University threatens action against ‘Antioch Confidential’
- Published: March 20, 2008
NO DECISION YET
A special meeting of the Antioch University Board of Trustees held Wednesday, March 19, did not result in an agreement with the Antioch College Continuation Corporation, or ACCC, according to university spokesperson Lynda Sirk on Wednesday evening.
The News held up publication of this week’s paper due to the possibility of a decision.
The trustees meeting took place via a conference call. According to Sirk, the trustees and ACCC will continue to meet.
In a joint press release Monday, Antioch University and the ACCC stated that representatives of the two entities “had a productive meeting today in their ongoing negotiations over the possibility of transferring the assets of Antioch College to the ACCC.”
An Antioch University attorney last week threatened legal action against a local man for publishing confidential documents from Antioch University board meetings on a Web site that aims to promote transparency regarding university decisions about Antioch College.
The attorney, Kathleen Trafford of the Columbus firm Porter Wright Morris and Arthur, stated in a Feb. 29 letter to Yellow Springs resident Brian Springer that because some of the documents were protected as “attorney-client privileged communications,” they should be removed from the Web site http://www.theantiochpapers.org , and all copies forwarded to her. Springer and Antioch alumnus Tim Noble of Baltimore are researchers for the Antioch Papers site, which since last summer has placed online many documents relating to Antioch finances and board meetings.
“The Board…will act to prevent further misappropriation of the Board’s communications with its attorneys or proprietary financial and business planning information,” the attorney’s letter said, although it did not specify what actions would be taken.
But Springer and Noble said this week that they do not intend to remove the documents, which are part of a research paper by Springer called “Antioch Confidential,” from the Web site.
“This seems contrary to the Antioch tradition of free and open discourse,” Noble said.
“Antioch Confidential” can be accessed at http://www.theantiochpapers.org .
Legal precedent has made clear that publishing the documents on the Web site does not break the law, according to Springer and Noble’s attorney, Bob Fitrakis of Columbus.
“The courts have ruled that journalistic Web sites are protected by the First Amendment, particularly when the information regards public figures. These are public figures in the middle of closing one of the most progressive colleges in America,” he said.
In a statement, Antioch alumnus Cary Nelson described “Antioch Confidential” as “a serious piece of scholarly analysis and investigative journalism. It is deplorable to see a university that officially promotes ‘transparency’ seek to suppress information and prohibit free speech in the community. Narrow (and quite possibly exaggerated) corporate-style legal justifications for confidentiality are no excuse for abandoning the transparent exchange of information and the open discussion and debate that can result.”
While Nelson was not speaking officially in his role as the national president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), he said in an interview this week, “that role has helped me learn more about academic freedom.”
Antioch University Chancellor Toni Murdock and Board President Art Zucker were not available for comment this week, according to Antioch University spokesperson Mary Lou LaPierre.
A documentary filmmaker, Springer is the partner of Antioch College faculty member Chris Hill. He was prompted to research the material for “Antioch Confidential” due to his concern that Antioch University decisions regarding the college over the past several years show “the systemic dismantling of an institution,” he said.
To Noble, the significance of “Antioch Confidential” is that it offers “a document of the untold history that is somewhat at odds with the official university narrative.”
The overall theme of “Antioch Confidential” is excessive confidentiality regarding Antioch University actions and decisions, according to Springer, who sees that confidentialty as disempowering the Antioch College community.
“Two modes of higher education management have been and continue to be in conflict at Antioch College, an institution historically based on shared governance and currently micromanaged by Antioch University,” he wrote. “One presumes a private space of command, control and communications and the other supports a public realm of courage, responsibility and shame (“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory or humanity.”)
The specific documents that Antioch University attorneys seek to remove from the Web site include the university board of trustees 2001 “Ad Hoc Committee Report and Related Board Action Summary,” which Springer identified as a document which illustrates the increasingly confidential communications of the board from that time on. That committee was formed to deal with problems of transitions regarding the upcoming departures of University Chancellor Jim Hall and College President Bob Devine, according to “Antioch Confidential,” and also sought to address university-wide financial problems.
According to Trustee and Board Treasurer Bruce Bedford in an interview this week, the committee’s proceedings were covered by attorney-client privilege because, “There was sensitive information as to certain individuals that we felt was not appropriate to publically share. It was better to have a private evaluation of strengths and weaknesses.”
Attorney Trafford stated in an interview that information appropriate for attorney-client confidentiality is that which is in some way involved in the making of a legal decision.
That definition fits with the Ad Hoc Committee information, according to Bedford, who helped to lead that committee’s effort, because, “It’s clear that any decision that the board of trustees takes results in legal decisions of that governing body.”
However, according to Fitrakis, the confidentiality of the Ad Hoc Committee indicates an “overbroad” interpretation of attorney-client privilege that he frequently sees as an attorney.
“In many cases, it’s a way to hide dealings,” he said.
In Attorney Trafford’s letter to Springer, she identified the confidential materials as having been “purloined.” But they were not stolen, according to Springer, but rather were given to him.
“I’m not an attorney, I’m a journalist,” he said. “I was given information and I reported on it.”
Decisions undermined college?
In “Antioch Confidential,” Springer raises questions about decisions made from 2001 on that seemed to undermine the college’s slow but steady growth at that time. The decision-makers, including Bedford, who came from the corporate world, and then-Antioch University Chief Financial Officer Glenn Watts, were not Antioch graduates and had never before worked with a small liberal arts college, according to Springer. Both Bedford and Watts were empowered by board actions taken as a result of the 2001 Ad Hoc Committee recommendations, the paper states, and Bedford especially is cited as instrumental in decisions that, according to Springer, have “destabilized” the college in the past few years. Bedford continues to serve as treasurer of the trustees.
One of those decision regards the board of trustees’ 2003 decision to abandon the college’s Strategic Plan, which had led to a 4 percent yearly increase in enrollment that would, if continued, have resulted in a student body of about 800 students by 2004. However, university leaders abandoned the plan because it had not met its goal of 800 students by 2001, according to Springer.
“Steady, incremental enrollment growth was not enough for the Ad Hoc Committee,” Springer wrote. “They wanted more and they wanted it fast…”
“Antioch Confidential” also questions the board’s decisions to cut the university budget by 15 percent in 2002, which resulted in the loss of many faculty and staff that led to a downward spiral in enrollment. Those cuts came the same year that the college received a $10 million gift from alumnus Leo Drey, but the board chose not to use those funds to aid the college’s financial crisis, according to Springer. “Antioch Confidential” also questions the board’s decision in 2003-2004, based on a recommendation from the Budget Stabilization Committee, led by Toni Murdock, to further cut staff, including critical cuts in the admissions office that further hampered recruitment efforts.
The decisions to cut admissions staff was made on “the college level,” not by the board, Bedford said, stating that the Ad Hoc Committee “never made decisions, only recommendations.”
“We recognized the unique nature of the college and its governance process and attempted to leave detailed decisions to the college,” he said.
He stated that the Drey gift was not used for operating expenses at the request of then-Antioch College President Bob Devine, who requested that it be used instead for the endowment.
In response, Devine this week stated that both of Bedford’s statements were inaccurate. Adcil did not choose to make cuts in the admission office, he said, because college faculty knew recruitment was key to the college’s success. He also said that while the Drey gift was earmarked for the endowment, the college administration requested that the college be allowed to use a higher amount than its usual 5 percent of the endowment’s interest to address the financial crisis, since the Drey gift would have increased the amount available. However, according to Devine, the trustees refused to allow the college additional monies from the endowment’s interest.
Connections with BRAC
In “Antioch Confidential,” Springer raises concerns about the possible military connections of several university leaders, and what those connections might mean for a closed Antioch College. These concerns include Wright Patterson Air Force Base’s upcoming BRAC military relocation, which will bring new industries and jobs to Greene County. Springer cites a confidential report written by Antioch University administrators and presented to the trustees in June that stated that the university might partner with a land development company to make use of the college assets.
Antioch University McGregor President Barbara Gellman-Danley sits on the board of the Dayton Development Coalition, the area organization which is driving the effort to bring BRAC jobs to the area. “Antioch Confidential” also cites Bedford’s past position of vice-president of the private equity firm Nuveen Investment, which has identified WPAFB as a “huge economic engine” for the area, and GlobeSecNine, a firm with defense industry and homeland security connections.
“This local engine would likely drive the University to repurpose the assets of Antioch College with defense-related industries and developers in the event of the college’s closure…” the document states, citing Bedford’s leadership on the board as instrumental in moving toward this outcome.
In response to these concerns, this week Gellman-Danley and Bedford both stated that they have never been involved in any discussions regarding the possible use of Antioch College land for military, BRAC, or homeland security purposes.
“I’ve never been in any meeting with the DDC regarding use of the Antioch campus. Antioch College has never been discussed,” Gellman-Danley said.
Regarding the possible use of the college for military purposes, Bedford said, “I’ve never heard of it and never been involved in discussions. I’m not aware of other development plans for the college.”
The “destabilization” of Antioch College seems to have resulted from Antioch University leaders applying corporate and private equity firm paradigms to the running of a small liberal arts college, according to Springer. In “Antioch Confidential,” he stated “this inverted private equity plan had the same result as a normal plan — the selling and formal seizure of College assets for a profit. Whether or not these actions were part of a conscious act carried out by the entire University Board of Trustees or whether it was naively carried out through the unconscious application of a private equity mindset to a residential liberal arts campus remains to be seen.”