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Matthew Derr, the chief transition officer for the Antioch College Continuation Corporation, is heading up efforts to revive the college after the ACCC and Antioch University trustees reached an agreement last week. Still a resident of Boston, he plans to move to Yellow Springs in the future.

Boots on the ground for Antioch

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On July 1 the Antioch College Continuation Corporation Board Pro Tempore approved a resolution of appreciation to the village, including the intention to create a “Yellow Springs Day” each year, at which time students, faculty and staff would contribute volunteer labor to the village. According to the resolution, the work would take place each September on a mutually agreed upon day.

ACCC Chief Transition Officer Matthew Derr presented the resolution to Village Council at Council’s meeting Monday, July 6.

The resolution further states that the Antioch College Continuation Corporation has “committed itself to the improvement of the economic life of Yellow Springs by creating new employment opportunities for its citizens and to the development of a multimillion dollar investment in the restoration of the historic Antioch College campus.”

The resolution’s preamble addresses the mutually beneficial historic relationship between the village and college, and recognizes villagers’ efforts over time to “aid and secure the future of Antioch College,” and to provide a “home” for faculty, students and staff.

Derr voiced the board’s appreciation to the village at the Council meeting.

“Without villagers’ support and attention, our work would have been harder,” Derr said.

If you ask Matthew Derr how many hours per week he spends on his job, he’s stumped. During a recent interview, he made an earnest attempt to answer the question before giving up.

“I lose track,” he said. “My whole life is Antioch.”

As the chief transition officer for the Antioch College Continuation Corporation, or ACCC, Derr is the boots on the ground for the revival of Antioch College. These days, after last week’s announcement that the Antioch University trustees and ACCC reached an agreement to transfer the college, Derr is the one whose immediate job is to make that revival happen. In his 20-year career as a fundraiser and college administrator, he never expected to have on his plate the responsibility for opening a college, Derr said this week, and the task would be overwhelming except that the ACCC pro tempore board provides clear direction.

“What I rely on is that this is a collaborative effort,” he said.

Part of that collaborative effort was the task force of ACCC and university trustee representatives — Derr, ACCC Chair Lee Morgan and trustees Dan Fallon and Jack Merselis — who, along with Great Lakes Colleges Association President Rick Detweiler, met for almost a year to pave the way to the agreement that was signed last week. However, the deal will not close until several significant conditions are met, which the ACCC hopes will happen by Aug. 31. Meeting those conditions, which involve approval from outside agencies such as the office of the Ohio attorney general and Antioch University bond holders, will be largely the work of attorneys, Derr said.

While he states that much hard work lies ahead, Derr firmly believes that both the university and the alumni are committed to the transfer, that the conditions will be met and that the college will be revived.

The two-year effort to revive the college is unprecedented, Derr said, and the tenacity of college alumni speaks to the passion they feel for their alma mater.

“If you look at the world today, the fact that we’re trying to bring back the college is a remarkable and bold assertion,” he said.

Like Derr, most other alumni he has met believe that the educational experience at Antioch, with its components of academic rigor, work experience and community governance, is unduplicated by any other college or university. Like him, other alumni felt that it was simply unacceptable that future generations would miss the experience of an Antioch College education.

“I came out of Antioch transformed,” he said. “Antiochians know how to navigate the world with comfort. We feel comfortable in our own skins and with finding our way.”

First things first
While the ACCC and the trustees signed an asset purchase agreement, they have not yet finalized an operating agreement, and Derr said he hopes that step is completed very soon. When that agreement is signed, he said, he hopes that the ACCC will have access to the college campus.

“We need to get into the buildings and decide what comes next,” he said this week.

He believes the university is willing to work with the ACCC to help make the transition as easy as possible, he said.

Initial decisions are far-ranging, and include how best to rehab the buildings, when to cut the grass and who to hire first, Derr said. If the conditions are met and the transfer moves ahead, Derr and the ACCC hope to have about 30 staff and faculty on campus during the next academic year. These employees, who include employees of Glen Helen and the Antioch Review, will work to create the new college curriculum, he said. Alumni leaders also plan to host symposia and other events open to the community.

“There needs to be an intellectual life on campus,” he said.

However, while there will be faculty and staff, there will not be instruction immediately. Organizers believe that two years may pass before the college is ready to admit students, and that step is heavily dependent on how the process for accreidation unfolds. But even when students arrive, the numbers will be small, and the ACCC anticipates an initial class of about 75 students. In five years, organizers hope to have about 60 faculty and staff on campus, and a student body of about 215, he said in an earlier interview.

ACCC will transfer $6.08 million to the university when the conditions are met by Aug. 31, Derr said. They have also raised an additional $10 million to begin operating the college, and rehabbing buildings. Their goal is to raise an additional $40 million in five years, on top of an annual fund drive of about $2.8 million.

While Derr admits that such goals seem audacious in the current economic downturn, he believes they will be met.

“Would it be easier in a better economy? Yes,” he said. “But those likely to support the capital campaign will be giving. We hope they make Antioch College their priority.”

In some ways, building a college in the midst of a recession offers advantages, he said. While most schools have to adjust their budgets to reflect the economic downturn, the revived Antioch College will create a business plan that matches the economic realities.

“We need to take advantage of the adversity that’s out there,” Derr said.

While Derr has been in close contact with the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, he is clear that at this point he does not know if or how many of the Nonstop group will be hired. The ACCC board will make all decisions based on what’s best for the new college, he said, and the reduced budget means that only a small group of staff and faculty can be hired now.

Derr feels grateful to Nonstop for keeping the Antioch College traditions alive in the year since the college closed in July 2008.

“I have enormous respect for the kinds of risk they were willing to take and their commitment to the college,” he said.

The village will be a significant component in the revitalization of the college, Derr said. He encourages villagers to not only donate money, if possible, but to donate time and expertise as the college begins operation.

The crisis of the closure of Antioch spurred a renewed connection between Yellow Springs and the college, and it’s critical to sustain that connection, Derr believes. The ACCC plans to offer villagers opportunities to provide input in its planning efforts, once the deal is completed in August.

Derr asks villagers to have faith in him, and in the other alumni who are working to revive the college.

“We need their willingness to believe that what we’re trying to do is possible,” he said.

A transforming time
Attending Antioch College was a “stretch time” in his life, Derr said.

The only child of two longtime General Motors employees — his father was a foreman when he retired, and his mother worked on an assembly line — Derr was not the typical middle-class Antioch College student when he arrived in 1985 from his hometown near Flint, Mich. He felt challenged in many ways, he said, including during his first co-op in Atlanta, when he got off the plane with a job but absolutely no idea where he would live.

A history major, Derr cited Robert Fogarty as an important influence and source of academic rigor. While in most schools students were taught that they were getting prepared to do important work in the world, at Antioch, students were told that the work they were doing right then was important, he said. That sense of responsibility, along with the adult responsibility of co-op placements and shared governance, was transformative, Derr said.

When he graduated, unlike many friends who had attended other schools, “I felt empowered to take on life,” he said.

While at Antioch, Derr discovered that he wanted to make his career in higher education. Derr worked in admissions at Earlham College and later at Connecticut College. His interest shifted to college finances and fundraising, and Derr completed a New York University certificate in philanthropy. He then worked at a well-known arts high school near Boston, Walnut Hill, in admissions, then fundraising, and later as acting head of the school.

The blending of Derr’s life with the fate of Antioch College began soon after the announcement in June 2007 that the college would suspend operations. Like many alumni, he said, he had been mainly inactive in alumni events since his 1989 graduation, yet he carried a deep conviction that his four years at Antioch College had transformed his life. While working at Walnut Hill, he quickly offered his services to alumni leaders who that summer began organizing to save the college.

Derr was deeply involved in the first alumni effort to revive Antioch, and when that effort fell through in November 2007, he stepped back. A second effort led by major alumni donors, who formed the first ACCC, collapsed in April of 2008. When the university trustees met in Keene, N.H. in June 2008, Derr, who lived in the region, traveled to the meeting to read a statement from the college alumni board asking the trustees to reconsider. But after two failed attempts, expectations were low, according to Derr, and he was stunned when the trustees called him back to the meeting. At that point, the trustees presented the resolution that called on alumni to find a way to create an independent college.

“I believe the trustees realized that no matter how compelling the university plans for the college, the alumni would not support it,” Derr said of that meeting. “I’m so grateful that they stepped back and provided an opportunity” for another attempt to revive Antioch College.

Derr teamed with Lee Morgan, former Antioch University trustee, grandson of renowned Antioch president Arthur Morgan, and recently retired CEO of The Antioch Company, to form a task force aimed at transferring the college, along with university trustees Fallon and Merselis.

“Dan and Jack deserve a lot of credit,” Derr said. “They are deeply committed to the college.”

Initially providing countless volunteer hours to the effort, Derr at the time was vice president for advancement at the Boston Conservatory. He had two phones on his desk, he said, a landline for his job and a cell phone on which he received calls about the college. Something caught his attention: when the phones rang at the same time, he wanted to answer the phone for Antioch.

“On one phone, calls were about raising money for Steinway pianos,” he said, regarding his work at the conservatory. “The other calls were about saving the college.”

As Derr’s work on the college became overwhelming as a volunteer effort, it seemed clear that his heart lay with Antioch. So Derr left his job last November, and became the ACCC’s first paid consultant, with the support of three donors. Aside from task force negotiations, Derr spent most of his time, along with Morgan, jetting across the country raising money.

Derr still lives part of the time in Boston, but he plans to move to Yellow Springs. While his job has taken over his life, Derr has no complaints. Rather, he said, he feels privileged to be at the forefront of the revival of Antioch College.

“I wake up every day excited about what I’m doing,” he said. “I’ve had jobs I loved before, but nothing like this.”

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