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Energized alumni keep eyes on an independent college

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At their annual reunion in Yellow Springs last weekend, about 400 Antioch College alumni took steps to move ahead quickly to reach an agreement with the Antioch University Board of Trustees for an independent college. The alumni also expressed strong support for Nonstop, the college faculty’s effort to continue Antioch’s educational mission without a campus.

In a resolution passed on Sunday, June 22, the alumni called on its board of directors to “continue conversations, with all due haste,” with the university trustees to achieve “the complete separation of Antioch College from Antioch University” and the transfer of college assets.

At the event’s end on Sunday, alumni Matt Derr of Massachusetts and Lee Morgan of Yellow Springs announced that they will meet with representatives of the board of trustees sometime the first week of July to continue a conversation about reaching an agreement to separate the college from the university.

In an e-mail message on Tuesday, Trustee Dan Fallon, one of the board’s representatives, declined to comment on the conversations at this point.

The alumni leaders agreed that time is of the essence, since the college campus will be officially closed on June 30. In a later interview, Derr stated that he hoped to achieve an agreement with the trustees within six weeks. Morgan stated that his own goal is “to have the college up and running as an independent college by January 2009.”

At the reunion many alumni expressed confidence that they will succeed in achieving independence for the college. The event took place only weeks after university trustees surprised college supporters by passing a resolution calling for the alumni to present a process and a plan for separating the college from the university. The alumni have the capacity to respond quickly, many said.

“The most significant thing to come out of the reunion is recognizing that out of the chaos of a year ago, we have generated a system that includes a coherent strategy, an organization, and a fund-raising team that is already in place, and that we have the energy to go forward,” said Alumni Board member Catherine Jordan of Minneapolis on Sunday.

In her address to the alumni at the close of the reunion, Alumni Board President Nancy Crow called the current situation “an exciting process. We are not starting over. We are building on the tremendous work that many of you have engaged in last year. We will secure the college.”

Reunion redux

The 2008 reunion took place after a year of intensive alumni efforts to save the college. In June 2007 600 alumni converged on Yellow Springs only weeks after the university trustees announced that, due to financial exigency, they would suspend operations at the college as of July of this year. At that event, the alumni sprang into action, launching a fund-raising effort that resulted in raising $18 million for an autonomous college.

After the first major effort to secure an independent college fell through last fall, in December a group of former university trustees and major donors formed the Antioch College Continuation Corporation, or AC3, with the intention of negotiating with the university for an independent college. However, that effort fell apart in May when the trustees rejected the AC3’s final proposal of $14.5 million for the college and university in exchange for a reconfiguration of the board of trustees.

Plans to close the campus June 30 moved forward, and most college buildings are now locked. The university has announced its intention to turn off air conditioning at the end of June and the heating plant has been shut down. According to Antioch University Chief Financial Officer Tom Faecke in a recent interview, only the library and the Kettering Building, which houses university offices, will remain open after June 30.

At their regular June board meeting in Keene, N.H., the university trustees surprised the college community by passing a resolution which called for an independent college and requested that the alumni present a process and a plan for severing the connection between the college and the university.

At last Friday’s State of the College address, Alumni Board President Nancy Crow, who is a nonvoting member of the board of trustees, said that the trustees are sincere in their desire to achieve an autonomous Antioch.

“I’m not cautiously optimistic. I’m boldly optimistic,” she said, stating that at the June board meeting, “the feeling inside the room at Keene was, there will be an independent college in Yellow Springs.”

It is important for alumni to realize that alumni leaders and trustees are not adversaries in this recent effort but are working together, Crow said.

“This is different,” she said. “We are working in a collaborative way with the board of trustees.”

In response to a question about why the trustees are now seeking independence for the college when previously they opposed the plan, Crow said that the change in the trustees’ attitudes has been gradual, and that the AC3 deserves credit for helping to bring about that change.

“It’s been a process of the university coming to the understanding that it would not be able to bring the college back without alumni support” and their understanding that only an independent college would have alumni support, Crow said.

Plan B: litigation

A second portion of the State of the College address, presented by Ellen Borgersen, the acting president of the College Revival Fund and Alumni Board vice-president, focused on Plan B, or possible litigation should the current attempt to reach agreement with the trustees fall through. While some alums urged litigation last fall, those who are attorneys did not, she said.

“Lawyers know better than anyone that litigation is always a last resort,” she said. “It is costly, nasty and anything but short. However you calculate the costs of this past year of negotiations that have yet to bear fruit, one thing we gained is this: no one will ever be able to say we didn’t do everything possible, and more, to avoid litigating.”

An attorney who previously taught at the Stanford University Law School, Borgersen stated that she does not practice in Ohio and acts only as the coordinator of potential lawsuits. The Wall Street law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton, which employs Antioch alumna Judi Church, has taken on the Antioch College alumni case pro bono, according to Borgersen, who said that firm has put in about $350,000 worth of time on the case so far.

Possible future lawsuits include a “derivative” suit on behalf of the Antioch University corporation itself, claiming that the administration and board have inflicted injuries upon the institution through damaging the college’s reputation and its ability to recruit students. Those who bring the suits would have to be sitting trustees, Borgersen said.

Other potential suits include those from donors who contributed to the college at a time when university personnel knew it would be closed and failed to disclose that fact to donors, claims by students who were awarded scholarships for a four-year education and claims on behalf of donors of restricted funds that may have been misappropriated, according to Borgersen.

The claims would be difficult to win, according to Borgersen, who said that to do so, plaintiffs have to prove that trustees breached their fiduciary responsibility to both the university and the college. However, Borgersen stated that she believes the claims would survive motions to dismiss the pleadings, and therefore the college supporters would be allowed to hold discovery proceedings.

The lawsuit with the greatest potential to win may be the faculty lawsuit, which has already been filed, Borgersen said. That suit is a simple “breach of contract” suit, which asserts the university breached the requirements set out in faculty contracts that said trustees could terminate tenured faculty only if there were no less drastic means to relieve the college’s financial problems, and only after consulting with faculty, which did not happen.

More than 90 percent of civil lawsuits settle out of court, according to Borgersen, who said, “In my personal opinion, we will get our college back. The university now agrees with us that an independent college is in the best interests of both the college and the university and we will achieve that goal — it’s a question of how long it will take and how much money will be diverted from the task of bringing Antioch College back to life as a thriving, residential undergraduate institution…”

In the resolution passed on Sunday, alumni called on alumni, faculty, staff, students and the Yellow Springs community to help raise the necessary funds for three priorities, which are “1) funding to support an independent Antioch College, 2) Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, and 3) litigation; and call to action for all necessary support to continue the operations of Antioch College.”

Nonstop wins hearts

If there were rock stars at the reunion, they were the former Antioch College faculty members who presented their plans and visions for the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute to an enthusiastic audience, twice garnering standing ovations.

“The Nonstop faculty blew everyone away,” said Borgersen.

Formerly known as Nonstop Antioch until threatened with legal action by Antioch University, Nonstop is the effort by former Antioch College faculty to continue the educational mission of the college even after the campus closes June 30.

“They got the body of Antioch,” said Nonstop faculty member Hassan Rahmanian at a presentation Saturday, referring to Antioch University’s move to close down the campus. “But we got the soul.”

The soul of Antioch, according to Nonstop faculty, is an educational experience rooted in the “interconnections between classroom learning, co-operative education, and community self governance.” In practicality, it is the collaborative efforts of the 22 Antioch College faculty members, plus volunteers, staff and students, who have committed themselves to the Nonstop effort.

While the group hopes for an agreement between the alumni board and university trustees to create an independent college and return to campus, in the meantime they are moving ahead. Over the past several months they engaged intensely with each other in creating a new curriculum and new ways of presenting information in venues across Yellow Springs. Currently, organizers are considering about 20 possible venues for classrooms, including village churches, businesses and cafes.

“When you find yourself in an impossible situation, you forge creative solutions,” Rahmanian said. “If this is not Antioch, what is?”

While there are still unknowns regarding Nonstop — such as where, exactly, the classes will take place — organizers plan to begin teaching the week of Sept. 4, the same time they would begin if Antioch College were open, according to Nonstop faculty member Chris Hill.

Organizers do not know yet how many students will take part, according to Hill, and consequently they have fashioned classes that they hope will appeal to villagers as well as traditional students. Organizers are currently seeking rental homes in the village to house students. Students who need financial help may be able to take advantage of co-op work opportunities in the village, according to Ecklund-Leen, who said tuition for traditional students will be minimal, ranging from $1,500 to $2,000 for a semester.

While some aspects of Nonstop remain unclear, what is clear is that the faculty members are excited and passionate about their new enterprise, which is as ambitious as it is creative. Along with regular classes, Nonstop will offer a weeklong learning festival in October and evening courses and workshops that comprise “Nonstop Presents,” the “public face of the performance aspect of the curriculum,” according to Hill.

“People will see that Antioch is alive,” she said.

The “Nonstop Presents” segment will include a lecture series, the Al Denman Friday Forum series, a film series, workshops, and a performance series.

Tentative evening courses and one-day workshops for the fall include computer literacy with C.T. Chen, the Art of Political Discourse with Scott Warren, Ecology and Feminism with Colette Palamar, The Quaran, Mohammed and Islam, with Al Denman, Reclaiming the Body’s Wisdom, dance workshops with Jill Becker, the History of Jazz and the History of the Civil Rights Movement, with Steve Schwerner, a comparative anthropology study group with Beverly Rogers, and the Art of Storytelling with Harold and Jonatha Wright.

“Creativity and innovation abound,” said Ecklund-Leen. “My colleagues have acted to reclaim the ownership of Antioch.”

For more information about Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, contact Ellen Borgersen at 415-509-2725.

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