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.)
A group of Antioch College's chronically lethargic alumni says it has rushed to raise $18 million in donations and pledges in a last-ditch plan to save the college, and at an emergency meeting of the university's trustees in Yellow Springs on October 25 presented a $100 million business plan (based on an aggressive five-year fundraising drive) designed to cure their alma mater's deficit, keep its doors open, and revive its attractiveness to high-school seniors. The trustees had been expected to issue a decision on October 27 whether to accept or reject the alumni plan, but they declined to do so, leaving Antioch College in an even more precarious state, given that autumn is the time when colleges and universities do their most aggressive recruiting and prospective high-school graduates start filling out their college application forms. Discussions among trustees and alumni were continuing on November 2, as this article went to press.
Antioch College's declining fortunes and uncertain future are reflected everywhere you look on the Yellow Springs campus, which gives the impression of having been swept some years ago by a sudden and devastating plague. Campus plantings are mostly dead, dying, or choked with weeds (most of the maintenance staff was dismissed soon after the closing was announced in June, although a plumber and electrician who have yet to be laid off still manage to mow the lawns). The crumbling sidewalks leading from deserted Antioch building to deserted Antioch building resemble the ruins of Roman roads, with grass sprouting lushly from their numerous cracks, and the murky windows of an abandoned greenhouse display rows of withered plants. An inviting cluster of wooden benches outside a classroom building seats . . . no one at all. The fact that Antioch, nearly alone among U.S. private and public colleges, forbids journalists to roam the grounds or enter buildings without an officially designated escort adds to the general air of isolation and contamination. (Antioch says the minders are a holdover from the Saturday Night Live era, when reporters and television crews from all over the world flooded the campus in search of amusing sexual anecdotes, disrupting academic life.)
Antioch College no longer even has a president. The last holder of that office, Steven Lawry, a former Ford Foundation executive who assumed the helm in 2006, tendered his resignation as of December 2007 and then abruptly went on administrative leave at the end of August. Neither Lawry, contacted by telephone, nor anyone still at Antioch would comment on his hasty departure, but news stories in Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education suggest that Lawry, although popular with faculty and alumni, was for all intents and purposes fired by the university--and also banned permanently from the Yellow Springs campus--after a heated argument with Murdock that seemed to stem from his efforts to bypass the university hierarchy and contact the trustees on his own. One key plank of the alumni proposal to save Antioch College is to give the college its own board of trustees with the power to hire and fire presidents. Antioch College has not had its own board since Antioch University was formed in 1978 in a merger of the college with the adult-education campuses.
An archaeologist called upon to estimate just when the plague swept through--that is, when the college reached its peak of flourishing and then abruptly stopped--might come up with, say, the year 1965, judging from the vintage mid-century look of the brick-and-plate-glass "newer" buildings. Indeed, the college did then enjoy a sustained and impressive growth spurt and a frenzy of construction. The school, which had never enrolled more than 1,000 students in its history, nearly doubled in size from 1954 to 1964, and it continued to grow after that, reaching its all-time peak undergraduate population of 2,470 in 1972.
Even during the 1950s, Antioch had a reputation as a "beatnik college." It had phased out varsity sports starting in the 1920s (it had once fielded football and baseball teams) and historically eschewed fraternities and sororities. It had no dress code, unlike most colleges in those days, and students tended to be arty overachievers with avant-garde political views. Antioch's pioneering work-study program, called "co-operative education" (shortened to "co-op" and part of the curriculum to this day), and the college's practice of giving students a voice in its governance drew earnest, highly individualistic young people who liked the idea of obtaining real-world job experience, often in science labs or on archaeological digs but also in private businesses, when still in school, while also being able to take time off to enlist in political causes. During the heyday of the civil rights movement, for example, Antioch was famous for its students who traveled to southern states to help register black voters. A graduate student, Alan E. Guskin, later to become president of Antioch College and chancellor of Antioch University, formed a student organization in 1960 that inspired John F. Kennedy to set up the Peace Corps. The favorite campus entertainment on Friday nights was that echt-1950s bohemian pastime: folk-dancing.
Nonetheless, Antioch also had a reputation for academic rigor and was nearly as competitive in admissions as Harvard. It accepted only one out of four applicants (the average combined SAT scores of those who got in was 1350 in 1960), and students had to pass a stiff comprehensive examination at the end of their first year. Today that test is long gone; Antioch does not require its applicants even to submit their SAT scores, which are said to hover around 1075, and it admits a majority of those who apply. It was during the glory years of the 1950s and early 1960s that Antioch produced its most famous and distinguished graduates.
Although political views at Antioch might have tilted leftward even back then, the students of the 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s prided themselves on their willingness to hear out their more conservative classmates in lively all-night dorm discussions on politics and philosophy, inspired by professors who encouraged them to test all their assumptions against the evidence. "We were completely respectful of every point of view," recalled Rick Daily, a Denver lawyer who graduated from Antioch in 1968 and is treasurer of the alumni committee that is struggling to save the college from closure. "We even had a Goldwater Republican in our graduating class," Daily said in a telephone interview.
That was Antioch then. Antioch now might be fairly represented by a September 21 article in the student newspaper, the Record, consisting of a gloating account of the invasion by 40 gay and lesbian Antioch students (a full fifth of the current student body) of an evangelical Christian book-signing event at a Barnes & Noble store located in a mall in nearby Beavercreek, Ohio. Record reporter Marysia Walcerz described the hours-long "Gay Takeover," whose participants wore rainbow-tinted bandannas, ostentatiously held hands and kissed, and did their best to shock both authors and customers in this socially conservative sector of Ohio, as a "success . . . for direct action executed in style."
A July 20 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Ralph Keyes, author of the bestselling Is There Life After High School? and a 1967 graduate of Antioch who moved with his family back to Yellow Springs some 20 years ago, described similar adventures by Antioch students in the intimidation of people who do not share their views. Keyes took pains to reassure the Chronicle's readers that he himself had been proudly "left-wing" as an Antioch student, but he also detailed a once-tolerant campus culture that had deteriorated since his student days into "insults, name-calling, and profanity." As Keyes described it (and others connected to the campus corroborate his observations), Antioch students regularly engaged, both inside and outside their classrooms, in the practice of "calling out" (public humiliation followed by social ostracism) their classmates for even the most trivial violations of an unwritten campus code of ideological propriety. One of the called-out was a Polish exchange student who had made the mistake of using the now-taboo word "Eskimos" instead of "Inuit" in reference to Alaskan aboriginals. Another called-out student had worn Nike sneakers, verboten among the radically sensitive because they are supposedly products of Indonesian sweatshop labor (the Nike-wearer was so demoralized by his treatment that he transferred). Keyes lamented what he called the "crack-house décor" of Antioch's student union, whose second floor features a 30-foot wall of student-painted graffiti with themes and language running the gamut from revolutionary to obscene. The Antioch school "uniform" for many students seems to consist of as many tattoos and piercings as the human dermis can hold (a tattoo parlor in downtown Yellow Springs looks designed to accommodate this student fashion statement).
Of the eight student organizations currently listed on Antioch's website, only one, the Antioch Environmental Group, is not focused on identity politics of one sort or other. The others are By Any Means Necessary for students of African descent, Unidad for Latinos, the Third World Alliance, Kehilla (formerly the Jew Crew) for Jews, two separate groups for gays and lesbians (the Queer Center and Queers of Color), and the Womyn's Center. (The spelling looks like another Saturday Night Live parody, but it is in fact the center's official orthography, although "wombmen" is also in current use on campus.) The only Antioch College students who do not have a campus organization listed in their name are white, heterosexual, non-Jewish males. Traditional college clubs centered around student interests--say, French or music or film or chess or debate--seem to be entirely lacking. Even the events featured for this fall's "Community Day" on October 16--an Antioch tradition in which classes are suspended to accommodate student hayrides and other social events--seemed obsessively focused on identity. The evening events, for example, consisted of a queer lecture followed by a queer movie followed by a dance to the music of a queer band--leaving one wondering what Antioch's non-queers were supposed to do with themselves.
You might call the current sad state of Antioch College death by political correctness. The rigorous academic programs that fostered Nobel laureates such as Capecchi are no more: Antioch scrapped its 40-odd traditional majors in 1996 in favor of eight vaguely delineated interdisciplinary programs that allow the students themselves to design their courses of study. The civic activism of yore--registering African American voters, starting a proto-Peace Corps--gave way to in-your-face street theater at shopping malls. It has been a long, slow death, and it would be unfair (although certainly tempting) to blame the current crop of students for the pending demise of their alma mater. The blame might be more fairly placed on four decades of decisions made by Antioch College faculty and administrators in the name of keeping Antioch at the forefront of "progressive" academic fashion, which led inexorably to today's campus nearly bereft of students and treasury nearly bereft of funds.
The adults who could have and should have intervened to put a lid on the excesses of a culture created by 18- to 22-year-olds with little experience of the outside world in fact let that culture run untrammeled and amok, all in the name of Antioch's vaunted ideal of "community." The very existence of Antioch University, the chain of adult-education satellite campuses that morphed into Antioch College's parent institution during the 1990s and now threatens, Cronus-like, to devour its child, contains a bitter irony: The satellite campuses came into being 40 years ago because Antioch wanted to get in on a bit of late-1960s radical chic known as "bringing education to the streets."
Hard as it may be to believe, Antioch began its existence as a Christian college. Its founders belonged to a Second Great Awakening movement that called itself the "Christian Connexion" and eschewed the creeds of mainline churches in favor of what it viewed as a strictly Bible-based faith. Antioch College got its name from the city in ancient Syria that was an early center of New Testament Christianity. Antioch was one of the first coeducational colleges in the United States, among both students and faculty, and from the beginning it admitted black students. The standard curriculum, required of all students, would come as a shock to most of today's undergraduates: Latin, Greek, foreign languages, and a stiff array of science courses. Antioch was actively involved in the abolitionist movement, and when the Civil War broke out, the college shut down temporarily so that students and professors could fight on the Union side.
Antioch's Christian affiliation did not last long. Horace Mann, who served as president from 1853 to his death in 1859, was a Unitarian, and he and a group of Unitarians on the board quickly turned Antioch into the secular institution that it remains to this day. Arthur Morgan, a professional engineer who served as Antioch's president from 1920 to 1936 and put Antioch's co-operative education system into place, had a Quaker wife for whom he built a Quaker chapel on campus. Antioch also maintained a campus chaplain until 1973, when the last person to hold that office, Al Denman, a Presbyterian minister, decided to leave both the ministry and the Presbyterian Church and become an Antioch philosophy and religion professor. The Jewish student group, Kehilla, and the Quakers who still worship at the meeting house constitute the only religious practice of any kind associated with the Antioch campus.
For the first seven decades of its existence, Antioch struggled, shutting down twice for lack of funds and seldom enrolling more than 200 students, often fewer than 100. Arthur Morgan and his co-operative system, modeled on engineers' training that combined theoretical learning with hands-on experience building bridges that wouldn't collapse, proved to be the galvanizing forces that turned Antioch's fortunes around in a fashion that looked to be permanent. During Morgan's first year in the presidency, enrollment at Antioch nearly doubled, from 203 students in 1920 to 393 in 1921; by 1923, it had risen another 50 percent, to 598, and it climbed more or less steadily after that, even during the Great Depression and World War II.
Antioch students, combining terms on campus with as many as five different "co-ops" (terms and summers spent at paying jobs arranged by the college) had to stretch their time as undergraduates to five years from the usual four. Antioch has since switched to a typical four-year matriculation with fewer co-ops, and the co-op idea is no longer quite what it was, since it competes with internships, service-learning, and other such opportunities for students. Back then, Antioch's co-ops not only allowed students to get out of rural Yellow Springs and into big cities for a few months but gave them the self-confidence of functioning on their own as adults capable of doing work for which someone else was willing to pay. The combination of liberal idealism and down-to-earth practicality appealed to many young people, and after the war, Antioch's enrollment continued to mount the growth trajectory that led to the spree of campus construction--1,122 students in 1955, 1,583 students in 1960, 1,851 students in 1965, and so forth--until a series of avoidable catastrophes struck during the late 1960s.
The first was Antioch's disastrous experiment with affirmative action. Armed with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Antioch began in 1965 to recruit impoverished "high-risk students" from "high-risk schools"--which usually translated into black graduates of inner-city high schools who, unlike the middle-class, high-achieving blacks who had sat side by side with whites (albeit in very small numbers) in Antioch classrooms for nearly a century, were not prepared for college work. They were also not prepared for life in sleepy, artsy-craftsy Yellow Springs, or for coexistence with bookish, highly competitive classmates preparing for careers as physicists, lawyers, and doctors. Many of the Rockefeller students were older than the traditional college age, and some had children (Antioch obligingly provided them with free daycare). "There was a lot of tension," said Antioch's archivist, Scott Sanders, in a telephone interview, "and these were inner-city kids, so there was a certain amount of lawlessness. They brought skills to Antioch that they'd learned on the streets: fighting, drawing guns. There were specific instances of violence that were very alien to the other students."
While all this was going on, as alumnus Michael Goldfarb, a writer and former public radio correspondent who matriculated at Antioch in 1968, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, "Antioch created coeducational residence halls, with no adult supervision. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll became the rule, as you might imagine, and there was enormous peer pressure to be involved in all of them." Goldfarb described having a gun drawn on him in a drunken rage by "a couple of ex-cons whom one of my classmates, in the interest of breaking down class barriers, had invited to live with her."
The guiding spirit behind all the conflict--if "guiding" could be said to be the appropriate adjective--was Antioch's 15th president, James Payson Dixon, a 1939 graduate of Antioch whose 16-year reign, from 1959 to 1975, spanned both the college's apex in prestige and its nadir. Within two years of Dixon's departure, Antioch had lost half its student population after a devastating student strike in 1973 and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Dixon had been a focused and energetic administrator during his early years, but his philosophy during the late 1960s seemed to be "Whatever." By 1969 Antioch, under his direction, had abolished letter grades in favor of individualized written evaluations by professors (the idea in those anti-Vietnam war days was to help otherwise low-ranking students avoid the draft) and also abolished required freshman courses, a move that left some science professors complaining that their students were no longer prepared for advanced-level work.
Meanwhile, the number of black students subsidized by the Rockefeller program (which Antioch titled "New Directions") grew to constitute as much as 20 percent of the student body. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, many of those students became actively separatist. The Black Panthers were role models for some, a development tacitly encouraged by Antioch itself, which contributed enthusiastically to legal defense funds for Panthers accused of murder and other crimes. Antioch's militant blacks demanded--and obtained from the ever-compliant Dixon administration--an all-black, no-whites-allowed dormitory that they named "Unity House, or "Nyambi Umoja" in Swahili. They also obtained a separate curriculum of all-black classes taught by Antioch professors and, at least for a while thanks to Dixon's compliance, control over Antioch's disbursement of the Rockefeller scholarships. During the spring of 1972 campus militants held captive for several hours a University of Pennsylvania administrator who had been offered the job of associate dean, in an effort to force Antioch to hire a black Marxist economist instead. Unity House eventually came a cropper when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which oversaw federal grants to colleges, ruled that the racially segregated residence hall violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the all-black classes remained in place.
The Rockefeller money ran out in 1973, the same year the Nixon administration cut direct funding to colleges for student loans, so Antioch, which even then had a tiny endowment and depended on tuition for 85 percent of its revenues, terminated New Directions. That led directly to the student strike in the spring of 1973, precipitated by black militants who demanded that Antioch somehow continue to fund the program, and by a sizable number of Marxists among the white students, who saw the conflict as an opportunity for waging class warfare. There had been a series of strikes by Antioch employees seeking higher wages earlier that year, and Antioch's more radicalized students had sat on the employee picket lines. The new strike amounted to a student-enforced lockdown that shut down all campus operations for six weeks.
Professors who tried to teach their classes on campus (some moved their classes to their homes) or even get into their campus offices were barred, threatened, and in one instance, maced by striking students. A fire "of a suspicious nature" (as Antioch put it) ravaged a dean's office, and there were several suspected firebombings of classroom buildings. The campus became piled with trash left in situ by sympathizing employees who refused to cross the student picket lines. Many other campuses had experienced student strikes during the turbulent late 1960s, but those strikes had typically been of short duration, terminated when the college presidents called in the police. Dixon, ever true to laid-back form, declined to involve law enforcement, and instead engaged in weeks of dithering and palavering with the demonstrators. The strike ended, in late May 1973, only after a group of students who wanted to graduate in June got a court injunction against the strikers. A few days later the local sheriff's department tore down the barricades the demonstrators had erected at Antioch's gates and opened up the campus.
Antioch never really recovered from those weeks of massive disruption, or from the irony that one of the most liberal-minded colleges in America had suffered one of the most devastating student protests in history. The revolution was televised, and all over the country high school students who had been accepted by or had considered applying to Antioch watched the pickets, barricades, fires, and mountains of refuse on the nightly news, as did parents who were expected to cover Antioch's tuition bills.
The year 1973 was chronologically late for student strikes, which had seemed cutting-edge on Ivy League campuses in 1968 and 1969, but had come to be regarded by most people as merely self-indulgent. When classes at Yellow Springs resumed that fall, 145 students had transferred elsewhere, and about 200 students in the expected freshman class failed to show up. So began years of a steadily declining student population. Antioch's enrollment last topped 1,000 in 1978, and 1990 was the last in which it topped 600. Applications also dropped off dramatically; in 1974 fewer than half as many high school seniors applied to Antioch as in 1973. "Every year, fewer students came to Antioch," recalled Sanders, the archivist. Many faculty members left, too, disturbed by the administration's fecklessness during the strike or demoralized by what they perceived as Antioch's deteriorating academic and admissions standards as the college scrambled for bodies and tuition checks.
Further blotting the financial picture (the strike had cost Antioch more than $1 million in property damage and lost tuition and plunged the college into deficit) was another late-1960s, radicalism-friendly venture of Dixon's: the far-flung adult-education campuses that would become Antioch University. In 1963, seeking to bolster its handful of graduate programs, Antioch had purchased the Putney School, a slated-for-shuttering school in Vermont that survives today, after a move to Keene, N.H., as Antioch University New England. Later in the decade Dixon, with the enthusiastic backing of some Antioch faculty members, decided to get in on an academic fad known variously as the "university without walls" and the "bringing the university to the streets" movement. The idea was for Antioch College to set up branches designed to provide liberal-arts courses to "underserved" populations: adult working people in inner cities. It was a kind of outreach equivalent of New Directions.
Soon enough, Antioch professors were flocking to Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, and elsewhere to set up satellites, sometimes just because they wanted to get out of poky Yellow Springs. (It was always arguable whether, say, San Francisco, crammed with institutions of higher learning of every variety, could really be said to be "underserved.") In Washington, D.C., at the instigation of Edgar Cahn, a public-interest lawyer who had served as an aide to Robert F. Kennedy when the latter was attorney general, Antioch set up a "people's" law school designed for applicants who couldn't get into any other law school. The idea was to turn out social-justice activists as well as attorneys; students were required to spend their first two weeks, for example, learning about poverty by living with an impoverished Washington, D.C., family. By the mid-1970s the number of satellite Antioch campuses, called "learning centers," had blossomed to somewhere between 32 and 37 (no one at Antioch today knows the exact number). In 1978, the college and its congeries of satellites adopted the collective name of Antioch University; the president of the college was now the president of the university as well.
Extension campuses marketed to working adults are not unknown in higher education. Because they almost never grant scholarships, rely heavily on non-tenured and part-time faculty, and are not burdened with the overhead of dormitories and related facilities for young people, the satellites are expected to function as profit centers for their mother colleges. (Johns Hopkins University, for example, presides over a veritable empire of part-time business, creative writing, and other pay-as-you-go advanced-degree programs that trade on the prestigious Hopkins name.) The problem from the very beginning for the Antioch satellites, however, was that they were quite the opposite of profit centers. Impossible to supervise from Yellow Springs and frequently staffed by impractical idealists, the dozens of hastily opened satellites were money sinks. Many of Antioch's traditional professors resented the branch operations and their drain on a flagship campus that was already deteriorating physically and in terms of student quality. That was the beginning of the tension between Antioch College and Antioch University, and also the beginning of a certain amount of alienation among Antioch College alumni regarding their alma mater, alienation that translated into reduced giving. "We didn't like seeing our school split up," says Meg Rosenfeld, a class of 1969 alumna and veteran Washington Post reporter who is writing a book about Antioch. "We saw these things happening, and we didn't know what they were. So we started feeling disengaged."
By 1979, just six years after the strike, a debt- and deficit-beset Antioch could not make payroll and was on the verge of bankruptcy. In a wrangle over control of the law school, it had fired Cahn and his lawyer-wife, Jean Cahn, as administrators, and the couple had responded with a round of time- and money-consuming lawsuits. Back in Yellow Springs, Antioch worked out a deal with its creditors to pay them 25 cents on the dollar and officially laid off its professors, which allowed them to collect unemployment while continuing to teach their classes (they called the arrangement "payless paydays"). A new president, William Birenbaum, began a process of closing down or selling off all but four of the dozens of satellite campuses, including the law school, which had been bedeviled from the beginning by its graduates' lack of success in passing bar exams and the fact that even poverty-law professors want to make comfortable salaries. The law school was purchased by the University of the District of Columbia in 1986.
Yet another Antioch irony is that none of the four campuses deemed financially viable enough to escape the ax--Antioch University New England plus campuses in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara--is located in one of those inner cities to which professors had so eagerly sought to bring the benefits of liberal-arts education during the heady days of Dixon-generated expansion. Indeed, although the Seattle and California facilities offer bachelor's-degree completion programs to small numbers of part-time undergraduates, the four campuses today are mostly graduate schools with a vocational focus, offering advanced degrees in education, social work, psychological counseling, and other soft-edge fields congenial to the Antioch progressive ethos. Like the flagship campus in Yellow Springs, the other Antioch campuses eschew letter grades and hew to the Antioch "core values" of "social justice" and "diversity," in the words of Mary Lou -LaPierre, Antioch University's vice chancellor for university advancement. "The Antioch DNA transferred," LaPierre said in a telephone interview from the Antioch University Seattle campus.
The financial crisis of 1979 triggered a further drop in enrollment at Antioch College (as well as further departures of professors), but the Birenbaum-instigated budget cuts seemed to stabilize the Yellow Springs campus. Its student population remained at a more or less steady, if not especially healthy, 500 or so for more than two decades. The widely-publicized date-rape policy that catapulted Antioch onto Saturday Night Live and into nationwide ridicule in 1993 was a kind of object lesson in what can happen when demographic implosion (reducing the student body to its most radical core) unites with a laissez-faire administration philosophy that consists of giving even the most extreme factions everything they want. The extremists in this case consisted of a group of student feminists who called themselves "Womyn of Antioch" (a title that might have sent up a red flag to administrators elsewhere) and claimed to be reacting to two incidents of date rape on the Yellow Springs campus in 1991, which they said the administration had ignored. No Antioch students were ever charged with those offenses either formally or informally, much less found by a college tribunal to have committed them, much less prosecuted for any crime by outside authorities. Antioch's archivist Sanders said that the alleged rapes might have been more a matter of "perception" than reality. Nonetheless, when the Womyn "stormed" (the word comes from Antioch's website) an Antioch community meeting and insisted on pushing through the policy they had drafted regardless of parliamentary niceties, the administrators and faculty who were supposed to be on at least an equal footing with the students at those meetings, if not their superiors on the basis of maturity and experience, said, oh, okay.
The Womyn-drafted sexual-offense policy read: "Verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct in any given interaction, regardless of who initiates it. Asking 'Do you want to have sex with me?' is not enough. The request for consent must be specific to each act." The penalty for even being accused of failing to obtain consent for one of the "levels" was immediate expulsion without a hearing or any other rights. Not surprisingly, when word leaked out (it took a while) that Antioch's board of trustees had actually approved the policy and made it official, the reaction of the non-Antioch general public was . . . laughter all around. One wag estimated that Antioch required a student seeking a home run in the baseball game of sex to ask for the consent of his beloved a total of 150 times. A few years later, after much media mockery and several threatened legal challenges over the lack of due process, Antioch modified the policy to bring it into line with other colleges' procedures for handling accusations of date rape and related sexual offenses.
Meanwhile, Antioch's 17th president, Alan Guskin, who had succeeded Birenbaum in 1985, engineered a massive reorganization of the college-university governance structure in 1994 that reduced Antioch College from its position at the apex of the Antioch University pyramid to a mere subsidiary of the chain of campuses it had brought into being, all of which by then were breaking even (if just barely) financially and had higher enrollments than the college. Under Guskin's lead, the trustees created a new university position, chancellor, which was filled by Guskin. Antioch College got a new president, James E. Crowfoot, who reported to Guskin, and the other four campuses got their own presidents as well. In another move that led some to accuse Guskin of empire-building, he stripped Antioch College of its graduate-level and adult-extension programs in Yellow Springs and consolidated them into a new, juridically separate, entity named Antioch University McGregor (after Douglas McGregor, Antioch College's 13th president). McGregor got its own building on campus and also its own president, so Guskin now had two presidents reporting to him in Yellow Springs. The Antioch University "family" now consisted of six units. Guskin, who retired in 1997, was also responsible for Antioch College's getting rid of traditional majors and adopting the self-directed, interdisciplinary courses of study in effect today.
The change in the major configuration attracted applicants who liked the idea of doing whatever they wanted in college but gutted one of Antioch's remaining appeals to other kinds of applicants: its still-strong specific programs in such fields as astronomy, environmental science, and the fine and performing arts. Antioch now had to scramble, for example, to provide its students who wished to attend medical school (and there were fewer and fewer of those) with enough core science courses to qualify. The change in academic emphasis, coupled with the date-rape policy, whose main effect was to alter Antioch College's male-female student ratio from 50-50 to 40-60, coupled with a growing public perception of the college as a haven for crazies, made it difficult for the college to increase its enrollment. Figuring that the financially strapped school needed a critical mass of 800 students in order to generate the minimum revenue necessary to maintain academic quality, the administration adopted the mantra "800 by 2000." When that goal was not met (enrollment in 2000 was 515), the mantra changed to "800 by 2002" (enrollment in 2002 was 577).
All of the above factors conspired to attract a certain kind of Antioch student apt to generate a certain kind of Antioch monoculture. For example, not only does Antioch lack varsity sports, but there are only two intramural sports left on campus: co-ed soccer and women's rugby. "That means Antioch attracts students with a disdain for athletics," said Lawry, Antioch's recently ousted president, who once told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Antioch had fostered a "toxic" student culture. "These are kids who in high school were not part of the social scene," said Lawry. "Many of them are highly intellectual but socially awkward and troubled. They feel deeply estranged from the larger culture. There are a lot of interesting, engaged, articulate, smart, perceptive people at Antioch. But it's also been a refuge for people who felt aggrieved and oppressed by mainstream society, so they were very resentful of people who didn't make it clear that they were on their side. We were losing good students because of the pressure on them to conform. It's not what you'd expect of a liberal-arts environment."
It was, however, the sort of environment in which a convicted murderer and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, could be invited by students to deliver the commencement speech in 2000. There had been plenty of evidence supporting Abu-Jamal's conviction in 1982 for shooting Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner five times in the face and back at close range--such as the five spent casings in Abu-Jamal's gun that matched the five bullets lodged in Faulkner's body--and even some leftists have questioned the rush by their fellows to turn Abu-Jamal, currently awaiting the outcome of one of several appeals of his death sentence, into a political prisoner who had been framed by racist cops. When Maureen Faulkner, widow of the slain officer, sent a letter protesting the honor to be conferred on her husband's killer to Robert H. Devine, an Antioch communications professor who had succeeded Crowfoot as the college's president, Devine wrote back, "As educators, it is our responsibility to provide an environment where widely varying points of view can be expressed." (Devine, who stepped down in 2001--he was rumored to have been eased out--and returned to teaching, did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.) Abu-Jamal delivered his commencement speech via a prerecorded tape from death row. It was preceded by a live speech delivered by transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, who characterized Abu-Jamal's conviction and death sentence as the "persecution of a U.S. intellectual." According to alumnus Ralph Keyes's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a student speaker declared that Antioch was a home for "freaks" and anyone who didn't get that could "f-- off."
The Abu-Jamal debacle, protested by hundreds of police officers from around the country who picketed the Yellow Spring campus, was nearly repeated when the 2005 crop of graduates selected as their commencement speaker Ward Churchill, the since-fired (for scholarly plagiarism) ethnic-studies professor at the University of Colorado who became a leftist hero after declaring that the victims of the World Trade Center massacre of September 11, 2001, were "little Eichmanns" who deserved to die. For once, it would seem, Antioch's administrators and faculty actually managed to talk the students into rethinking a rash decision; Churchill was disinvited. Particularly persuasive was Beverly Rodgers, an anthropology professor of genuine Native American descent (Ohio's Miami tribe, forcibly relocated to Oklahoma during the 1840s) who did not care for the fact that Churchill had used an honorary membership in a Cherokee tribe to pass himself off as an Indian for purposes of advancing his career. The next year, when Steven Lawry, newly hired after the college had gone through four presidents and acting presidents in eight years, decided on Raphael Warnock, pastor of Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in order to mark the death of Antioch alumna Coretta King, the idea of a clergyman on campus alarmed some members of the class of 2006. One of them asked Lawry to write a letter to Warnock telling him he was not to preach on sexual morality while at Antioch.
Lawry, in fact, was the first Antioch president in three decades to apply the brakes to the college's runaway student culture, an effort that alienated many students who were used to doing and saying exactly as they pleased, no matter how outrageous. In a speech on campus in 2006, Lawry announced that he wanted to see a campus marked by more mutual respect and less "indulgence." A few weeks later, he expelled four first-year students caught dealing marijuana on campus. The student handbook expressly forbids all illegal activity, with expulsion as the explicit penalty for trafficking in drugs or alcohol on campus, but the students claimed nonetheless to have been "blindsided." One said, "We were led to believe by all the upper classmen that based on previous experience at Antioch, as long as you were respectful of others with your use of marijuana, it's not a big deal at all."
Lawry's next move was to put an end to anonymous personal ads in the Record soliciting sex or threatening violence (such as an ad promising to remove the testicles of an Antioch visitor who had expressed disapproval of some campus vulgarity). That move, too, shocked the students, who complained that Lawry was trying, not only to censor free speech but to tame the campus in order to attract more conservative young people. One student sent Lawry an email saying, "F-- you, a--hole." Lawry had the student disciplined. Even some of the faculty complained that the new president was heavy-handed and should have employed the classic Antioch method of trying to talk to the students at community meetings. But Lawry was an energetic fundraiser--the first Antioch College president in years to take seriously the idea that raising money was part of the job--and he won the support of many professors and alumni by trying to break the college free of the Antioch University stranglehold.
There were other serious problems he had to deal with. In 2002, the North Central Association, the accrediting body for colleges in Ohio, had issued a report that was highly critical of both Antioch College and Antioch University. Antioch College came under fire for its incurable deficits, its deteriorating physical plant, its obsolete science laboratories, its chronic failure to meet enrollment goals, its extremely high attrition rates (partly due, some students said, to the confrontational campus culture) and low graduation rates, its thinly stretched faculty (which had shrunk to 60 professors), and even its no-grades policy. Antioch University had its own set of problems, the accreditors noted, partly stemming from the fact that the five adult campuses were by then subsidizing Antioch College to the tune of $3 million a year. None of the adult campuses employs tenured professors, relying on a small core staff of full-time instructors working on contract and an army of part-time adjunct professors paid a few thousand dollars per course. The non-tenured professors, who were expected to teach year-round, in contrast to their tenured counterparts in Yellow Springs, complained about low salaries, inadequate books, little time for scholarly research. Antioch University Seattle, where Chancellor Murdock had served as president since 1997, came in for particular criticism over a series of cost-cutting "partnerships" it had formed with out-of-state for-profit educational entities, some of which were not properly accredited. (Murdock, interviewed in Yellow Springs, said the partnerships had been set up before she arrived at the Seattle campus and that she had phased them out.) And in truth, as the university itself concedes, the adult Antioch campuses, while financially viable, are not exactly thriving; none has more than about 900 students.
During this time, it is fair to say, relations between Antioch University and Antioch College were strained, with mutual recriminations to spare. The college's faculty and alumni accuse the university of starving the college into extinction, refusing, for example, to allot sufficient funds to the admissions office to recruit more students, and charging the college depreciation on its aging buildings (which makes the financial condition look even more hopeless), while failing to take into account the college's illustrious history and name, on which the university still trades. University spokesmen in turn accuse the college's alumni of refusing to support their alma mater despite a series of desperate fundraising drives (alumni counter that they are stingy because they don't trust the university) and blame the college itself for a history of chronic mismanagement and a head-in-the-clouds attitude on the part of many Antioch presidents who considered begging for money to be beneath their dignity. "I've sat at trustees' meetings for ten years," said Murdock, "and I and the presidents of the other campuses never got the time we needed because the trustees always had some problem with the college on their hands. It took up all their time."
Meanwhile, Antioch's trustees had inadvertently issued a death-blow to Antioch College's enrollment numbers in May 2005, when they unveiled an ambitious "Renewal Plan" that they had hatched on their own for a new first-year curriculum that looked properly progressive (it was modeled on that of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., famous for its leftist politics and outré course offerings) but was actually designed to cut costs by downsizing the Antioch faculty by a third. Instead of 60 professors teaching 500 students, there would be about 40 (retirements and layoffs were expected to accomplish the reductions, and they did). Starting that fall, instead of enrolling in the usual plateload of beginning courses, each taught by a different professor, all first-year students would be organized into 45-person "learning communities." Each learning community would be enrolled in a single, term-long interdisciplinary course with a name such as "Gaia" or "Sense of Place" or "Cool." The class would be team-taught by a relay of professors from different disciplines ("Cool," offered this fall, features lessons in physics, psychology, and music), so that Antioch would appear to maintain the 15‑1 student-teacher ratio that expensive liberal-arts colleges like to boast about, while actually offering a 45‑1 student-teacher ratio more typical of a state college.
Words can scarcely express the disaster that the Renewal Plan wreaked upon Antioch College's enrollment. Professors, given a single summer to scrap courses they had taught for years and design new ones, had to throw themselves--and all their teaching time--into the Renewal Plan, ignoring upper-level students who needed specific courses to prepare them for graduate school. The diminished number of professors meant that Antioch was left with just one philosopher, one historian, one mathematician, and so forth. Many of those advanced students in turn, feeling abandoned by their teachers, transferred out of Antioch. Students slated to enter Antioch, instead of feeling enthusiastic about joining a learning community and taking a course called "Gaia," felt chiseled, especially if they didn't get into their first-choice learning community, and ended up studying, say, physics, instead of the biology classes a recruiter had promised them.
Many of those disappointed high school graduates enrolled in college elsewhere. Perhaps worst of all, some professors found that the team approach meant they simply could not teach all the material they had covered in their separate entry-level courses. "I can't teach calculus in the Renewal Plan, because I want to teach all of calculus, and I can't," said Elizabeth Nettles. "So I teach something else." The effect of the Renewal Plan (plus a reduction in the recruiting budget) proved to be the opposite of renewal, when only 53 new students showed up during the fall of 2005. Despite aggressive recruiting by Lawry that doubled the entering class the next year, beefed-up science labs, and an improved grade from the accreditors in a 2006 visit, Antioch College's enrollment continued to slide: 377 students in 2005, 330 in 2006, and an expected 304 this fall that crashed to 220 when the university trustees announced in June that they planned to close down Antioch College entirely, at least for a while. Given those numbers, the announcement, if not inexorable, was certainly not a bolt from the blue.
It is hard to know which side to take in the dispute over Antioch College's future. Chancellor Murdock's vision for a new Antioch--few to no tenured professors, private-industry "partnerships" (again) responsible for some facets of teaching, distance learning, a co-op arrangement that would look more like part-time classes for working adults, and turning at least part of the campus over to real estate developers possibly to build condos and a conference center--seems less like a liberal arts college and more like a clone of the five other Antioch University branches. This fall Antioch McGregor moved off the historic Yellow Springs campus entirely to a brand-new, multimillion-dollar building, giving rise to the worst fears of some alumni that the old Antioch would simply be abandoned.
On the other hand, what exactly is there of the old Antioch that is worth saving? A fine main building. Some dedicated teachers on the order of Rodgers and Nettles, and likely some dedicated students, too, underneath the tattoos and rhetoric. And the trees. Interviews with faculty and alumni revealed a continuing reluctance to rein in the student culture and its obsession with gender identity and violating cultural norms--coupled with the assumption that simply throwing more money into recruiting can boost enrollment numbers significantly. A fall alumni get-together reported in the Record sounded like deck chairs on the Titanic, with the showing of a documentary depicting the strike of 1973 as a good thing and frettings over whether the word "alumnus" is sexist.
"We certainly don't want Antioch to be seen as just for transgender people," said Nancy Crow, a Denver lawyer who heads the college alumni association negotiating to keep the doors open. No, Antioch College certainly doesn't need more political correctness du jour. What it needs, in order to save it from turning into the ghost campus of Yellow Springs that it nearly is today, is a few more liberals.
Charlotte Allen's coverage of higher education for THE WEEKLY STANDARD includes "Durham Bull: The Phony Duke Rape Case" and "Identity Politics Gone Wild: The Deaf Culture Wars at Gallaudet University."