In the United States, the past year has forced us to come to terms with how fragile our democracy is. In the face of this national reckoning, Antioch University’s values of promoting social, economic, and environmental justice have been put to the test. In this episode, Antioch’s Chancellor, William Groves, discusses the vital role he believes higher education plays in building and maintaining democracy through educating voters and taking thoughtful stands on social injustices.
More about Chancellor Groves:
William R. Groves, JD, is the 22nd leader of Antioch University. He began working with Antioch in 1979 and has served as Chancellor since 2016. In his time at Antioch, Chancellor Groves has worked with faculty to improve structures and processes for faculty voice and has helped the university weather uncertain times in a changing landscape of higher education.
You can read more about Antioch’s mission statement involving social, economic, and environmental justice here.
Recorded April 26, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released June 9, 2021.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.
This episode was hosted by Jasper Nighthawk and edited by Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland for their contributions.
[00:00:06] Jasper Nighthawk: Welcome and thank you for joining us. You’re listening to the Seed Field Podcast presented to you by Antioch University.
With each episode of the Seed Field, we celebrate and share stories of those who embody the spirit of our founder, Horace Mann, as they win victories for humanity. I’m Jasper Nighthawk and I’m really excited to share with you today’s episode, my conversation with the university’s Chancellor, Bill Groves. Chancellor Groves has led Antioch for five years now, and he’s worked with Antioch since 1979. In his time at Antioch, Chancellor Groves has helped oversee broad changes in the shape and function of the university, and he’s helped it weather uncertain times and a changing landscape of higher education.
The role of chancellor, which used to be called president, is to manage the day-to-day of the university, but also to set a tone and a mission. In this, Chancellor Groves very much follows in the mold of our very first president, Horace Mann, who saw the university as a place of innovation, a center of progress towards greater justice in society, and also, an institution that strengthens democracy. It’s these questions that I’m really excited to explore in our conversation today. Welcome to the Seed Field Podcast, Bill.
[00:01:30] Bill Groves: Thank you. Glad to be here, and thank you for the very generous introduction. [chuckles] I’m not compared to Horace Mann that often.
[00:01:39] Jasper: [chuckles] You’re very welcome. I want to start off with a question about becoming chancellor of Antioch. You have been chancellor since 2016, and that year is notable in the American mind, not just for the elevation of Bill Groves to chancellor of Antioch University, but also that’s the year that Donald Trump became president of the United States. That second ascension to the presidency ushered in what really has been a pretty divisive period of American politics, and yet it’s also been a hopeful time in some ways with movements mobilizing and activists coming forward, and institutions standing up for their values in ways that I don’t think we’ve really seen before.
Under your leadership, Antioch hasn’t been shy to live its values and to speak out in moments of violence and tragedy. I wanted to ask you, when you were taking on this role, did you see that moral leadership like this would be part of the job of chancellor?
[00:02:37] Bill: That’s a great question. I knew mission was certainly a big part of this job. I also knew that we were in a very unusual time in American history with the candidacy of Donald Trump as president. From a very early point in my administration, I knew that the institution needed to speak at times, and I knew that we needed to encourage people to be actively involved in the campaign.
I think the moral leadership of the institution is something that inherently comes with this job as Chancellor of Antioch University with a mission of social and economic and environmental justice. I don’t think until this election, that most of my predecessors, at least in the last 50 years, probably thought about that in connection to democracy building. I really believe that we all took the democracy part for granted, and that would change over the next four years. I think that changed then too my view of what the role of an institution was like Antioch.
[00:03:51] Jasper: You felt like before these last four years, there was a bit more of an assumption that Antioch was just a part of a society that didn’t– it didn’t require the defense of democracy at its core.
[00:04:04] Bill: Well, Horace Mann did. If you go back to our first president and why he came to Antioch, which at that point was a building, had not yet opened, I think he very much saw the connection between social justice and democracy, and education and democracy, but I don’t think it’s something that the university spoke about. I think that it’s not something that society spoke about much until these past four years. I just think that we all took it for granted and I think we now know that democracy is much more fragile than we would have ever have believed in 2015 and before. It’s a good lesson to know, and it’s a good opportunity to recommit ourselves to the values that Horace Mann had when he got here.
[00:04:56] Jasper: I wanted to steer us also to look at some more specifics of how people have been living up those values of Antioch University. You sent me one of your graduation speeches, and you called out Jude Bergkamp at Antioch Seattle, as somebody who was using his specialization as a psychologist but to really work towards making our immigration system more just when a lot of actors were working towards making it extremely exclusionary and trying to stop immigration entirely. I wonder if you could talk about that and if there are any other examples that come to the top of your mind of people who are embodying these values.
[00:05:36] Bill: Wow. Well, there are so many. We print a monthly publication called The Common Thread that I would encourage people to read because it’s full of examples. I did call attention to that one because it was really so much a focus of the news cycle at the time on immigration. Jude’s work was around whether or not the methods of processing immigrants across the border in Mexico was even constitutional and the mass hearings and mass convictions for illegal entry that required a guilty plea from people who barely or maybe did not speak English.
It’s only a constitutional guilty plea if it’s knowing and voluntary. Jude’s work was around the work, was voluntary under the circumstances in which they were confined? Under the lack of any kind of legal representation, confused about what kind of court they were even in, a civil court or criminal court, unaware that a guilty plea meant that they would never be able to enter the United States ever, even for asylum purposes. I wanted to call attention to the work that faculty do generally and the work that Jude was doing specifically to ensure that we lived up to the Constitution. It is the rules of the road by the society that we want to live within, so that’s why I mentioned him in that speech.
[00:07:10] Jasper: That’s great. Well, I think that the idea that ties back into what you were saying earlier, that we can’t just sit by and assume that the rules of the road will always be followed. We have to be activists. When we have – our area of specialty has some application to a greater legal question or a question of how our society is structured, to speak up and to write our first friend of the court letter, to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals or to otherwise get involved.
[00:07:41] Bill: Right. Speaking up, speaking out, being engaged, all important. It’s not just important for us individually, but it’s also important, I think, as an institution. You asked me a question earlier and I probably didn’t fully respond to it, but yes, I have written more letters in the last four years about social justice issues confronting the country than probably my last 10 predecessors. I think that’s a sign of the times, but it’s also meant to send a very strong message in each of those cases.
My view is that institutions not only have the right to exercise free speech but the obligation to exercise speech because they carry gravitas that individuals may not have. I’ll give you an example. I think it’s interesting that with the passage of the Georgia restrictions on voting in the last month, it was very important to hear that Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines spoke out against it. They have gravitas in the state because of the economic weight that they carry in that state.
Higher education has weight within America because of the role that has played in building democracy, building citizens. I think that it’s incumbent on us therefore to speak out as institutions and not just individuals and to speak to our values, hence the letters that have been written way too many times in my mind, but I think they’re important. I’ve also signed on to letters that were written by organizations of higher educational institutions. Again, I think that those associations are very important.
[00:09:27] Jasper: I want to drill a little bit deeper with you on this idea of higher education as specifically having a role in democracy. In your mission statement as chancellor, you claim three main priorities, advancing Antioch’s reputation as an innovator in higher education, growing the university’s programs to reach more people, and also a third priority, which you say to advance and promote the university’s 168-year long history and heritage around social justice and democracy building.
Antioch obviously has a specific history as an institution that promotes social justice. I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about how you see universities as these incubators of democracy and having a special role in advancing democracy building and promoting social justice.
[00:10:17] Bill: That’s a really great question. Well, it starts with Horace Mann. Everyone I think knows Horace Mann was the father of public education in America. He was committed to public education, public education as opposed to secular education. Education for the public paid for by the government, free to citizens, open to all races, open to all ethnicities and color and both genders, was as controversial when he was in Congress, by the way, at the same time that Abraham Lincoln was there, as universal healthcare is today. He was fighting for a system that he thought was important for democracy. That in order to have a democracy, you had to have an informed electorate.
When he came to Antioch after leaving Congress, he had already started his first schools. I believe that he made the next step into higher education because he knew that education didn’t stop at grammar school and democracy required education at all levels. He believed and I believe that without democracy, you can’t have social justice. That democracy is a precursor to social justice, and an informed electorate is a precursor to a democracy. Higher education’s role has been to educate. It’s also been to ensure that we are hearing voices that are beyond our own, that it’s an inclusive environment.
Antioch University was co-ed and admitted African-American students from its inception, and having a collective voice and debate around policy issues is part of achieving collective wisdom and better decision-making about our democracy. I think that’s where he was headed with coming to Antioch and having a fresh start with a new institution about building something different that was open to all.
[00:12:24] Jasper: When you found something you have a chance to set its course in a way. I think through the force of his eloquence as well as the direction that he gave as the first president, he steered it to a way that we still look to him as an inspiration when thinking of Antioch’s devotion to social justice.
[00:12:44] Bill: Absolutely.
[00:12:45] Jasper: That seems to me like a contrast though to a lot of universities and other institutions which, at least historically, have aimed often to be really neutral or impartial or apolitical. I was curious whether you think neutrality on the way that other institutions sometimes try to practice it is advisable, but also whether it’s even possible or whether that stance is itself political.
[00:13:13] Bill: Well, I think a lot of institutions have taken their obligation to be an incubator for diverse thoughts to mean that they can’t speak to their own values, and I don’t agree with it. The conservative universities, many of them religious-based institutions, do not take that position and I don’t take that position. I try very hard not to make partisan comments and to instead ground whatever I’m saying in the values of social justice, but I don’t think we can be an institution that proclaims that we educate for social-economic, and environmental justice, and then not speak to those issues.
I’ve been told, well, the university is not the movement. We’re supposed to educate others for the movement. Well, that may be true, but I think there’s a distinction between the movement and the mission. I don’t intend to run a political arm of a party as an institution. On the other hand, I don’t know why people assume that the Democrats have a lock on what constitutes social justice and I don’t presume that. I think there’s room for both parties in that space, it just happens to be that there are many issues over the last four years that I think one assumes to be a Democratic issue, a D issue, or an R issue, which are social justice issues and which I have spoken about.
I’ll give you one example. There were many institutions who did not speak at all to the murder of George Floyd, not one word. There were other institutions that wrote letters, and I read them as I was writing mine, that were thoughts and prayers but nothing about the social justice issues that led to it. I decided I was going to write a very different letter and I know that that letter really touched people in a very important way.
I got so many responses to that letter from alumni and from students who needed to hear that their institution understood what systemic racism was and how it plays out yet today in today’s society. It needs to be addressed in policing, in the way that we operate as communities. That’s my view on what the proper role of higher education is. Speak to your values, do not hide from them. I don’t support candidates and I don’t support political parties, but I will speak to values.
[00:15:50] Jasper: That’s so well put, and I want to stick with the George Floyd letter a moment longer because you didn’t state your values and speak up for Antioch University’s frustration with what had happened and the way that our society keeps resulting in that happening, but you also took action on the university level to change Antioch and to try to make Antioch a more just place and specifically, a less racist place. Could you talk a little bit about that action?
[00:16:23] Bill: Well, I have convened an anti-racism task force and appointed faculty, staff, and even two board members to it, a broad cross-section of the university from across the country. They are charged with examining how Antioch’s policies and procedures can be improved to be more anti-racist, and advising and giving me advice and recommendations on that issue. They will be looking at the student life cycle, the employee life cycle, how we communicate publicly, and also be making recommendations about what the university’s role will be in transforming society into a more anti-racist society.
This is a multi-year project, many institutions have convened such groups and they’re very active and involved. I think the first phase of this has been education about our history of racism, about our history as a caste system in the United States, dating back to 1619, the ways in which that has infected our society in ways that we may not even think about and take for granted. The ways in which we as whites have privilege that we don’t even see any need to understand in order to appreciate the depths of systemic racism. That’s the work and I am proud of the group they’re working hard and I’m looking forward to their recommendations.
[00:18:00] Jasper: I really appreciate how that’s a proactive step towards achieving these goals that can sometimes seem lofty but achieving them on a practical level. Not just assuming that you should tell society at large how to act, but also trying to embody those values more perfectly and not assuming that our institution is itself already perfected or something.
I want to ask you a little bit about a potential criticism that I could see from the other side, which is, in speaking to all of these values of social justice, of promoting democracy, I could foresee a conservative student, and I actually, when I was in the Antioch MFA program, I certainly had at least one peer who felt this way, that that mission was a type of discrimination against conservative students. I wonder what you would say to conservative students who are considering studying at Antioch but might be put off to some degree by its stated devotion to these values of social justice.
[00:19:07] Bill: Well, that’s an excellent question and I can understand how some students may feel. I would feel very uncomfortable as a student at a very conservative school, one that did not believe in the values that I believe in. I think that I would feel very uncomfortable in class debating those issues if I felt that 99% of the other students did not agree with me. There’s no question I think, that when people look for an institution of higher education, that they may be self-selecting and going to an institution that they’re going to have people there that agree with them.
I, on the other hand, recognize that the classroom is the incubator for democracy where different views need to be heard. I hope that conservatives would come to air those, that the opportunity for debate over policy issues and social justice issues needs to happen in the classroom, that they would be respected for that debate, but they need to have the courage to also stand up to their convictions and engage in debate and some people are not, and I’ve actually had letters written where people do feel uncomfortable in this environment, but I don’t feel that the university should stop speaking to its values. I do think that students have the right and should have the opportunity to speak to their own views in class, in the classroom incubator.
[00:20:42] Jasper: I like that and I think that there’s a difference between having your views challenged and being punished for your views, and those lines often get somewhat blurred for people criticizing institutions like ours.
[00:20:57] Bill: Well, I think sometimes they feel that when there’s disproportionate number of students who feel one way about an issue and they’re in the minority on that issue, that they’re being ganged up on. I can certainly appreciate that and I think faculty need to be aware of that and protect their point of view from what you would call punishment or retribution in the classroom, and I think that faculty tend to try to do that.
[00:21:27] Jasper: Hi, this is Jasper. I’m going to cut away from the interview for a second here because I want to let you know that the Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Let’s make the world better together. Complete your bachelor’s or your master’s or study for a doctorate degree with us here at Antioch University, and join a community with a 160-year long commitment to social justice. Win one for humanity, learn more at Antioch.edu.
[00:22:06] Jasper: Well, I wanted talk a little bit about what you do on a personal level outside of Antioch, but still living these values. I know that you work as a voter protection advocate during elections. I was curious both where your personal passion for preserving voting rights and protecting democracy, where that comes from, why that’s such a deeply held value for you, and also how you’re saying involved with this issue, which I know you’ve your involvement goes back, but it certainly doesn’t seem like an issue that’s going away anytime soon.
[00:22:39] Bill: No. Well, I think that the right to vote is the most important right in the Constitution, because if we don’t vote, or if we are precluded from voting because of restrictions on voting rights or because of restrictions at the polls, then our democracy cannot continue to exist, so it is core. I’ve been involved in voter protection at election time in my county where I reside because I’m a lawyer and they asked lawyers to get involved.
They’re not giving legal advice but they’re there to spot the problems and to raise the problem with those that run the election and there are Ds and Rs at every election site, and let them address it. Or to, in my role, push it up to the next level, which is a boiler room of lawyers who collect this kind of information and then potentially file lawsuits on the day of the election seeking to extend the hours of a poll because it perhaps was closed down for technical reasons or a power outage, or there were long lines. Those are things that are very important for us as citizens to help ensure that the voting process is fair and that everyone is given the same opportunity to vote.
I’ve been involved in a lot of those issues where people in inner-city precincts have four-hour waits, but if you go to the suburbs, it’s in and out, and that has a lot to do with just the number of people who are voting and the number of voting machines that are in the precinct, and sometimes that requires court action to correct. That’s why I’ve been involved and I’ve been doing it probably for 30 years during presidential election times.
[00:24:34] Jasper: Wow. Your description of these disparate polling lengths of lines at the polls reminds me so much just of redlining.
[00:24:44] Bill: Absolutely, and it is a form of redlining.
[00:24:47] Jasper: Well, thank you for doing that work Bill. I wanted to push a little bit more on the first part of that question, which was, where does this passion for democracy come from, and also, why were you, going even further back, why were you drawn to the law in the first place?
[00:25:00] Bill: I like to argue, that’s what I was told- [laughter] -and I didn’t like the sight of blood, so I didn’t go to medical school. [laughs] I really wanted to become an environmental lawyer. Remember how big those topics were in the 1970s. It was a time before the Clean Air Act and before the Clean Water Act at the federal level, and basically, the states wouldn’t do anything because they didn’t want to drive industry away so it was a free for all.
I went to law school to become an environmental lawyer and be on the side of the government, and then graduated and found that those jobs were not very prevalent. I ended up taking another job and started representing educational institutions and loved it, including colleges and K-12 schools. I’m not sorry where I ended up but it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t exactly where I thought I would go when I started law school.
[00:25:58] Jasper: Now you oversee a university with one of its biggest departments is environmental studies.
[00:26:03] Bill: Environmental studies, right, yes. It’s nice to have a department that thinks about climate change, and it’s nice to have had an education where I was learning about that in 1972. My honors thesis was for my degree in political science was on the coal industry in Ohio and how they were not being regulated because the regulators in Ohio were all from the coal industry. At that time, the issue was around the amount of sulfur in coal and acid rain, especially Ohio coal, so yes.
[00:26:40] Jasper: I wish that that was not something we were still arguing about today, 40 years later.
[00:26:46] Bill: Yes, and here we are and it’s not gotten much better, it’s gotten much worse but I’m hopeful. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the current administration to take back our responsibility on the Paris Agreement and reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and hopefully, that will happen.
[00:27:07] Jasper: I’m hopeful too, though it’s the trust but verify.
[00:27:11] Bill: Right [laughs]
[00:27:12] Jasper: I’m committed to continuing to push my elected representatives and everyone to achieve these things and really to save our society. I wanted to, as we’re starting to wrap up, to talk and to get to know you a little bit on a more personal level. At Antioch, so much of what we do is helping people pursue their passions. I was wondering if you could share with us a passion that maybe the Antioch community doesn’t know about?
[00:27:39] Bill: While I was a lawyer and when I was general counsel, I started coaching high school mock trial.
[00:27:49] Jasper: I was actually a mock trial student when I was in high school.
[00:27:52] Bill: No kidding, okay. It’s a big thing, right. There are teams all over the state of Ohio and all over the country and frankly, I did not know it was a thing. I was a high school debater. I thought at some point in my life, I would coach high school debate. I was a college debater, but it turns out that mock trial is now the thing, and to give your listeners some sense of what a mock trial team does, they actually do a trial. They have students play the roles of lawyers and they played the roles of witnesses and they present their witnesses the way lawyers would present their witnesses in a trial proceeding against another high school.
One side’s on plaintiff, one side’s on defense. The difference between most trials though and those are the mock trial booklets, is that they’re always a constitutional law issue. I found that it was a really fascinating way to impress upon high school students, an element of civics that they do not get in the curriculum. That is that the Constitution is not just in a vault in the archives of the National Archives of the United States, it is a living document and that it gets used, quoted, interpreted, and affects the lives of citizens every day in this country.
Through these trials that they do, they learn that constitutional law means something, that it’s important, that it’s core to who we are as a country. I’ve been fascinated by it as a learning experience and I’ve just really been fascinated by the ability to grow the skill sets of high school students from the time they’re freshmen, till the time they’re seniors. I’ve got pictures all over my office of those teams. Someday I’ll do it again. I can’t do it now, but someday I will go back.
[00:29:43] Jasper: What a sweet thing to look forward to. I remember when I was doing mock trial, I loved that at the end of it, you would go to a real courtroom and bring your–
[00:29:51] Bill: Right, with real judges.
[00:29:53] Jasper: Yes, a real judge would be presiding and it felt like the law really came alive in a way that you just never could get from reading a civics textbook
[00:30:04] Bill: Well, you and I could do a commercial for the mock trial programs in our states because I think they’re absolutely tremendous and probably the best thing the students will encounter in their high school career, but I’m a little biased- [laughter] -as a lawyer, but you’re absolutely right. Having students at that age, walk in and do a trial in a real courtroom with a real judge, in which you are required to make objections on the rules of evidence, including a very complicated notion of hearsay is intimidating, but they learn to do it and do it professionally. I’m telling you they come out of this experience performing better than most lawyers. I don’t think that most of them go on to be lawyers. Most of mine did not go to law school or have any intention of going to law school, but they came out having a really strong appreciation of constitutional rights and principles.
[00:30:59] Jasper: That’s beautiful. Well, we always like to leave an episode of the podcast with something actionable that our listeners can take out into their everyday lives. I wanted to ask you what’s something that you think a listener could do today to promote social justice and democracy-building in their own lives?
[00:31:18] Bill: Well, based on what I’ve said already, you could probably guess that my answer is going to be, to be engaged in electoral activism. That means, first of all, voting, registering to vote, being aware of the issues and the candidates, and educating yourself and voting. I think people can get involved in campaigns. People should be involved in campaigns.
I also walk door to door in campaigns and have been engaged in voter registration efforts. I think we know that voter registration and voter turnout will be imperative, imperative in the next decade. I encourage people to get involved and do what they can in their communities. It doesn’t require any prior education around it. They’ll teach you what you need to know. There are many doors that would love to see you walk through them.
[00:32:14] Jasper: Well that’s lovely. I am trying to embody that in my own life. Thank you for sharing that with our listeners and thanks for coming on here. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Bill.
[00:32:23] Bill: It’s been great talking to you and I appreciate the opportunity.
[00:32:31] Jasper: You can find more information about Antioch University’s commitment to social justice and fostering democracy through a link in our show notes. We’re also including links to the Chancellor’s statements that we discussed in this episode. We post these show notes on our website, along with full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. Find these at theseedfield.org.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. Guidance for this episode came from Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode, we hope to see you next time, and don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been the Seed Field Podcast.