By any reckoning, Antioch University’s Board of Trustees got along uncommonly well for the past seven years. They were also uncommonly productive, elevating the community profile of the small liberal arts college to new and unprecedented heights. All that came to an uncommonly swift end last Monday, when the college’s 20 trustees were informed — with no advance warning — that their services would no longer be needed. Effective immediately.
Antioch University is headquartered in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and operates five satellite campuses throughout the United States. Each has its own board of trustees. The university as a whole is run by a separate Board of Governors that meets in Yellow Springs. The complexity of this governance structure, the notification letter explained, “was frustrating at times,” giving rise to a “pressing need to simplify.” Alluded to were severe financial challenges confronting the small private college that demanded “exquisite focus and swift action.”
In that same “swift action,” trustees from the other four campus boards were given similar notices. Some of the trustees, the letter stated, might later be incorporated into Antioch’s Board of Governors in Yellow Springs.
Santa Barbara’s trustees — a high-profile, high-powered cross section of movers and shakers — were less than thrilled by the decision and even less happy about the summary way in which they were dismissed. “You can argue the decision both ways, but the way they did it was just terrible,” said journalist, historian, biographer, and trustee Lou Cannon. “There just aren’t two sides to that story.”
If Antioch is bleeding financially, that’s not the fault of the Santa Barbara campus, which boasts the highest and most diverse enrollments of all Antioch satellites. In recent years, Antioch secured downtown digs, fixed them up, initiated a wide range of community forums, and enticed Santa Monica–based radio station KCRW to open a station in town. The campus prided itself in the number of scholarships and grants it’s provided to low-income and Latino students.
Although Antioch has been in Santa Barbara nearly 40 years, its engagement in community affairs has really taken off in the past seven. Recently dismissed trustees give former president Nancy Leffert credit for this. She, in turn, enjoyed exceptional working relations with board chair Victoria Riskin, who aggressively recruited boardmembers who would work hard and get along. Most trustees put in about 30-60 meetings a year on various committees. That’s a lot. And some did twice that amount.
Leffert’s recent retirement is the subject of considerable consternation among some boardmembers. The Santa Barbara campus had not been shy about disagreeing with Yellow Springs over financial concerns and other matters. When Leffert retired nine months ago, some trustees grumbled she might have gotten a shove out the door. The hole created by her departure will soon be filled by Bill Flores from the University of Houston.
Antioch declined multiple requests for interviews, referring inquiries to a private consultant, who identified herself as Ronda, to explain no further statements would be made. Rifkin explained she could not comment without the consent of Yellow Springs.
Antioch was started in 1852 by Horace Mann, a pioneering educational reformer from Massachusetts. The school was one of the first to admit women both as students and as faculty members. It accepted black students even while slavery was still practiced. The school has always placed a high emphasis on social justice. During the 1960s, it embraced a more “experiential” mode of teaching, and by the 1970s, it opened a small, private, fringe campus catering to students who had taken time off to work or pursue life adventures and wanted to finish up their degree.
Like many smaller private schools, Antioch has struggled financially to stay afloat. It shut down the Yellow Springs campus to save funds. In 2007, it adopted the decentralized board structure to give satellite campuses greater responsibility and autonomy. Santa Barbara thrived under this arrangement; some campuses have struggled.
Whether simplifying the school’s complex board structure is the answer remains to be seen. Journalist Lou Cannon has serious doubts. “Even the Chinese eventually figured out centralization doesn’t work,” he said. Most boardmembers interviewed for this article expressed misgivings about how Antioch handled this change. All held hope the campus would continue to flourish; some pledged to be involved in whatever capacity they could. Cannon may have been among the more outspoken, but accompanying his anger was disappointment. “On a personal level, I’ve really gotten to like these people,” he said. “I’m going to miss working with them.”
Editor’s Note: On July 12, the number of times board members met was corrected to 30-60 times a year, not 30 times a month.