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One year in, college is primed for students

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On a recent tour to recruit new students, Antioch College Admissions Director Kristen Pett found that the revived college, set to open its doors to students next fall, has plenty of well-wishers.

“The response was wonderful,” she said in an interview last week. “Everyone was so happy we were back.”

Pett’s recent trip was the college’s first recruitment effort since Antioch University announced the college’s impending closure three years ago. Organized by Colleges That Change Lives, a nonprofit based on the influential 1996 book that lauded 40 small colleges, including Antioch, the recruiting trip took Pett to seven midwestern cities, including Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis.

The young people she met seemed enthused about Antioch, Pett said, regarding both the college’s new curriculum and the opportunity to participate in the school’s revival. While she hasn’t yet received any applications — online applications just went up on the college’s Web site a week ago — she believes she will soon.

“We’re getting closer and closer to having students on campus again,” Pett said. “And won’t that be an exciting day?”

That warm reception for the college sounds familiar to Antioch Interim President Matthew Derr, who said his greatest surprise in the year since the college became independent has been the “real depth of goodwill to make this effort successful.”

While the renewal of the 150-year-old college is significant in itself, college leaders see their challenge as bigger and broader than even that. In a culture in which more and more colleges are either closing or becoming for-profit institutions, Antioch College leaders believe their goal is “to restore what it means to be a liberal arts college, and make clear the importance of this model in education today.”

Liberal arts colleges are necessary to help young people develop the critical thinking necessary to solve the problems of an increasingly complex world, Derr believes. And Antioch College in particular has shown itself successful in instilling in students a sense of social and moral responsibility.

“This is not vocational education,” Derr said of Antioch College. “For-profit models trade on telling students that the school prepares them for a job. This model says, we’ll give you the education that prepares you for life.”

First-year surprises

In the year since Antioch College came back to life as an independent liberal arts institution — after college alumni mounted a successful two-year effort to become independent from Antioch University — the small staff of about 30 has worked feverishly to create a new curriculum, raise money and tend to the historic but decaying campus.

“It’s been an extraordinary year — what a whirlwind,” Derr said.

The year has offered many surprises, and most have been good ones.

For instance, the college received the unexpected windfall of a bequest from longtime Antioch professor Nolan Miller and his brother, Richard Miller, of $2.5 million to the Yellow Springs Foundation to fund Antioch College co-op students in local nonprofits. The gift means that all of the college’s first class of 25 students will have a job in town, whether on campus, at a business, or at a nonprofit, and the bequest will provide many more local employment opportunities in the years to come.

“This helps to engage students in Yellow Springs in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible,” Derr said.

To their surprise, college leaders also found that restoring the college’s historic buildings, which suffered during a year with no heat during the campus closure, will not be as expensive as anticipated. For instance, while planners thought the Olive Kettering Library might need to be torn down and rebuilt, the restoration of the library’s structure has been completed for under $200,000.

“That’s because we’ve had someone on the ground who knows historic preservation,” Derr said of alumnus John Feinberg, a Colorado preservation specialist who is leading efforts to restore the buildings.

When leaders anticipated a more expensive restoration, they believed it could be necessary to reduce the size of the campus to contain costs. However, they are now considering maintaining the current campus size.

“Our perspective is changing,” Derr said.

A student body of 25 — which leaders hope will grow to 400 in five years — will clearly not need all the space on the campus. However, the college is engaged in several ongoing conversations with villagers about ways to collaborate to benefit both entities.

For instance, the college continues to explore with the Yellow Springs Center for the Arts the possibility of providing on campus theater facilities for both town and gown. College leaders are also talking with the Miami Township Trustees about the campus as a potential site for a new fire station. And leaders are exploring using campus space for community housing, including housing for faculty or retirees.

“Going forward, the spirit of the college is very much a collaborative effort with the village,” Derr said.

The revival effort also feels on firmer footing due to fundraising efforts that produced more than $2 million for the revived college in its first year, which is twice the amount the college raised annually before its closure. Many college leaders believe that before independence alumni gave less due to their distrust of the Antioch University system. While financial needs remain daunting, this year, 26 percent of alumni donated, a substantial increase over the previous percentage.

“We have re-engaged the alumni financially,” Derr said.

Focus on global issues

No task in the last year has been more critical than developing a curriculum for the college, Derr believes. And overall, leaders emphasize that the traditional three-pronged model of an Antioch College education — including academics, work and community governance — has proven itself, and will remain the structure for the new Antioch.

“The adaptability of Antioch College alumni, and ways they look at the world and contribute to it, shows that this model is one of the most efficient in producing distinguished alumni,” Derr said.

The Antioch College education will change in one significant way, however: it will cost less. College leaders aim to provide students with a liberal arts education for about $26,000 a year, which is significantly less than comparable schools.

“We want to create a model that is efficient, that properly and fairly compensates faculty and staff, but one in which students won’t leave with the degree of loan debt as they do with other colleges,” Derr said.

While Antioch leaders initially proposed to cut costs by providing its program in three years rather than four, that plan has changed. Alumni in the sciences convinced leaders that such a model would shortchange science students, as well as reduce co-op opportunities. Consequently, the new model calls for a four-year program, although students can design a three-year program if they wish.

Costs will be kept low using different means, including the traditional Antioch College A/B division system of hosting half its students on campus, and half on co-op, at a time. That model provides the most efficient use of both facilities and faculty, Derr said.

Costs will also be controlled because “we will focus on the core mission of the institution rather than adornments,” Derr said, referring to the pressure on many colleges to provide students with upscale amenities. “There will be no cappuccino bar.”

The first group of 25 students who arrive next fall will get the best deal of all — they won’t pay any tuition during the four years of their program. These students are tuition-free — the costs will be covered by the college endowment — since they are taking a risk and also helping to create the new college, Derr said.

While the incoming class is quite tiny, leaders envision that enrollment will rise to 400 students in four years, with 600 students as the goal.

New to the revived college is a core curriculum that requires all students to take five global seminars on the topics of food, water, energy, health and governance. Also new is the requirement that all students engage in 10 hours of work per week, and that all achieve an intermediate fluency in a language, which for the incoming class will be either Spanish or Portuguese.

Students will begin their language study in their first year, and the study will culminate in a six-month co-op experience in a Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking country. Research has shown that college students who work in a foreign culture have a more profound experience than those who simply study abroad, so Antioch College will be the first liberal arts college to require its students to work outside the country, according to Derr.

“This is the only undergraduate model that says, let’s take you outside the academy and outside your culture,” he said.

The college board of trustees hope to hire the new college’s faculty by mid-spring 2011, and the core faculty will, like the initial student body, be tiny — only six full-time faculty at first, covering traditional liberal arts areas. Six distinguished guest faculty will also be hired for varying time periods each year, according to Derr, who said these appointments will allow college alumni to enrich the small college’s offerings. And the college will also hire a small number of adjunct faculty for courses taken by only a few students.

Some alumni and former Antioch College faculty have been critical of college leaders for not stating that former faculty will be given priority when new faculty members are hired. The issue has been difficult, Derr said, stating that “we are fundamentally a new enterprise” while also saying, “the college needs to recognize the commitments made to faculty.”

It’s clear that all former faculty could not be hired, since the college seeks only six professors in the first year, and those six need to fit the core curriculum, Derr said, stating that some of the faculty searches will be national and some will not.

“I personally hold former faculty in high regard,” he said. “I hope they elect to be candidates” for the positions.

A deep privilege

Six months ago college leaders launched a search for a new president, although there’s been no report so far on the search process.

“The board will speak when it’s ready,” Derr said. “Most searches take a year, and it’s only been six months.”

A professional fundraiser for arts organizations, Derr — an alumnus who with Lee Morgan led the successful effort for an independent college — said he is not a candidate for the job. His role was to “pass on a working model and college structure to the new president,” and when a new president is hired, that job will be done. He hopes at that time to pursue graduate study in his profession.

The most difficult part of his job during the last year has been the “amount of stamina required,” both physically and psychologically, Derr said.

“There’s no road map. No one has done this before,” he said of the effort to revive the closed college. “We couldn’t look at a successful model of a college that closes with one set of resources and opens back up with another. But there are plenty of examples of failure, of those that closed their doors or became for-profit schools.”

But regardless of the demanding nature of the job, Derr said that, overall, he feels “a deep sense of privilege” at being at the helm of Antioch College as it comes back to life.

Among the many surprises of his past year has been his pleasure at living in a small town. A Boston resident when he took the interim job, Derr admits to skepticism about life in an Ohio village. But Yellow Springs has grown on him.

“It’s a very sophisticated community, with people connected to the world,” he said. “The quality of my life has been high.”

In some important ways, his life didn’t change much, Derr said. For instance, in Boston he walked to work, and he walks to work in Yellow Springs. And most important is how warmly he’s been received by the town, he said.

“Being welcomed in the way I’ve been welcomed — that has made all the difference.”

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