Antioch University

AAUP admonishes Antioch University

After nearly a year of detailed investigation of Antioch University’s leadership system, the American Association of University Professors released a report stating that there was no “imminent financial crisis” when the university announced in 2007 that it would suspend operations at Antioch College the following year.

The 60-page document was released Sept. 1, three days before the university and the college alumni signed off on a deal to transfer an independent Antioch College from the university to the Antioch College Continuation Corporation. While it has no legal bearing on the transfer of the college, the AAUP report carries some vindication for the nearly 170 faculty members, staff and administrators who lost their jobs when the college closed in June 2008.

“Reading that report, there was a deep sense of relief to have an outside evaluation that confirmed my experience working at the college for 11 years,” college faculty member Chris Hill said on Tuesday. “That it wasn’t necessary to declare financial exigency and that it was a violation not to consult with AdCil on ways to reduce exigency and examine less drastic means.”

According to Antioch University Chancellor Toni Murdock, the AAUP report is not an objective document.

“Their charges are biased and ill-found, and the report is heavily based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence,” she said on Tuesday. “My biggest disappointment is that they chose not to consider factual information particularly in financial areas.”

The AAUP is a faculty advocacy group whose report aims mainly at three points of redress, including issues relating to the university governance structure, the disempowerment and alienation of faculty, and the failure to fully consider alternatives to declaring financial exigency and closing the college. The report charges the university specifically with mandating a new curriculum without faculty approval, failing to consult faculty on budgetary matters leading to the declaration of exigency, systematically stemming the college’s access to budgetary information, and undermining the college by transferring administrative functions from the college to the university.

Antioch University began, of course, with Antioch College, which between 1965 and 1985 had multiplied and then settled back into a system of six separate campuses tied together by a university leadership system. Power initially rested with the college, but gradually, the chancellor’s position was strengthened, and leadership was equally dispersed to the presidents of each of the campuses (who eventually formed the University Leadership Council, or ULC).

“With the shift to Antioch University, essential matters of governance, especially those related to resources, moved entirely from the college to the university,” the report reads.

That change, which the AAUP report chronicles through interviews and documents, was particularly problematic for the college, which was the only one of six campuses that had tenured faculty, significant buildings and grounds and a residential four-year undergraduate program. Without a board of its own, or a strong president to advocate for budgetary and programmatic needs specific to the residential program, the college’s enrollment and endowment sank year by year until it hit a plateau of 500 students in the mid-1980s.

The gradual shift of administrative power to the university and its outlying campuses, according to the report, was accompanied by a reduction in shared governance, a tradition at the college that was preserved through administrative council (AdCil), an advisory board to the college president composed of students, faculty and staff. As AdCil’s influence on the university system was eroded, the flow of budgetary information was reduced, so that according to the AAUP’s investigating committee, faculty did not have access to the full financial picture of the college and the university at the time of the declaration of exigency and for many years before that.

“No shared governance structure included the college faculty in university-level decision making. This fundamental flaw in the governance structure would persist and become of central importance in understanding why Antioch faculty members stated that they were largely taken by surprise when financial exigency was announced,” the report states.

One of the last and most egregious offenses against the faculty, which the report focuses on, was the Antioch University Board Renewal Commission’s 2003 mandate for a complete overhaul of the college curriculum, which the faculty (who would implement the change) never approved nor were consulted about, save two faculty members on the commission. Though the faculty did establish an entirely new curriculum, the university board did not follow through with promised financial support, and enrollment plummeted to an untenable low in 2005.

Finally, with regard to the decision to declare financial exigency, the AAUP investigating committee combed through tax forms and audited financial statements and found that the university did have options other than to shutter the college.

“The data examined do not support a conclusion that the entire university was in ‘imminent financial crisis’ or that the university, at least for the immediate future, could not have absorbed the college’s financial crisis. Not only were alternatives to the declaration of financial exigency not explored, but…there was also no opportunity for the community to consider alternatives to suspending operations at the college,” the report reads.

In a counter to the AAUP report, the university chronicled its attempts over many decades to buoy the college and help bring back enrollment that had fallen from a high of 2,500 in 1975. Slipping back financially, the college began to need more support from the other campuses, including dues of over $1 million a year, supplemental cash from capital campaigns that fell short in 1990 and 2001, and subsidies for the college’s deficit spending that reached $1 million annually in 2001. The university further asserts that by 2006–07 the college was operating with a $5 million annual deficit, which was covered by a redirected scholarship grant until 2008, but was projected, if left untouched, to put the university $17 million in the red by 2013, according to Murdock.

Enrollment took a dive after the curriculum renewal effort, which compounded financial woes for the college. But the reason the university initiated renewal in the first place was because of the Board of Trustees’ finding that “the current curricular structure of the College is financially unsustainable at its current size. Without transformative change, Antioch College is unlikely to survive,” the Renewal Commission’s 2004 final report reads.

Those findings were substantiated by reports from the university’s accrediting agency, Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA). The 2002 NCA report states, “The nonresidential campuses have the potential to prosper, but only if the enrollment and financial problems of the College are resolved. The College’s inability to meet enrollment goals jeopardizes the entire University.”

The university also claims that it did explore and price out alternative solutions to suspending operations at the college and shared them at university board meetings, which the college president would have attended and should have shared with AdCil, Murdock said. The alternatives included a university-wide budget reduction, selling assets including campus buildings outside Yellow Springs, unifying the college and McGregor, and appealing to alumni. According to the university document, none of the options yielded enough money to support the college through its transition.

“The Board was faced with ‘Hobson’s choice’ — to deliver an inferior educational product and risk the loss of accreditation for the entire University or to suspend the operations of Antioch College until an appropriate plan for the reorganization was developed,” the university response reads.

Though the entanglements between the college and the university are now over, former Antioch College professor Hill feels satisfied by the AAUP report, which brought out the key issue that she and many college faculty had tried for decades to change. They believed the university’s governance structure needed to provide more advocacy and agency for the college, which had always been a different animal than its nonresidential counterparts, she said.

The college faculty initiated the AAUP investigation, which began after a failed attempt to work directly with the university in 2007, according to AAUP secretary Anita Levy. AAUP board member Cary Nelson is married to former Antioch University board member Paula Treichler, who resigned from the university board in 2008. Nelson abstained from the Antioch inquiry, whose investigative committee was composed of faculty members Diane Zannoni from Trinity College, Ronald Ehrenberg from Cornell University, Rudy Fichtenbaum from Wright State University and Duane Storti from the University of Washington.

Due to its recent investigation, the AAUP at its annual meeting in June 2010 will further consider Antioch University for its list of sanctioned colleges and universities, which currently includes three other institutions. Once the academic concerns of a school justify a full-scale investigation, such as for Antioch University, the likelihood of being sanctioned “is pretty high,” Levy said, adding that it is particularly so if that institution hasn’t attempted to change its practices.

The full AAUP report can be accessed by Googling “AAUP: The Near-Death Experience of Antioch College.” The university’s response can be found on the front page of the Antioch University Web site.

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