Antioch Law School's tradition calls for graduates to confer degrees upon each other and to make a short speech. Yesterday, those commencement speeches contained the usual "I love you Mom and Dad," and "Thanks to my grandmother, who was my inspiration," but also "Antioch, I love you dearly" and "I hope this law school continues."
The mood was decidedly bittersweet as 144 students received juris doctor degrees at the law school's 11th -- and possibly its last -- graduation. Last fall, the school's parent, Antioch University of Yellow Springs, Ohio, gave notice that it was withdrawing support and the American Bar Association is threatening to withdraw accreditation.
A proposed merger between the 362-student law school and the University of the District of Columbia appears uncertain. Several days prior to graduation, some city officials said they were worried that the acquisition cost might be $5 million, more than double the original estimate of $2 million, and that the law school might drain money from existing UDC programs.
For many, threats of closure seemed the end of a dream of the District's only public interest law school. It was a dream that, according to the commencement benediction, called for a world where rich and poor stand equal before the law, where no one possesses a "monopoly" over law and legal knowledge.
"I'm happy, but it's also like I want to cry -- I'm not sure," said Russell Barnes, a graduate from Boston.
Large rounds of applause went to commencement speaker Julius Chambers, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who said Antioch is "filling a void" -- despite alleged efforts on different fronts to put public interest lawyers out of business.
Chambers spoke, especially, of the need to represent the poor, the underprivileged. "They need leaders who will make a commitment to help them," he said. "They need you, and they need me," he said speaking in the UDC auditorium.
Public interest law is just what graduate Audrey Hall intends to do. She grew up in a single-parent household, in an impoverished area of Mississippi. Hall said she wanted to give back some of what she had learned at Antioch. "This has been the greatest day of my life," she added.
For Antioch's undergraduate students, the future is more uncertain. Roy Jones, a third-year student, said he is bitter at school's parent university for withdrawing support, but plans to return next fall.
"Antioch owes me a legal education," he said.
Marinda Harpole, a lawyer-law school professor and Antioch graduate, said: "It's hard to be mad at Antioch because they helped us start in the beginning. But I am sorry they weren't able to continue the commitment."
Harpole said she would support a UDC takeover.
"The name might change, but I hope the student body and mission will remain the same," she said.
As part of the ceremony, two faculty members received special honors for working to preserve the law school: Alphonso Gaskins, associate dean for student affairs, and Thomas J. Mack, the law school's dean.
Students cheered them, and joined in the emotional rendition of a popular song, which contained the following: "No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity."
Chambers urged them to leave with the knowledge that they can make a difference, and that regardless of what happens to the school, the dream will be preserved.