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Antioch presidential finalist visits campus this week

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If he’s hired as the new president of Antioch College, Mark Roosevelt will be moving from overseeing a system with 25,000 students to one with a first-year entering class of 25. Most importantly, he’d bring the skills he used to raise the Pittsburgh Public Schools from a failing system to one that began achieving success, according to members of the college’s presidential search committee.

“He has a breadth of experience and his record of performance in positions is consonant with the progressive agenda of Antioch College,” Search Committee Chair Frances Degen Horowitz said in an interview last week. “He’s a skilled fundraiser, and the committee was impressed with his vision and his credentials.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, Antioch College announced that Roosevelt would visit the campus this week, Oct. 13–14, in order to meet with college leaders, staff and the public. A public forum was held on Wednesday, Oct. 13, in Herndon Gallery.

Roosevelt, who is the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, was identified as one of two finalists for the position. However, according to Horowitz, the second finalist, who has not been identified, chose to drop out rather than take part in a public process that could jeopardize his or her current job.

In a press conference Oct. 7, Roosevelt quit his job as superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, a post he’s held since 2005, effective Dec. 31. He stated as his reason that he’s a finalist for the position of Antioch College president and that if he is offered the job, he will take it. According to Antioch College Director of Communications Gariot Louima that day, college leaders did not know that Roosevelt would resign.

The Antioch College Board of Trustees, which is meeting on campus this week, will make a decision on Roosevelt by Oct. 17, according to Board President Lee Morgan. In an interview last week, Morgan said that the decision had not yet been made, and if Roosevelt does not seem the right candidate, the board will reconsider its options.

“It’s not done until the board votes and the contract is signed,” Morgan said.

In a phone interview last Thursday, Roosevelt said he’s enthused by the job prospect as “an incredible opportunity to work in a collaborative way to innovate and explore different ways to present a liberal arts education in the 21st century.”

In his research on Antioch College, “I’ve learned quite a bit and talked to a lot of people,” he said. “I feel I know enough to be excited” about the possibilities of the job. Roosevelt, who is 54, said he’s been been well aware of Antioch College for decades.

“I’m partly a ’60s kid,” he said. “Antioch was a discussed college when I was a young man.”

The idealism of Antioch traditions suits him, as long as it’s tied to realism, he said.

“I’m not much for idealism that doesn’t attempt to intersect with reality. I think a practical idealism is a good place to want to live and to want our children to live,” he said.

Controversy regarding reform

Practical idealism was necessary when Roosevelt took on the leadership of the then-failing Pittsburgh Public Schools five years ago, having no experience at the time as an administrator in a school system. His main accomplishment in the intervening years was transforming a culture of negativity and backbiting into one of collaboration, he said in an Oct. 7 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Pittsburgh school reform program was bold and aggressive, with 22 schools closed and others restructured within months of Roosevelt’s arrival. He also instituted a uniform curriculum that required teachers to use certain materials and to present them at a certain pace. Months ago, he and the teachers’ union agreed to what is essentially a contract that rewards teachers financially for effective teaching, although the criteria for good teaching has yet to be determined, according to a Sept. 3 article in the Pittsburgh Business Times.

Currently, the Pittsburgh schools are poised for success, according to Grant Oliphant of the Pittsburgh Foundation in an Oct. 7 blog post. Among its successes are a recent $40 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a matching grant from the federal government, to implement programs, as yet unidentified, to maximize effective teaching. Roosevelt also helped bring to the schools the Pittsburgh Promise, a program which provides $20,000 toward college expenses to all public school graduates with a 2.5 grade point average. The program has sent more than 2,000 graduates to college since its inception several years ago, according to an Antioch College press release.

Test scores have ticked upward since the reform effort began, and in 2009 the Pittsburgh schools were the largest district in Pennsylvania to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind Act, according to the Pittsburgh Public Schools Web site at

In lamenting Roosevelt’s departure from the school system, Oliphant of the Pittsburgh Foundation wrote that, “In my life, I have been privileged to work with some truly impressive leaders, and my judgement has long been that Mark is among the very best. When it comes to true, transformational leadership, he is the genuine item — fearless, smart, passionate, results-oriented, charismatic and fierce….”

However, Roosevelt also had his critics, and some of them said his reforms were too quick and aggressive, and that the collaborative efforts largely engaged the school board, not teachers and parents. In 2006, Roosevelt acknowledged as a mistake the hiring of the Kaplan K2 Learning Services to craft a new, uniform curriculum for the schools, at a cost of $8.4 million, according to a 2008 article in the Pittsburgh City Paper. The system’s teachers were not included in the decision to change the curriculum, which was later revised to allow more school-based autonomy.

“Absolutely and without question, our view is that early involvement of teachers and other practitioners would have helped,” said John Tarka, president of the teachers’ union, according to the paper.

Politics first

Before arriving at the Pittsburgh schools, Roosevelt was managing director for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and before that, he led the Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives, a nonprofit economic development agency. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he began his career as a politician, and was a state representative from 1986 to 1994. In that job, he is credited with guiding the state’s Education Reform Act of 1993, and he was the lead sponsor of the state’s gay rights bill in 1989.

The success of those efforts is linked to his emphasis on collaborative initiatives, Roosevelt said in the interview.

“If you look at my career, it can be argued that I’m good at collaborative visioning processes that arrive at powerful missions and raising the resources to bring those to reality,” he said.

While Roosevelt would not bring to the job experience as an administrator in higher education, he would bring critical administrative and fundraising experience, Horowitz said.

The search committee worked hard at its task, meeting together physically several times and holding many conference calls, according to Horowitz, who described the group as “a wonderful committee, with a range of generations.”

With the help of the search consulting firm Isaacson, Miller, about 600 contacts were made to prospective candidates during the process, according to Horowitz, which resulted in a number of serious candidates.

The search firm contacted him about the Antioch College job last spring or summer, according to Roosevelt, who said the firm, based in Massachusetts, was familiar with his work.

“They knew I’ve been passionate about education issues,” Roosevelt said.

During the process of considering the job, Roosevelt and his wife, Dorothy, and their 4-year-old daughter visited Yellow Springs.

“We liked what we saw,” he said. “We can envision ourselves being there.”


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