Home > The Antiochian > Introducing Mr. Roosevelt
 Winter 2011

Introducing Mr. Roosevelt

With the start of the new year, Antioch College welcomes its new president, Mark Roosevelt.

On a cold day in January, with the lows dipping into the teens, Antioch College’s new president, Mark Roosevelt, spoke to an audience of alumni, staff, villagers, and prospective students about the vision he was then formulating for the re-emerging College.

Antioch College has to not simply re-enter the business of higher education; if it is to be successful it has to reinvent itself while remaining true to its core progressive values, to liberal arts education, to co-op, and to its unique approach to participatory community governance, Roosevelt said.

That meeting in January was Roosevelt’s first public engagement as president of the College. He’d spoken in October as the finalist for the job, then later as president-select in call-ins with alumni chapters and leaders before taking office at the start of the new year.

But since, the debate among Antiochians about the future of the institution, particularly as it relates to its faculty-hiring procedures, had reached a fevered pitch.

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  • (photo: Dennie Eagleson ’71)
  • Roosevelt with his daughter, Juliana, son, Matthew, and wife, Dorothy. (photo: Lauren Heaton)
  • (photo: Ty Greenlees, Dayton Daily News)
  • Roosevelt answering questions about faculty hiring. (photo: Dennie Eagleson ’71)

That day in January, with the roughly 150 people gathered in South Hall’s Herndon Gallery, was his opportunity to speak more thoroughly on the topic. It was also a chance for Antiochians to get to know the man who is now charged with leading the College to full revival.

Alumnus Gerard “Gerry” Bello ’97, an advocate for the hiring of those members of faculty who were tenured at the College when it was a campus of Antioch University, asked the question that would provide Roosevelt an opportunity to clarify his position.

“I ’d like you to address our concerns,” Bello said, “about the lack of loyalty to this existing faculty and what change you might make in the overall existing plan.”

Flanked by some members of that faculty who now serve as scholars in residence – Morgan Fellows Anne Bohlen, Jean Gregorek, and Scott Warren – Roosevelt answered the question with the kind of straight-forwardness for which he became known in his last job as superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“This issue has percolated into high volume over the last three months,” he began. “It’s an extremely difficult issue. And I think it’s an issue that tests us as a community in many different ways.…

“I think the advocates for the former faculty make many valid arguments. Yet, I think there are many alternative points of views that can also be considered.”

Chief among those alternative views: “I think it’s difficult for anyone to argue that doing national searches would not be best for future students” of the College, Roosevelt said.

Unsatisfied with the direction of Roosevelt’s response, Bello stormed from the gallery.

But the president was undeterred. He went on to explain what he saw as a middle ground. The College would proceed with national searches, he said, but if former members of faculty could evidence subject-matter expertise as well as a commitment to student advising and retention, those individuals would “certainly have a leg up.”

“I would also note, since the gentleman who asked the question has exited, that we should be wary of coming to blows with each other so quickly…I ask you to be slow to draw lines in the sand and to recognize that decent people can have different points of view on this issue.”

The ‘Right-sizing’ Plan

“You would have had to have significant political expertise and skills to survive in that kind of [an] environment. He appears, from what we have learned so far, to have made real progress.”
—Paul Reville, president of the Rennie Center for Education Research
and Policy, Harvard University.

Mark Roosevelt has been here before. Not in Yellow Springs or at the helm of a college, but in a new job at an institution in need of revitalization.

A former Massachusetts legislator, Roosevelt was a surprise choice when he was tapped in August of 2005 to lead the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania’s second-largest school district with more than 31,000 students and 3,000 teachers.

“I’m kind of a traditional non-traditional,” he told the Pittsburgh City Paper. “I’ve been involved with educational policy for 20 years, but I had never been a principal, and I had never worked in a school administration.” Roosevelt’s predecessor in the post, John Thompson, had a rocky relationship with the board, and the job carried with it the burden of a budget shortfall of $40 million, much of it weighed with the operation of too many schools despite shrinking enrollment, reported The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“In my first interview with the board, I said, ‘Look, I’m not sure I want to come here,’” Roosevelt told the Pittsburgh City Paper. “‘You’ve had very difficult relationships with previous superintendents. Over the past 12 years, it’s basically been a neurotic knot of contention between you and superintendents.’ ”

Ten months into that job, Roosevelt trimmed eighty-five administrators from the central office and negotiated a new contract with the teacher’s union, according to news reports.

One of the toughest challenges was determining what to do with roughly thirty under-populated and failing schools. It was a question that bedeviled his predecessor and nearly tore the city apart.

“If Antioch College is to be successful, it must re-examine how we deliver a liberal arts education in the 21st century.”

After receiving recommendations from a citizen’s panel and considering research on school performance from the RAND Corporation, Roosevelt closed twenty-two schools, a move that affected 6,000 students.

Public discourse on the matter was heated, as was expected. In the report “Tough Decisions: Closing Persistently Low-Performing Schools,” researchers from the Center for Innovations and Improvements noted that community responses to school closures are generally strong.

“Families have a strong incentive to protest the decision, because they are bearing the cost of the district’s earlier failure by having to give up their current school and move their children to a school with many unknowns,” according to the report. Such closures also mean loss of jobs within communities and can strip from a neighborhood an institution that’s closely tied to its identity.

School districts throughout the nation have struggled with what to do with failing schools. In most instances, when districts are faced with the question of whether to close schools because of under enrollment or under performance, they get mired in acrimonious political battles and inertia.

The action in Pittsburgh was much more decisive. The results were increased funding to the district – a more than $150 million scholarship program called Pittsburgh’s Promise, $40 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and $37.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund. Another achievement was the successful negotiation of a five-year contract with the teacher’s union, which introduced merit pay for some teachers into the city schools, the Post-Gazette reported.

In announcing his resignation from his position in Pittsburgh, Roosevelt described himself as a “turnaround artist,” who saw his mission as “improving the life prospects of the children we are privileged to serve,” the Post-Gazette reported.

When looking over his tenure in Pittsburgh, Roosevelt said he is most proud of having created a problem-solving, working relationship between district administrators, school board members, teachers, parents, and union officials.

Accepting the position at Antioch College gave Roosevelt another opportunity to take decisive action to improve and rebuild.

The Perpetual Entrepeneuer

“The board is confident it has selected a strong leader who will guide the College on its road to revival.”
— Lee Morgan ’66, chair of Antioch College’s board of trustees

Though Mark Roosevelt did not attend Antioch College as an undergrad – he earned both bachelor’s and law degrees at Harvard – he is of the generation for whom the name Antioch means something.

He gained a reputation for social activism while a student at Washington D.C.’s St. Albans School. Then a high school student, Roosevelt protested a local dance school for its prohibition of African American students.

As a Harvard undergrad, this great-grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican) went to work on local Democratic campaigns, directing John O’Bryant’s successful bid for the Boston school board. O'Bryant, who would later lead the Council of Urban Boards of Education and serve as vice president of student affairs at Northeastern University, was the first African American to hold the post in that city.

After earning his law degree at Harvard, Roosevelt devoted himself to a career in politics. He was elected to the Massachusetts General Court, the state legislature, in 1986, three years after graduating from law school.

He would become the lead sponsor of the landmark 1989 Massachusetts Gay Rights Bill, legislation that made Massachusetts the second state to pass a law prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations.

He would also chair the legislature’s Education Committee, where he guided passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993, which provides the equitable resources and accountability measures necessary for school improvement.

After nearly a decade in the legislature, Roosevelt set his sights on the governor’s mansion. Though he won the Democratic nomination in 1994, he suffered a defeat to Republican incumbent William Weld.

“I’ve lost, and hard ones, and big ones,” Roosevelt said in October during a public forum at Antioch. “When you go through that, you realize it’s significant and it takes a piece out of you.”

After the loss, Roosevelt worked in nonprofits. He served as CEO of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives and as managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. He also became an adjunct professor of politics and head of the Gordon Public Policy Center at Brandeis University.

By the early 2000s, he began to prepare for his next career move by graduating from the Broad Superintendents Academy, a Los Angeles-based program that prepares non-educators to lead city school districts.

Reinventing Antioch

“I have a high level of confidence they will succeed.”
—Eric Fingerhut, Ohio Board of Regents chancellor

Mark Roosevelt does not want to simply reestablish Antioch as it existed as a campus of Antioch University. The College must do business differently than it has throughout its history, he said. The world is not “screaming” for another undergraduate college, and colleges of all types are struggling financially. The liberal arts New College of California has been a closed school since June 30, 2008, and Nebraska’s Dana College closed in 2010.

“If there is any business that could use a new model, a new strategy, a new way of thinking about their business, it is higher education,” Ohio education chancellor Eric Fingerhut said in a February 7 interview with the Dayton Daily News.

Roosevelt agrees. “This is not about restoring the old Antioch. If it is, we’re not going to make it.” If Antioch College is to be successful, it must re-examine how it delivers a liberal arts education in the 21st century, he maintains.

The new curriculum, he believes, begins the process.

Antioch College’s new curriculum rests upon the notion that all students must acquire broad knowledge in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences in order to be successful. After completing a series of Foundation courses during their first two years, students focus their studies on an individualized major in one division or across divisions.

Along the way, they will study a foreign language and culture; participate in a series of community-wide discussions on world issues (the Global Seminars); and complete division-wide, focused Colloquies on special topics.

This classroom study is coupled with a remodeled Cooperative Education program that includes full-time and part-time jobs and work portfolios that culminate with an international or cross-cultural job assignment.

With its rebirth, the College is revolutionizing its approach to undergraduate education. “We start with the premise that the way we live now is not sustainable, and we will place great weight on helping students think through how we can change the way we live,” Roosevelt said. “We will create entrepreneurs, not only in the sense of starting businesses, but also by engaging students who are ‘open-field runners’ in an ‘open-field world,’ ” Roosevelt said.

“This idea has opportunity. I think it is Antiochian. And I think that together we can craft something valuable that sits on top of a liberal arts curriculum.”

And there will be other innovations still to come as students and faculty once more grace Antioch’s 150-year-old campus. “Together, I am convinced, we will do great things.”