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Matthew Derr's State of the College Address to Alumni

Full text to Interim President Matthew A. Derr's "State of the College" address, delivered at Reunion on June 19, 2010.

Matthew Derr It is an honor to stand before you today, in the shadows of our beautiful towers, to report to you on the health of the College.

Welcome home.

Welcome to your independent Antioch College.

To serve the College at this critical moment in its history is a privilege. I am grateful daily to all of you - alumni, emeritus and former faculty, former students, future students, staff and administrators past and present, and trustees. Grateful for the opportunity you have made possible for Antioch College to rise again and to be restored to its rightful place as one of the premier and most forward-thinking liberal arts college in the United States.

We are indeed the inheritors of a great legacy. Fortunately, given our present circumstances, it is a legacy marked by times of dramatic transition and transformation. Antioch has never been a restful place. It has always pushed against the norms and against the commonplace.

Antioch's success is associated with the strength of the creative capacity of its leaders and faculty, in reinvention and reevaluation. But, like an artist who is unable to walk away from a canvas, perhaps our supreme weakness has proven to be not knowing when to leave well-enough alone.

While we more often quote the great Horace Mann and visionary Arthur Morgan, one of my favorite quotes come for a president with a brief term of service, Frank Shea. At yet another period of crisis for the College in the late 1970s, he stated: "Antioch is a place where megalomania is complicated only by its insolvency."

What is interesting about this moment in our history is that we have within our reach an opportunity to pause and to learn from our collective experience. I am often struck, when I have the opportunity to meet with the emeritus faculty at the Friends Care Center, how often my presentation of our "new" ideas elicit looks I identify with "yeah, yeah, we tried that before, kid."

What does leaving well-enough alone mean for us today in the context of a rare opportunity for relatively unfettered reinvention? Would it be enough to restore, as has been recommended to me many times near and far from this campus, the contents of the catalog of 1950? 1960? 1970? 2000? 2007?

I believe, there are some basic truths about the Antioch model. Because many of our distinguished and accomplished alumni - individuals who influence the course of events, inventors, accomplished scientists, artists and activists - came from many different iterations of the Antioch College academic curriculum, we know that the organization of the coursework, the exposure to a specific set of ideas, is less important than the enduring relationship between a talented teacher and passionate students.

It is for this reason that our new model for Antioch College focuses so heavily on a strong liberal arts and sciences foundation, on small classes, on critical and analytical thinking and on the capacity to write well and to present ones ideas orally.

Indeed, these ideas are not ours or new. We make no claim that they are. However, by concentrating and then sustaining our concentration on a core and cogent set of academic areas of focus, Antioch can offer as rich, rigorous and compelling an academic program as any college in the world.

Today, not tomorrow, upon inception in 2011, we must again sustain our focus on building the capacity for critical thinking through time in the classroom and laboratories with talented faculty. In short, by concentrating the College's resources, financial and human, investing and placing faculty back at the center of the institution, not just for now but forever.

We cannot build an Antioch College academic program just for today. Like the artist, we must be prepared to walk away from the canvas. The College cannot, and should not, recreate every program and area of study its proud legacy has included. Rather, it should focus on a set of core strengths and competencies. That means that what you specifically studied may or may not be within the future focus of the College as the faculty design the curriculum.

But, what will be true is what has always been true: If you put a group of creative and passionate students in a small room, that room does not need to be heated or look all that great. If you put a student in a room with a talented and empowered faculty member, great things happen. As the emeriti faculty have been fond of telling me, and my long ago advisor Bob Fogarty has repeated to me whenever he gets the chance, it's really not all that complicated.

Of course, the magic of Antioch College is the chemical reaction that happens when you take those same students from that small class and cast them out into the world of work.

Tomorrow we will recognize Katy Jako for her wisdom and her leadership of the Antioch Independence Fund. A conversation Katy and I had in a coffee shop in Berkeley, California, some months ago again reinforced for me the need for us to concentrate on the central and defining element of the Antioch experience: Co-op.

Antioch must invest in providing work opportunities for its students locally, nationally and globally. It is the combination of the liberal arts with work that has led to the disproportionate representation of distinguished Antiochians in the world today. I believe that if the measure is assessed carefully on outcomes, this is the most effective educational model ever developed.

Students will work full-time. Students will have at least six work placements of 12 weeks of duration. Co-op will be back, restored and at the center of an Antioch education. Our focus will be in offering a broad range of work placements with employers who are and who see themselves as part of the field faculty of the College. In recognition of the changes in the tools available to us today, compared to 90 years ago when Arthur Morgan brought co-op to Antioch, we will connect these same field faculty back to our campus via interactive communication technology so that they will, with the support of our campus faculty, offer programming to the College on critical and practical issues of the day. We have labeled this element of our curriculum the Global Seminar. This campus-based Global Seminar will be offered weekly, and it will link students' off campus work to an on-campus curriculum focused on problem-solving and the desperate needs of humanity and the health of our planet. Even a cursory review of today's headlines should suggest that a curricular and structural link between the liberal arts and work in areas associated with energy, food, governance, health, and water is essential. I compare this connection to the focus in the Morgan era on industry, business and engineering - each of which remains connected to, and defined by, our new areas of work focus.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, for those of you who know Katy, my conversation over coffee in Berkley did not go as smoothly when it came to my proposal to rearrange the Antioch College academic calendar into a three-year course of study.

While alumni across the nation have responded overwhelmingly positively to the new design for the College, for generations who know Antioch as a 5-year or 4-year program, it is difficult to fathom a course of study and work that can be completed in less time. Or, perhaps the question is not one of "can it be done" but for them rather "should it be done."

I won't dwell on this topic, but suffice it to say that offering a curriculum that facilitates the pace with which a student wishes to move and has the capacity and skill to sustain is appropriate, not just for Antioch, but also for all colleges. Antioch is uniquely positioned at this moment of its history to focus on the needs of its students and our aspirations for their development.

The new Antioch College calendar will represent a radically different model for higher education, but in absolute candor and fairness it bears more resemblance than not to our historic calendar. There will be an A and B division, perhaps even a C special. It will be a year-round calendar. It will be designed for students to complete 150 quarter credit hours.

In the ongoing creative and accreditation planning process on which we have embarked, there have been and will be many changes. This is a work in progress that has received a great deal of interest, criticism and even some praise. Transparency is messy; it is inherently a shared experience. What we have learned is that we must be flexible in our thinking and our approach.

While we have made much of the question of a three-year calendar - something I ardently believe can be done well and consistently within our stated educational values - in the end, the choice will be the student's.

Antioch will offer its students a clear road map for a four-year program, a three-and-a-half-year program and a three-year program. In our planning we will meet our obligation to be attentive to the aspirations of the student and to the costs of the undergraduate and graduate experience.

Access and the perception of access are critical to the future of Antioch. Our attempt at looking at the fundamental nature of the collegiate calendar and our focus on depth in a smaller number of disciplines within a rigorous and rich academic curriculum is partly motivated by our desire to control expenses, to control costs that families and students are forced to pay in our fatally flawed approach to higher education financing in the United States.

With improved access and the perception of access follows a commitment to diversity. To survive or to thrive in year one, or the next century, two things that must be true about Antioch College: 1) The cost of attendance must be within the grasp of the majority, not the minority, of the country, and 2) the College must be globally diverse.

Our values are clear. Learning does not happen in a monoculture. Diversity is essential to excellence and the development of critical thinking capacities. It is also pragmatic. If our campus - our student body and teaching and nonteaching faculty alike - do not mirror the composition of the nation and the world, we will be lost and we will have squandered a great opportunity to be a new global community.

What will community mean at Antioch College in 2011? I believe that the tenants that have underpinned community governance at Antioch over the generations are critical to its rebirth. But just as we do not teach to empty classrooms, we do not have the hubris to presume to convene Community Council or Administrative Council. Our tradition of shared governance is not a play written for actors. It is a tradition based on the democratic participation of people from a discrete list of players elected from the body of this campus community composed of the faculty, students and staff of Antioch College.

We will not pretend in this transitional period to be something we are decidedly not, and we will not diminish the significance of community governance by pretending we represent roles we do not. Thus, the only authentic convening of any shared governance body at Antioch College will be led by its faculty and its students.

Although not everyone assembled here today is in fact an alumnus of Antioch College, I want to speak specifically to the alumni in the context of our reunion. We are in the process of developing a new community for ourselves. Having stepped up to come to the rescue of our alma mater, and been galvanized by our partnership with faculty, staff, students and friends of the College, we must now also prepare ourselves to step back. While we are, in fact, Antioch College reborn, we are not in fact The Community. The privilege, of being a student at Antioch is fleeting, a part of one's life. Some will be fortunate enough to teach or work at the College for their entire careers. Our alumni community must support the Antioch College Community. In doing so, we also need to ensure that we do not blur the boundaries and the definition of community. Agency and authority must remain on the campus, and it should be among our greatest commitments to protect that arrangement for our future students, faculty and staff.  We have too many sad lessons, too many failed renewals under our belts to do otherwise.

At a recent meeting of the Board, I said I believed Antioch College is on the cusp of something great once again. An opportunity, a moment in time on which we will all collectively reflect in the coming years. I also firmly believe that it is this moment, not a year from now, that will determine whether Antioch College is once again a catalyst for change in a world and a system of higher education that badly needs it, or one more ordinary and struggling speck on the lens of learning.

The College is fragile. Its future is not assured. Its place among the great institutions of the land is not guaranteed. Perhaps there are no guarantees to be had in life or in higher education, but we know with good stewardship and planning we can improve the odds.

To that end, I am delighted to announce that as of today, two weeks before the end of this fiscal year, more than 20% of alumni graduates of the College have supported the annual fund. I will reserve the announcement of our funds raised until tomorrow evening. However, this growth in participation represents a sea change in our potential relationships with major donors and foundations. More than 1,100 alumni participated in chapter meetings across the country this last year and, to date, we have raised approximately $17 million in the revival of Antioch College.

Additionally, the College is happy to share a developing and productive working relationship with the Yellow Springs Community Foundation, a recent recipient of a bequest of nearly
$3 million from the estate of Nolan Miller and Richard Miller. As many of you undoubtedly know, Nolan Miller was a professor of literature from 1946 to1972 as well as fiction editor at our esteemed Antioch Review from 1965-1972.  He died in 2006. Dick Miller, Nolan's younger brother, was educated at Art Student League of New York and was a self-employed artist in several art forms. He taught ceramics for Yellow Springs Art Councils and painting to "any Yellow Springs youth who were interested." Dick died just last year at this time.

This gift will support Antioch College students who wish to work in nonprofit organizations in the village of Yellow Springs. This is a truly transformational gift for the College and its programs, and it speaks to the strength of the relationship between the village we call home and that came to our defense at a time of great need.

Today, the College is also the beneficiary of a generous challenge. A friend of Antioch College who wishes to remain anonymous has presented us with the opportunity to match a $1.5 million gift. We hope in the coming months to meet this challenge and to have raised the full $3 million for the cause of restoring this great institution.

I am continually reminded of the cycles of the rising and falling fortunes at the College over the course of its history. This is not the first time a community and its boards have sat in deliberation about the need to search for a new president or focused their energies on fundraising or facilities.  Further, it is not the first time our community has taken risks or planned for an ambitious future during a period of economic instability, calamitous world and environmental events and crisis in higher education. If history is our guide, these so-called terrible times should, in fact, turn out to once again be great times for this problem-solving little college.

As we work to build the future for Antioch College together, I ask for your patience. We will continue to make mistakes, fail to communicate as well or in the ways you would like. We are a tiny chorus, with a big heart and a growing voice. Be patient, but always expect that we will rise to a higher standard with each passing month.

I also hope that in the coming months we will welcome a new president to this campus and that this community extend the same graciousness and kindness that has been extended to me.

It has been and continues to be an honor to serve this community. I am proud of my colleagues and their hard work and vision under both difficult and inspiring circumstances. I am first thankful to my fellow alumni who are daily giving Antioch the opportunity to be something great once again.

Thank you.