The Magazine

Death by Political Correctness

Who killed Antioch College?

Nov 12, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 09 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Yellow Springs, Ohio

It is 9:30 on a sunny Monday morning in October, a time, day, and month when most college campuses bustle with activity: students hurrying to class or relaxing between classes on library steps or tree-covered lawns. Here, on the 200-acre campus of Antioch College, a 155-year-old liberal-arts institution best known nowadays for a campus culture that long ago drifted from the progressively liberal to the alarmingly radical (people still talk about the anti-date-rape policy that required a separate verbal consent for each step of an amorous encounter, famously parodied on Saturday Night Live in 1993), the phrase "bustling with activity" is not what comes to mind. What comes to mind is the neutron bomb.

There are plenty of trees on Antioch's historic campus in Yellow Springs, a town of 4,600 about 20 miles east of Dayton in rural southwestern Ohio--soaring oaks, walnuts, maples, and firs, many likely more than a century old. And there are plenty of buildings--dozens of residence halls and classroom facilities, along with a library that has seen better days and a turreted Victorian-era main building designed by James Renwick Jr., architect of the Smithsonian Institution's landmark castle in Washington, D.C., and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. As for Antioch students, however, there are none to be seen this morning, except for an occasional shadowy figure moving silently among distant trees like one of Ohio's long-vanished Miami Indians on a solitary hunt. A visitor to the campus might infer that ultra-radicalism doesn't sell, at least when the price is the nearly $40,000 per year it costs to attend Antioch College.

On June 9, 2007, the trustees of Antioch University, an adult-education offshoot of Antioch College that now dominates the college administratively, financially, and in terms of overall student population, announced that Antioch College would suspend operations on July 1, 2008, with a possibility of reopening in much-altered form in 2012, and that its entire faculty, including tenured professors, would be laid off. The reasons for the shutdown given by the trustees and by Tulisse Murdock, Antioch University's chancellor since 2005, were many: years and years of incurable deficits, this year totaling $2.6 million on an annual college budget of $18 million; an extraordinarily low endowment of just $36 million (neighboring Ohio liberal arts colleges Oberlin and Kenyon boast endowments of $700 million and $167 million respectively); and a chronically low student enrollment that topped 600 only once during the preceding 25 years (compare that with Oberlin's enrollment of nearly 2,900) and has declined precipitously since 2003. During the 2006-07 academic year, for example, only 330 full-time students were enrolled in Antioch's bachelor-of-arts and bachelor-of-science programs--once so highly regarded that Antioch could boast that it had more graduates who went on to obtain Ph.D.'s than any other college in the country. This fall, after news of the pending shutdown decimated the incoming freshman class, there are just 220 Antioch College undergraduates left. That represents a decline of almost 90 percent from the 2,000 or so young people who attended Antioch during its peak enrollment years of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Antioch's students, its faculty--whose numbers have also drastically shrunk (just 37 today, down from 140 during the early 1970s)--and many residents of Yellow Springs, a pleasant college town of handsome old houses and businesses that advertise their liberal-leaning, Antioch-friendly "green" and "fair trade" consciousness, are fighting to save the college, citing its long and illustrious history. Antioch's first president, in 1853, was the famous education reformer Horace Mann, and until things went bad, Antioch regularly turned out graduates who went on to become stellar public figures, writers, and scholars: Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, the District of Columbia's Democratic congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and, most recently in the news, Mario R. Capecchi, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for his work on embryonic stem cells in mice. (This was Antioch College's second Nobel; José Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor, who had received a master's degree in 1984 in a peace-studies program now incorporated into Antioch University, won the Peace Prize in 1996.)