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Antioch: ‘Be ashamed to let it die’

by Jordan Green

When one of my fellow alumni e-mailed me the announcement last month that the Antioch University Board of Trustees had voted to suspend operations at the university’s flagship undergraduate campus in southwestern Ohio – my alma mater – my first response was denial. I was in the midst of wrangling to preserve a relationship between my church and a volunteer group that feeds the homeless in Greensboro, and more recently an automotive crisis has distracted my attention. The board’s decision seemed too sudden, too stunning, too devastating; any response I might muster seemed inadequate in comparison. Frankly, I’ve felt like a parent who is unable to tend to a child with a terminal illness. My fellow alumni have not suffered such paralysis. They poured onto campus for the college’s annual alumni reunion in late June, at least 500 strong, and during the course of a mass meeting that took place over 48 hours, mustered $525,000 in pledges and cash to save the college. The maneuvers and intrigues are complicated. The college and alumni essentially felt blindsided, and speculation flies about the university board of trustees’ motives, including rumblings about a profitable real estate sale to accommodate regional development plans. This statement by Bob Devine, a professor of communications who served as president when I graduated in 1998, speaks to the unilateral and secretive manner in which the decision appears to have been made. “No one was involved in the decision-making other than university administrators and the board of trustees,” Devine wrote in comments posted to the alumni listserv on June 13. “The only college rep was the president, who was trying to sell a merger with McGregor [the university’s graduate school] as a way to deal with the financial situation. No conversations, no consultation, no consideration of alternatives. “As I understand it, the trustees did not have a lot of time to consider this plan, did not have alternative plans on the table, did not consult with major donors (who might have helped close some of the fiscal gaps), the faculty, the alumni board, the students or the village [of Yellow Springs],” Devine continues. “Reading between the lines, it seems to me that the university, in consultation with a few trustees, had decided on this course of action long before the board meeting.” Sorting through the obscure politics and agendas within the university system and discerning a constructive response is complicated enough, but as if to throw salt in our wounds, Antioch’s legacy has now also come under attack. The headline, “A good college gone bad: Good riddance to Antioch,” blared across George Will’s syndicated column in the Sunday “Ideas” section of my hometown daily newspaper on July 15. “Repressive liberalism unleavened by learning” and “intellectually toxic” are among the insults heaped on the college by Will, who mocks Antioch for its 1973 employee and student strike, its model Sexual Offense Prevention Policy adopted in the early 1990s, and its invitation to Mumia Abu-Jamal to deliver its 2000 commencement speech. Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther and radio journalist who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in the 1980s. His supporters point to inconsistencies in the evidence used to convict the former journalist, and believe his conviction was politically motivated in retaliation for his critical reporting on the city’s police force. That is only the most recent example of Antioch’s bold lineage of standing up for society’s scorned and excluded. We have a proud legacy. Founded in 1852 as a non-sectarian, coeducational institution, Antioch College’s first president was Horace Mann, an abolitionist and social reformer known as “the father of public education.” The injunction given by Mann at his final commencement speech in 1859 to “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” echoes as a kind of secular article of faith for those of us who hold Antioch degrees. Antioch was one of the first colleges to admit African-Americans before the Civil War. In the 1940s, the college resisted pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee and prevailing public opinion to expel faculty and students with communist leanings. Our alumni range from social justice icon Coretta Scott King to “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling, scientist Steven Jay Gould and They Might Be Giants’ John Flansbourg. And yes, the often-mocked Sexual Offense Prevention Policy makes for sound practice. It says to ask before you get intimate with another person, talk about your intentions and desires; it’s a good common-sense prescription. And not only does it discourage sexual assault, but from my experience and observation at Antioch I would have to conclude that talking leads to more sex rather than less. America needs Antioch now. I received an unmatched education in social change during my four years in Yellow Springs. One experience stands out: When Congress threatened to reduce student financial aid in 1994, some students grabbed spray-paint cans and vandalized the cafeteria in the middle of lunch with slogans like, “Wake up, Antioch.” The college’s response was twofold. A panel of students and faculty decided in open hearing to suspend some of the vandals. But our president, Jim Crowfoot, also temporarily suspended classes, and encouraged faculty to lead teach-ins on such topics as coalition-building and media outreach. We quit going to classes, held protests outside the federal building in Columbus and organized other campuses across the Midwest to mobilize against the proposed cuts. And we won. So I join my fellow alumni in saying, “Be ashamed to let it die.” To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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