, severed Antioch McGregor from Antioch College in dramatic fashion. At many colleges, offering night classes is an effective strategy for increasing revenue. For Antioch College, that option was gone, and the chance to merge with McGregor became monumentally less viable when it built its own fortress on the other side of town.
And most importantly, the ticking time bomb that was the fall 2005 entering class was in place. With a mere 60 students, it was already well below previous recruitment efforts. Moreover, the first-years were segregated from the other Antioch students, with classes only for them and even special classrooms only they could use, as well as a general administrative push to let the renewed college community flower while getting the embarrassing, “toxic” older students out of the way as quickly as possible.
There was just one tiny problem: The college wasn’t ready to implement the Renewal Plan financially, culturally, or in admissions, although the community certainly made the attempt. When it was announced in spring 2004, the college community was told that it would have two years to put the Renewal together. It was organized into roughly a dozen different working groups, with a few Learning Communities developed to test the process. But after a board meeting toward the end of 2004, this changed, and the plan only had one year for implementation. (The precise mechanics of how the one year turned to two will likely remain a mystery.3) Stunningly, many of the first-years recruited for the Renewal weren’t even aware that they were entering into a new curriculum. The massive attrition rate—roughly a dozen remained by the end of their third year—led directly to the financial issues that closed the college, which shouldn’t have been any kind of surprise.
Yet Lawry entered his presidency seemingly focused on the “toxic,” left-wing, student culture. One of his first and most notable actions was to expel four students for selling marijuana, an authoritarian, zero-tolerance move at odds with Antioch’s traditional community decision-making processes, not to mention its relatively lax view toward drug use. He also took on the student-run community newspaper, the Antioch Record, for off-color “personal ads.”
But the financial matters, and lack of autonomy within the university system in order to deal with money issues, continued to put pressure on the college. By early 2007, another round of major layoffs came, which included even the college’s dean of students. Especially embarrassing: when the new college CFO took the job, he discovered that the university had made a $5 million accounting error, and not a helpful one at that. Meanwhile, Antioch University administrators, led by Toni Murdock were working on their plan to close the college. They hired a consulting firm, Gateway, to analyze this decision. In the “Gateway Report,” three options were presented, with the first two being summarily rejected: an aggressive turnaround for the college, or a merger with Antioch McGregor. It also noted “a third option, and the one preferred at this time by the university’s management team, is to suspend the College’s operation….” This deliberately shallow document4 was nonetheless cited as justification by trustees who voted to suspend operations.