WHY IS OBERLIN THRIVING AND ANTIOCH CLOSING?
OBERLIN — Both are small liberal-arts colleges nestled in lovely Ohio towns, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Oberlin College is thriving, and Antioch College is planning to suspend operation of its undergraduate campus in Yellow Springs for four years beginning in July 2008.
The answers range from money to music, experts said.
Oberlin is the only top-ranked liberal arts college with a top-ranked conservatory of music. That’s a powerful attraction for those seeking dual degrees and an environment filled with music ranging from Bach to jazz, according to Al Moran, Oberlin’s vice president of college relations.
But everyone — including Antioch’s own spokeswoman — agree the biggest difference between Oberlin College and Antioch is money.
Antioch has been running deficits and has a relatively skimpy $32 million in endowments to bolster its bottom line, according to Paul Fain, senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
At the same time, Oberlin College’s endowments have grown to $700 million, and it can plow investments earnings back into college operations, Fain said.
Ohio’s depressed economy makes it perhaps “the toughest market” in the nation for colleges, but Oberlin “is doing very well,” Fain said.
Even Oberlin’s choice of a new president — Marvin Krislov, general counsel for the University of Michigan — shows its aggressive determination to thrive, Fain said.
“How many colleges have general counsels as presidents?” Fain asked. “Higher education has changed — it’s a business.”
And business has been poor at Antioch in recent years.
Antioch basically has three sources of revenue — tuition, grants and endowment revenue — and enrollment has dropped precipitously, said Lynda Sirk, Antioch’s director of communications and public relations.
Just 216 students were enrolled in both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 school years, less than a tenth of the number who attended at the height of the college’s enrollment in the 1970s, she said. The endowments can’t make up the difference, she said.
“It all hinges on money,” Sirk said. “The difference between $32 million and $700 million is huge. Our alums contribute a lot of money, but there’s only so much you can do.”
Antioch’s closing has drawn media attention from across the nation, including The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and Fox News, according to Sirk.
Fain said everyone is interested in Antioch because it has become a brand of sorts with its radicalism taken to extremes. Antioch invited Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a police officer to give the commencement address in 2000, and it doesn’t even issue grades, he said.
“I’m sure there are conservatives welcoming the demise of Antioch — believing they (the college) pushed it too far,” Fain said.
Antioch has closed temporarily in the past, and Sirk said this closing is just one more obstacle to overcome.
“The college has always reopened,” she said. “We clearly know there has to be a plan to reinvigorate our facility.”
Modern amenities will be part of the new Antioch, Sirk said. The newest building at Antioch’s main campus went up in the 1950s, she said. While the college has gorgeous old buildings, young people want up-to-date technology and old residence halls have to be updated, she said.
On the other hand, Oberlin has gone through an exhaustive planning and building process and has more than doubled its endowment in recent years, Moran said.
Over the last several years, Oberlin has invested $117 million in new construction, renovation and capital maintenance, including a $65 million science center and $7.8 million environmental center. Planned capital projects include a new jazz studies building, three apartment-style living units, and a master plan for residential housing.
The last capital campaign in 2004 raised $175 million —
$10 million over the goal — and development staff has become very adept at encouraging alumni and others to contribute, Moran said.
For example, a California woman who contacted the college after seeing a report on its violin program on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” program ended up contributing $250,000, Moran said.
“(Former Oberlin College President Nancy Dye) has helped us develop a major gift culture,” Moran said. “For the big people, they go out and visit to find their interests and what motivates them.”
While Oberlin’s endowment is about $238,000 per student, it is smaller than some of its peers among private colleges because the number of students who attend Oberlin is larger by comparison, and the college is committed to providing financial aid, Moran’s office said.
The endowment is a collection of more than 1,200 investment funds established to provide and protect in perpetuity scholarships, professorships, research initiatives, library holdings, art collections and more, according to Oberlin’s alumni magazine.
Tom Longin, executive editor of the Society for College and University Planning, said the difference between Oberlin and Antioch is compelling.
Oberlin “has had its ups and downs, too,” Longin said, but Dye’s leadership brought it over the hump.
Longin, former vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, said Dye “did it by strategic planning.”
He said one of his friends — a professor at Oberlin — “gives Nancy a ton of credit for salvaging the planning process, rebuilding their confidence and re-energizing the community.”
Despite its setback, Longin said he thinks Antioch has a good chance to regroup and rise again.
“OK, it can’t be the 19th century liberal arts college or the cantankerous and almost-threatening model of the 1960s and 1970s, when the power of creative thinking got turned into crisis and conflict, but they won’t abandon their liberal education associations,” Longin said.
Antioch students and graduates have been weighing in on the closing in Internet chat rooms and are eager to talk about why Antioch must survive.
If she won the lottery tomorrow, Maurya Orr, a 2004 Antioch graduate, said she would pay off her family’s debts and give “a huge chunk” to her alma mater.
Orr, now making less than $20,000 a year as office coordinator for the Michigan Peace Team, said she realized when she was going to Antioch that it was facing financial problems.
She said that most Antioch graduates she knows aren’t particularly enamored with money.
That means they may not have the resources to write big checks to their college, she said.
Despite the lack of funds to contribute to Antioch’s rebirth, Orr said she will closely follow the progress of reopening efforts and do what she can. Orr, who has spoken about Antioch’s strengths to high school students since her graduation, said she’s even feeling a tinge of guilt.
“I can honestly tell you I’m to blame — I didn’t do all I could,” she said.
Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.