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Old college try isn't enough for Antioch

Thousands rally for the Ohio liberal arts school beset by financial and enrollment woes. But it will still close in 2008.

June 23, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

YELLOW SPRINGS, OHIO — It was perhaps the last great protest at Antioch College.

The call to arms came last week, when Antioch College's board of trustees announced that the school -- emblematic of the '60s counterculture and the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements -- had run out of money and would close in July 2008.

The news came as a shock to students, local residents and alumni -- who descended upon this village Friday with one goal: to fight "them" and save their alma mater.

The closure of Antioch College is seen as more than the end of a university -- it is another sign of the passing of an era when the search for knowledge brought greater rewards than a degree, a job and a comfortable place in suburban society.

So the Antioch faithful came by the hundreds, from across town and throughout the nation. Some wore anti-Vietnam War T-shirts, others crisp linen suits. But all shared a connection to the liberal arts institution founded in the heat of the abolitionist era, in a place that was one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad.

"It breaks my heart," said Ralph Keyes, 62, a local resident who met his wife here on their first day of school in 1962. "It wasn't just a college. It was a cause."

On Friday morning, trustees and college administrators tried to explain what went wrong to an auditorium packed with more than 600 people, many of whom hissed and jeered as college President Steven Lawry outlined the problems, and how the school had come to rely almost completely on student tuition to cover operating costs.

Ever since a student-driven strike divided the campus in the 1970s, at one point closing the school for six weeks, enrollment has steadily declined from its peak of more than 2,000.

Now, only a few hundred undergraduates are willing to pay $35,400 a year for tuition, room and board to attend this laboratory for American liberal education, where verbal assessment -- not grades -- is a measure of academic performance.

The school's current endowment of $35 million is also lackluster. Denison University in Granville, Ohio, lists its endowment as $545 million; the endowment at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., is $279 million.

While there is a long list of famous alumni, including Coretta Scott King and "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, the school became known for educating artists, activists and nonprofit organizers instead of wealthy business leaders.

It's not enough. The school will finish the 2007-08 academic year, officials said, and then close.

Closing "was the only answer we could find," said Arthur J. Zucker, chairman of the Antioch University Board of Trustees. (Antioch University is the larger organization that, among other things, encompasses the undergraduate college and five satellite campuses, including two in California.)

"Some trustees have taken out mortgages on their homes to keep the college going in the past," Zucker said. "This wasn't a matter of a couple million dollars. This was a matter of needing $30 million to $50 million to save the school."

Such explanations, however, were met with derision and eye-rolling from protesters.

Time and again, the crowd expressed how they were shocked that Antioch, whose mantra has long been to rally support for making the world a better place, did not rally to save itself.

Some spoke about their willingness to help close the financial gap, and how their efforts to help had been fruitless.

"Why is it when you call the alumni office, no one answers the phone? The phones roll you to an answering system that's not configured correctly" to allow callers to leave a message, said Michael-David BenDor, 62, a 1967 graduate who lives in Ypsilanti, Mich. "How are we supposed to give money if the phones don't even work?"

The Antioch College of today is a pale shadow of the institution that took risks that many others did not dare.

Founded in 1852, it was one of the nation's first coeducational colleges. It was the first to name a woman as a full professor.

And, although slavery was legal less than 100 miles to the south, it was one of the first to eliminate race as an admission requirement.

By the 1960s, the school -- as well as the town of Yellow Springs -- had evolved into a haven for radical thinkers and social reformists, surrounded by the cornfields of conservative southwestern Ohio.

But today, the exteriors of many of the school's structures, including the main building that housed Friday's meeting, have chunks of brick missing. The bricks have simply crumbled after years of harsh weather and neglect.

Some of the sewage pipes are in need of repair. Several buildings don't have running hot water. Lawns in front of the residence halls, once lushly green and neatly mown, have become fields of dirt and dead wildflowers. At least one of the residence halls has dozens of empty rooms.

Last academic year, nearly 400 undergraduate students were enrolled.

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