Jane Fernandes, who, in August 2021, became Antioch College’s third president since its reopening a decade earlier, is no stranger to challenges. As the first Deaf president of a US college where the majority of students are hearing students, she came to the role after serving in previous positions where she tackled many vital issues: integrating Black and White Deaf students at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School; encouraging faculty at the University of North Carolina at Asheville to investigate student learning outcomes to identify obstacles to student progress; leading the effort at Guilford College to foster collaborative and integrative learning; and increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion at each school and college where she worked.
As the director of the New American Baccalaureate Project and its Village Commons Initiative, I work closely with Fernandes and Shadia Alvarez, executive director of Antioch’s Coretta Scott King Center for Intellectual and Cultural Freedom. Together, we reach out to rural communities surrounding the college in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to prepare underserved working-class youth to aspire to a liberal arts education. I recently spoke with Fernandes about challenges to the value of a liberal arts education, threats to the future of democracy, and Antioch’s efforts to partner with its rural neighbors.
Based on what you have learned from working with faculty and students at different institutions to create a sense of community, how can small liberal arts colleges like Antioch revitalize liberal education when it is under tremendous stress?
The traditional liberal arts disciplines have long been helpful to those with the right family background and socioeconomic standing to draw from the history of ideas to frame their own lives and work. Nevertheless, institutions like Antioch, Guilford, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Gallaudet University have adapted the liberal arts disciplines into a philosophy of liberal education in which faculty design experiences and organize information to enable students to make connections across curricular and cocurricular programs and integrate real world issues and actions. We offer all our diverse students higher education in an inclusive and democratic community that relates to their lived experiences.
At a recent Village Commons Zoom meeting, you spoke about students on both the left and the right questioning the value of democracy, something we never thought would be put into question. How can colleges like Antioch reimagine the values of democracy for a new generation of youth?
The majority of students at Antioch are from challenged socioeconomic classes, with 71 percent of students receiving Pell grants. They have witnessed their parents’ struggle to make ends meet. After working more than one job for their whole lives, their parents barely have enough to get by. These students are reluctant to take on debt but may feel they have to do it for their education. So, in those students’ minds, I doubt that democracy is living up to the promise they were taught it would.
But liberal learning at Antioch enables all students to understand and take action around climate change and other topics that are important to them—rights of Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color; land rights; sustainable food systems; LGBTQ rights; voter rights; immigration reform; gun control; and reproductive justice for all.
Antioch also creates real-life learning opportunities when students engage in democratic processes. We lead with community governance rather than traditional shared governance. Students have a vote and a voice in every decision we make. We have interlocking committees with each connected to the others through cross membership. Every meeting is open to the community. This structure gives everyone access to all the same information and the ability to critically inquire into it. In this way, Antioch students see a radical form of democracy in action in which they are full participants. Such community governance can go a long way to convince students of the value of democracy.
Antioch and other colleges in our Village Commons network are reaching out to the neighborhoods around them, where students come from more conservative or non-college backgrounds compared with those who come from cosmopolitan or urban communities. Will that work to bring them into the conversation about higher education and democracy? How will democracy survive unless we invite students from nontraditional backgrounds into the liberal arts community?
Insularity has bred some of the divisions we live with in our communities and on our campuses today. COVID-19 certainly exacerbated that. We cannot afford to stay in our own places, enclaves, or bubbles.
Reaching out to students from nontraditional backgrounds and inviting them into our academic community is a first step toward bringing them into the conversation. We need to break down distance and separation among us. We need to communicate with each other more. The greater the diversity of people and viewpoints on campus, the better able we are to learn how to be a democratic society. Liberal education teaches us, as a community, to build bridges, not walls. Our success at Antioch and other colleges like it may contribute to the ultimate survival of democracy in our nation.
What about the idea of saying to our students from all backgrounds, “The grown-ups have not done a good job preserving our democracy—and they certainly have not done a good job in saving our planet.” By acknowledging that and pointing out that it’s their nation and their planet, we commit ourselves to help them do a better job than we have done. What do you think about posing that to them?
I think that is a great way to motivate them. With their education, they will push for an equitable and just world where more Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color serve as leaders, abortion is a universal human right, LGBTQ people are celebrated and have access to safe and affirming health care, Indigenous lands are acknowledged, our climate is protected, undocumented and international students and workers have access to bipartisan pathways to citizenship, gun acquisition and ownership are controlled, feminism is a shared common value, disability justice is embedded in our culture, and workers’ labor is valued. With such a vision, students will get behind a better future for democracy and our planet.
One thing we can do is move general education away from distribution requirements and toward helping students acquire problem-solving skills—to say, in effect, “We can focus more of your education on becoming stronger citizens and decision makers. We can give you credit for helping to solve problems in your communities. We can give you credit for developing leadership skills.” How do you envision the future of small liberal arts colleges, given these possible changes?
As small liberal arts colleges change to meet students’ needs, their future will be bright. We will continue giving credit for courses, co-ops for full credit will provide practical and full-time work experience each year, and credit-bearing community-engaged projects will ensure our students work for the good of our communities. In addition to focusing on students’ academic experiences—imparting to them the depth and breadth of human history and knowledge—we will take care to develop the person.
We will provide more robust mental health and wellness services. I predict our approach to liberal learning will move away from a strict emphasis on objective writing and thinking to include and celebrate the subjective. A coming expansion of liberal learning, I believe, will embrace the need to admit and understand feelings and emotions. We will model, teach, and lead with more empathy.
We will also ask students to “think about a problem in your community, and how you can help. Go and do that. Talk to others.” When students look back on their college experience, they will value having learned to understand their lived experience, to be healthy and safe, and to make a difference in other people’s lives. And through those efforts, they will contribute to the evolution of a just democracy. This will be hard work.
Many liberal arts colleges, particularly in the Midwest, were started by churches, civic groups, and civic leaders who said, “We want this college to help build our communities.” Currently, many of our rural areas are facing terrible economic devastation and stress because of competition from factory jobs, factory farming, and doubts about our government’s support for farms and workers. Is there not a role for colleges to return to a commitment to helping the community create opportunities and solve problems?
There is both a role and a responsibility. And where colleges exist in a rural environment, there is a refreshing hope for community. For example, the Yellow Springs Development Corporation supports, incentivizes, and attracts economic development here in Yellow Springs and in Miami Township, Ohio. The corporation and Antioch share a common belief in the value of liberal education for a strong workforce. A collaborative relationship will help us all thrive. Much depends on the interface among civic leaders in the Village Commons Initiative, at Antioch, in the Yellow Springs Development Corporation, and in our faith communities.
Recently, Shane Creepingbear, Antioch’s dean of admissions, talked about a plan to let people throughout this rural farming region know that Antioch is here for them. For example, we opened our wellness center to local residents. And working with the Village Commons Initiative and the New American Baccalaureate Project, we will continue to work to serve more students in surrounding towns—and not just at an individual level but to help them maintain their relationships with networks of friends and family in those towns. We are ready to serve them where they reside and to help them connect and share perspectives with Antioch students who have different experiences from their own.
Lead Photo: President Jane Fernandes (left) with graduating students at Antioch College’s 2022 commencement (Jennifer Boyd)