An Iconic Progressive College Closes Its Doors - A Small Diminution of the Possibilities of the World
There are more ways of being different than being the same. There are more ways of being dead than being alive.
These two aphorisms(1) crossed my mind as being particularly apt when I heard the sad news last week that Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio (liberal bastion and alma mater of Coretta Scott King, Stephen J. Gould and Rod Serling) was closing its doors at the end of the 2007-08 academic year. My daughter had applied and been admitted to Antioch for this coming fall, and it had remained on her list of “maybes” well into April, so I had a modicum of insight into the problems the college faced. The admissions folks did a credible job of putting up a brave face, but it became clear to my daughter and me that you would be signing up for a crisis as much as for a college (although the end came more quickly than I expected) . And if we had in fact been one of the 125 or so families who put down a deposit and turned down other colleges, I doubt I would be waxing quite so philosophical right now. As it was, we had the privilege of visiting the campus three times in the past year - due in part to its proximity to some of my family as well as our interest in Clifton Gorge and the excellent Glen Helen nature preserve which abuts the campus.
Both of us were intrigued by the unique co-op oriented curriculum at Antioch (I also had some prior familiarity with it), and everyone we spoke to who was associated with the place was interesting, thought-provoking, passionate about Antioch … and, well, different. Different as in different from each other, as well as different from most everyone else you meet while looking at colleges. (I never would have suspected that so many aspects of so many colleges could be characterized so succinctly as “Awesome”.) My sense is that it would have taken a very deft touch indeed for any institution which was buffeted by such powerful passions from key stakeholders to survive in today’s realpolitik academic world. And although I am not really in a position to judge (but am certainly in a position to opine…), where deftness was called for, there seems instead to have been a long history of questionable decisions which led to the current situation. In the 1970s, Antioch expanded to become Antioch University, a group of flar-flung “campuses” of which the Antioch College was just one part. Antioch University lives on at a few of these campuses, but they have a very different mission, mostly adult education. Within that tangled web lies what to many is clearly the proximate cause of most of the trouble. To get opinions and a sense of the place from alums, do read this post (and the comments): What happens when your Intellectual Home goes bust? by Sara at The Next Hurrah. Unsurprisingly, there has been an outpouring of writings on the web. Antirecord.org has a good compilation of other links, and it was also a place where I found some informal information on Antioch back when we were in decision mode - its original name was apparently antiochsucks.com, and it reflected some of the love/hate relationship that folks seemed to have with the place in recent years.
The official press release from the school is optimistically headlined: Antioch College Suspends Operations to Design 21st Century Campus. State-of-the-Art Campus projected to open in 2012.
But in an interview Tuesday evening, the university’s chancellor used “if” to describe a prospective reopening. And several people at the college said that they were not sure how the financial problems could be solved and the campus rebuilt in a few years.
And all 40 or so remaining faculty apparently will lose their jobs - so I for one am not so sure that we will be seeing a next generation campus springing up in Yellow Springs(2) (3) anytime soon. In fact my modest proposal, informed by the relatively heartless objectivity of someone with a superficial knowledge and no real stake in the place, is that if they want to go “21st century”, they should just make most of the campus part of Glen Helen and leave it as a museum of 20th century education, and build the State-of-The-Art Campus almost entirely on-line(4). Call it Second Life for Antioch … unless that’s already taken or something.
I am not sure whether even a well-managed Antioch could have survived in a world of $40K+/year college costs, a world where Harvard’s endowment added more value ($3 billion) in a year than the total value of all but the largest 25 endowments, and where Professor Fouad Ajami, the Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University can write something as fatuous as his “Soldier’s Creed” defense of Scooter Libby and not resign in disgrace. Of course there is no reason to expect any part of the academy to be exempt from the ills of society-at-large, and those “elite” institutions face their own very significant, if less visible crises - however, their’s are more along the lines of “potential and actual loss of soul” than the shuttering of operations due to financial constraints.
So Antioch (the reality) was maybe not the best test of whether Antioch (the ideal) could work, whether any college so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. But what I do know is that the loss of an Antioch (even if it has been happening in slow motion since 1972) diminishes us all, and casts doubt on whether any academic institution can long survive that does not base its decisions on maximizing the Net Present Value of its Endowment (although with a very low Discount Rate, Hey! Academia is about nothing if not the future….) . From what I can see, if the primary challenges of the next generation involve familiarity with sushi bars and climbing walls, we’re set. Having smart kids coming out of college ready to challenge a corrupt and criminal administration, not so much. I mean how many benjamins are to be had in doing that?
And what about our family’s decision? (Working titles for this post included: Stormcrow Family Helps Kill Antioch and Pragmatic Parents Precipitate Problems at Progressive Institution.) A relatively easy call to not sink tuition into Antioch in 2007 (in fact most would question why we even considered it an option), but would we have done otherwise 5, 10, 20, 40 years ago? Or would the opportunity to strive to Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity (Antioch’s motto) pale beside schools that appeared to provide more potential for a better payoff for our personal “endowment”? Who the hell knows? It is not as if attending Antioch (now or then), was some kind of objective “good”. But in a sense we did get off the hook, because the warning signs were so clearly visible on this particular road not taken.
I do salute schools that continue to follow their own course: The College of the Atlantic in Maine, Marlboro College in Vermont, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Evergreen in Washington, New College of Florida and St. Johns College in Annapolis and Santa Fe are some that I am aware of. And having come within shouting distance of send a lot of benjamins Antioch’s way, once we figure out what is the best avenue to provide financial support that will truly help our perception of what Antioch represented, we will contribute something (… ah, but certainly not a tuition’s worth), and I would urge others to consider doing the same.
(1) There are more ways of being dead than being alive - This is my own shortening of a statement from Richard Dawkins: “However many ways there may be of being alive it is certain that there are more ways of being dead. ” There are more ways of being different than being the same is a takeoff on the previous thought that I came up with while observing a few isolated outliers among a group of teenage boys at “play”.
(2) The small rural/exurban area around Antioch (located just east of Dayton) has an interesting and diverse set of small colleges. There is Cedarville University - a baptist institution, Wilberforce University - a small historically black college, and Central State University- a small historically black state school. And not too far down the road is Wright State on the outskirts of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base - newer, but larger than the others.
(3) Ironically, while I was cooling my heels in the Admissions Office at Antioch in April, I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Blue Towns in Red States by some guy named Bérubé (subscription req’d. for more than the intro). Among other things, it pointed out the relative stability of the academic “industries” in those blue towns. I am not going to say that Antioch is the exception that proves the rule, but it is worth noting the “man bites dog” surprise that has come with the shutdown, and that the closing of a like-sized enterprise in the private sector would no doubt be a wholly local story. I wish good luck to the community of Yellow Springs as well, it has a unique character. It is close enough to Dayton and Wright-Pat to withstand the economic effects better than many college towns (and it has already adapted to the long, slow decline). But there is a danger of it becoming merely a quaint suburb, something it seemed to be already struggling with before the latest developments (as well as trying to hold off the all-too-familiar suburban/exurban sprawl.)
(4) My suggestion to build an online campus is more serious than my flippant words might indicate. In this day and age I do not think there is any way that starting from its current state, Antioch can recreate an economically-viable residency campus which honors its ideals (after answering whose ideals get to be “its ideals” first of course). An online campus is an environmentally sound campus, and it provides an opportunity for outreach to broader range of “students”. One idea, would be a progressively-oriented clearinghouse for co-ops and online courses (and face-to-face ones as well - but just not necessarily in Yellow Springs) - possibly extending the ideas embodied in UC Berkeley’s DeCal or Oberlin’s EXCO to the ‘net.
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