Antioch – Will It Flatline Once Again?

When Antioch College, the venerable liberal arts institution in Yellow Springs, Ohio, shut its doors in June 2008, its professors laid off and most of its students transferring elsewhere, it had become the shipwreck of a perfect storm of political correctness run amok. Now, more than six months later, Antioch’s alumni have launched a plan to revive their alma mater with a “newly independent” (as a press release puts it) Antioch College, promising to raise $6.5 million in for the new entity right now and another $15 million over the next few years—but it’s hard not to wonder whether the ghosts of the old Antioch, which over the past few decades nourished a campus culture so aggressively radical that few students wanted to enroll—won’t continue to haunt the historic campus in southern Ohio that predates the Civil War.


Famous during the 1950s and 1960s for its top-notch academic programs whose graduates included Coretta Scott King, wife of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and the Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Mario R. Capecchi, Antioch had been on a 40-year downward drift before it closed. Contributing to its decline were a devastating student strike in 1973 that halved the undergraduate population; failed experiments in the “bringing the university to the streets” movement that created dozens of money-hemorrhaging urban satellite campuses that nearly bankrupted the flagship campus in Yellow Springs; a draconian date-rape policy drafted by the Antioch “Womyn’s Center” (its actual spelling) that became the laughingstock of the nation after it was parodied on Saturday Night Live in 1973, the jettisoning of traditional arts and sciences majors in favor of a loosely structured program that essentially allowed students to take whatever courses they wanted; and the creation of a radically left-leaning and notoriously intolerant student culture (aided and abetted by some members of the Antioch faculty) that ostracized dissenters and turned off potential applicants. One disillusioned observer described the student scene in Yellow Springs as “toxic.” Typical student activities seemed to consist of flaunting one’s body ornaments, dealing marijuana on campus, advertising for sex in the college newspaper, and harassing authors and customers at a nearby store’s Christian book-signing event.
The last straws consisted of invitations extended by Antioch’s students to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and the convicted murderer of a Philadelphia policeman, to be commencement speaker in 2000; and to Ward Churchill, the since-fired (for scholarly plagiarism) ethnic-studies professor at the University of Colorado who famously referred to the victims of the September 11, 2001, massacre as “Little Eichmanns,” to be commencement speaker in 2005. (Mumia delivered his speech from Death Row by prerecorded tape, but Antioch administrators and faculty managed to talk the students into disinviting Churchill.) During its last years Antioch’s undergraduate enrollment had cascaded from more than 2,100 during the early 1970s to just over 300 by 2006, its once-handsome 200-acre campus in Yellow Springs was a weed-choked shambles of crumbling and graffiti-decorated buildings, its accreditation was on the verge of revocation, and its relations with its parent institution, Antioch University, were overtly hostile. Antioch University had been formed out of the viable remains of the college’s satellite campuses during the late 1970s, and a 1990s restructuring gave the university board control of the college as well as the satellites. The university, which mostly operates adult-focused graduate programs taught by part-time instructors on five barebones campuses around the country, was subsidizing the struggling college to the tune of $3 million a year.
Finally, after some last-ditch efforts to spiff up Antioch College’s decrepit labs and recruit more students whose parents were willing to pay the college’s $40,000 annual costs (the latter drive failed dismally), Antioch University announced its intention in June 2007 to suspend the college’s operations, fire its remaining faculty members (there were only about 40 left by then), and reopen in 2012 in a vastly different form. The announcement goaded Antioch alumni, many of them successful lawyers, businesspeople, and academics who had graduated from Antioch during the glory years of decades past and were intensely loyal to their alma mater, to raise some $18 million in cash and pledges in an effort to keep the struggling college open, Negotiations broke down amid mutual acrimony—and pledges were withdrawn—when the alumni could not persuade the university’s trustees to grant the college the autonomy they wanted to see. Now, under the auspices of an independent mediator, the university and a corporation set up by the alumni have issued a letter of intent that would allow the creation of a new and independent Antioch College, wholly separate from the university, that would license its name and the flagship campus in Yellow Springs from Antioch University but function as a separately governed entity with its own board, budget, governance, and faculty.
A letter of intent is not a binding agreement—and the emergence of such an agreement depends on the alumni’s ability to raise $6.5 million in cash and bonds within 90 days in order to buy its independence, plus an estimated $15 million or so over the next few years to rehabilitate its infrastructure, recruit a student body, and hire faculty. The current economic downturn doesn’t help the new Antioch’s prospects. Even more problematic, however, may be the likelihood that the new Antioch will be unable to banish the old Antioch’s off-putting ultra-left culture. After the college was shut down, several of its laid-off faculty started an operation in downtown Yellow Springs called the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute. The goal seemed to be to continue offering Antioch-style classes to former students and other Yellow Spring residents until a new Antioch materialized (there also seemed to be an expectation that Nonstop students and the laid-off Antioch professors who made up Nonstop’s faculty would form the core of the revived Antioch College). Nonstop has the backing of the Antioch College Alumni Association, which is conducting a $225,000 fundraising drive to keep it operating through June of this year. Nonstop is not officially accredited, but its administrators have expressed hope that other colleges will accept its credits unofficially.
The Nonstop curriculum for Spring 2009 is an odd hybrid of soft-edge but non-controversial courses in music, art, dance, and “conversational” foreign languages clearly aimed at Yellow Spring’s working-adult and retiree population (a sample course title: “Gentle, Joyful Dance for Seasoned Bodies”) and tendentiously titled offerings redolent of the radicalized Antioch College culture of the past two decades at its most in-your-face. Courses titled “New Continental Feminist Theories.” (“ongoing feminist examinations of the gendered character of local and global power relations” is how its instructor, former Antioch women’s studies professor Iveta Jusova, describes it), “Toxic Tours Documentary Project,” and “Palestine in Literature and on the Ground” appear to be geared to the same narrow band of alienated-leftist students whose culture was at least partly responsible for Antioch College’s anemic enrollment during its last years.
Perhaps the most outre course offering this spring at Nonstop is “Queer Animals,” team-taught by former Antioch environmental-studies professor Colette Palamar and former Antioch comparative literature professor Isabel Winkler. “What does it mean to think about queerness when it comes to animals?” the two ask in their written description of the course, which promises to explore such topics as whether “animals can be homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual” and “thinking about animals as the other.” Along similar lines, former Antioch philosophy professor Scott Warren’s course “Legitimation and Capitalism” might be better titled “Capitalism Is Evil.” In his course description Warren presents a list of eight questions, including “Is capitalism the very negation and distortion of human nature?” and “Is capitalism a system that robs us of our very humanity?” Prospective students who answer “no” to these questions are advised not to sign up for the course.
Transsexual goats and Marxist proselytizing are not the sort of academic material that would appeal to many of the potential students that a resurrected Antioch College would need to attract in order to recover its former luster. They also could be said to be replicate exactly the sort of claustrophobic, ideologically driven campus culture that led to the college’s fatally low enrollment during it last years. Lee Morgan, a 1966 Antioch graduate who heads the pro tem board of trustees for the revived college—and who, as a successful entrepreneur who built a $350 million, 600-employee publishing business in Yellow Springs before his recent retirement, might be a candidate for reeducation camp in Scott Warren’s hammer-and-sickle universe–admitted in a telephone interview that Nonstop’s current ethos and the alumni goal of bringing back to life the college they knew and loved decades ago are on a “collision course.”
“There’s going to be a problem sorting out the relationship between Nonstop and the college,” Morgan said. “We know the faculty suffered a great deal when the college was closed, but we’re not interested in perpetuating the past,” he added “They [the Nonstop faculty] are not going to set the curriculum. I don’t object to their expressing their views, but we need to have an inclusive curriculum.”
Antioch College had an illustrious history, and one cannot help but sympathize with the alumni who are desperate for the college not to disappear into memory. But it seems that even a dead institution can’t be free of the ideologues who slowly strangled it into oblivion.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

11 thoughts on “Antioch – Will It Flatline Once Again?

  1. I’m a stay-at-home mom living on the Gulf Coast of Florida with my husband and teenage son. We definitely needed to earn some extra money as my son will be heading off to college soon.

  2. Wow ….. this article describes Antioch to a tee. Unfortunately, I attended in 2003 and 2004 until I got the sense to leave. It was most definitely a toxic and intolerant environment. I still hate that place.
    I don’t get what Antioch’s obsession with reinventing the wheel is.

  3. Well said. It’s just clever marketing yet people take it as fact. Kind of the way people believe the emails people send saying Bill Gates will give you money for forwarding it to 5 people because he is tracking who forwards it to other people (or something like that).

  4. It sure is an odd world, all things considered. Indeed, the DC campus, which was a center for Maoist baptisms in the 60s, turns out to be part of the Antioch branch that survives while, tragically, the OH center declines and falls. Go figure. Horace Mann is rolling in his grave.
    The whole affair is so rich with irony, Where to begin? First, while the radical leftists were preaching ideological nonsense in the 60s — sheer anarchy — the Neocons, including grand guru Irving Kristol, were rapidly gaining strength. And from those potent roots flowed AEI, a host of influential publications, including The Public Interest, and thinkers like Charles Murray selling the Bell Curve.
    The entire Reagan agenda was solidifed, accordingly, during the 70s while much of the left was still clinging to Marx, Lenin, and Mao, as if that was going to provide the antidote to the ominous Neocon development. By then all they needed was a charming actor to sell the new American Dream to the masses, who, miraculously, appeared in 1980. Does anyone remember hearing the death knell for truly liberal concepts by 1984? Apparently the radicals at Antioch never got the memo, for they were still waging a Nineteenth century war against the bourgeoisie well into the latter half of the Twentieth century. As if that was truly relevant.
    Second, in the shadows of the Great Meltdown, after Glass-Steagall and other retrictive policies across the board, including regulation of the oil industry, collpased, we’re the unfortunate beneficiaries of the grand ole Free Market. You know, that haven Hayek, Hannity, and Limbaugh have extolled like mana from heaven. Oh dear God please free us from the serfdom perpetuated by socialists who desire free cheese and dental checkups. Or, in other words, the utopian world that was, according to the professorial class at Antioch, going to be attained through grass roots.
    Remember that term, Grass Roots? How quaint. And irrelevant. Now the country’s teeming with weeds, everywhere you look. Education in general. Culture. Literature. Books. Music. Films. The repository of much of what leftists valued has gradually been distilled into commercial crap. Oh, Iron Man could you please help us get out of this mess, this Free Market haven?
    What’s the irony? Listen closely to the tea-baggers, or Sarah Palin for that matter. Listen to Fox. Put your ear close to the zeitgeist. What do you hear? Freedom. Free. Free Markets. Free Freedom; no taxes; no government. Hey, isn’t that essentially what the radical leftists at Antioch were striving for, benetah the patina of Marxist concerns?
    Let it all hang out baby, like easy riders without the fetters of needless constraints. Sure there were significant differences.
    Today’s Neocon wants virtually no oversight on derivatives, oil production, or the development of nuclear plants whereas Antioch students wanted no dress code, grades, definitive standards for granting degrees, or limits on recreational drugs. But if you’re not splitting hairs here, it’s essentially the same aim: Regulationlessness.
    Hey, welcome to the 21st Century — the grand sum result of a streamlined landscape berift of conscientious regulators. Selling Credit Default Swaps that have no true worth? Help yourself. No one’s keeping track, not really. Got an idea for plundering the environment for a quick buck? You shouldn’t have much of a problem as long as you’ve “supported” the right politicians and have a slew of K Street reps on your side. The President’s cool with it even though he promised Change. Actually, he wasn’t entirely wrong: It’s not Change you can count on, but simply, Change you can count, or rather that he can count.
    And if you’re thinking about drumming snake oil, especially since that second job at KFC ain’t working out, get your feet wet. Junk bonds may be out, but certainly not junk. How about the Green Shredder, which takes all your useless papers, like pension fund holdings, which have mysteriously disappeared, 401K savings that have dwindled into a figure representing a vacation home in Juarez, or that mortgage with an ARM you can’t afford, and turns them into mulch harmonious with lawns? Say, $19.99 for the Green Shredder, no make that 2 Green Shredders and a free car vac. See. The American Dream hasn’t died. Only now it’s mostly associated with predatory corporate entities or neat things for $19.99 that you’ll use just once.
    Yeah, we all know by now that utopia went nowhere, aside from actually meaning nowhere. Well, the silver ling in all this is that since Antioch, and many other left wing haunts, have fallen, we’re more unified in our beliefs. Just ask the Clintons who’ve pursued The Third Way — the same avenue Obama’s walking down, just left of Center St. So don’t be left out. Do yourself a favor and abandon all those radical hopes, pick up a tambourine, and repeat after me, loudly and proudly, Free at last, thank God the market’s Free at last.

  5. There is another large problem. At the University campuses around the country there are many of us who are working hard at degrees and contributing to our families and communities. Yet the spoiled narcissists from the failed “college” continue to attack the successful campuses of the University – for not giving more money to a failed college, for daring to have the name Antioch, etc. etc. They even go so far as to attack the value of the programs and degrees of these campuses.
    Antioch College was a failed idea that needed a restart. The University administrators were acting responsibly to end the drain on the system and work to lay the foundation for a new Antioch College which will become once again an active part of the larger University.
    Many of us who are laying down a new and successful tradition for what Antioch means and will mean are shocked, but not at the actions of the administration but rather by the behavior of those who were connected with the college.

  6. Hi Charlotte,
    My professor of “Revolutions” last semester at NonStop, Bob Devine, has painted a fairly accurate though still abstract picture of the situation that befell the College. His history as a student, professor, and administrator (including president) should not go unnoticed, because that firsthand account of the spectacle, likewise, is very important. If there’s anything that my (wonderful) first semester at NonStop taught me, it’s that first-hand observation, though certainly decorated with opinion, still counts for something.
    But I digress.
    You may have your opinion — I have no problem with that. But please, please, please don’t demonize my friends, like Iveta, or Scott, or Isabella, or Colette, or anybody else you may have mentioned in the article. It’s unnecessary and uncalled for.

  7. Mistakes and omissions abound in this piece of writing. Not much research went into writing it, I concur with previous poster about the abundance of “third-hand rumors”. Also, embarrassingly, the writer doesn’t seem to know what Continental Philosophy is. Oops! She didn’t realize she was talking about Europe! Editors?
    Also, take a look at any American liberal arts college – and many, many state universities as well – and you will find the same kinds of classes being offered as the ones you denigrate. The author obviously does not like or understand some of the dominant trends in academia, but she should at least be capable of sounding intelligent when discussing them.
    Shame on the CAU for letting this one get through without a few rounds of revisions.

  8. It’s a shame that Charlotte Allen did not have the benefit of an Antioch education. If she had, she would not be publishing thrice-repeated rumors, pedestrian opinions, inaccurate factoids, half truths, and back-fence gossip in what purports to be journalism, but is actually just another anti-intellectual drive-by.
    By way of example:
    a) Allen notes that, “Famous during the 1950s and 1960s for its top-notch academic programs whose graduates included Coretta Scott King, wife of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and the Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Mario R. Capecchi,” but fails to note that Antioch also produced the leaders of The Putnam Funds, the Segal Company, Dayton Hudson department stores, as well as continuing to produce — right up until its closing, an extraordinary number of Fulbright scholars and McArthur genius awardees.
    b) Allen cites one of the reasons for the closing of Antioch College as, “a draconian date-rape policy drafted by the Antioch “Womyn’s Center” (its actual spelling) that became the laughingstock of the nation after it was parodied on Saturday Night Live in 1973,” when in fact the policy actually boosted enrollment, and in pieces and in whole, the Antioch policy found its way into the sexual offense policies of more than 200 institutions across the country.
    c) Another contributing factory Allen asserts, was “…the jettisoning of traditional arts and sciences majors in favor of a loosely structured program that essentially allowed students to take whatever courses they wanted.” That’s just downright false. The College maintained some very rigorous requirements for general education (including work in the arts, sciences, social sciences and humanities) and major field requirements as daunting as any undergraduate program. Our majors were interdisciplinary, which has, in case Charlotte hasn’t noticed, become the norm for quality undergraduate programs.
    d) Yet another comfortable rumor repeated as fact is the assertion that contributing to the demise of the College was “the creation of a radically left-leaning and notoriously intolerant student culture (aided and abetted by some members of the Antioch faculty) that ostracized dissenters and turned off potential applicants.” Antioch College’s final President circulated several mythic stories about the toxic culture of the institution to all who would listen during the time before he was terminated. Turns out, in spite of how much people wanted to believe that toxic culture played a role in Antioch’s downfall, and how much they attracted the attention of Charlotte Allen and others, that they just weren’t true.
    e) Allen notes that “its accreditation was on the verge of revocation, and its relations with its parent institution, Antioch University, were overtly hostile.” The accreditation was never on the verge of revocation, and in fact the last North Central Association review of Antioch commended the faculty of the College for the quality of the academic program and their commitment to delivering it with scarce resources. More on the strained relations with the University below.
    f) Allen states that, “The university, which mostly operates adult-focused graduate programs taught by part-time instructors on five barebones campuses around the country, was subsidizing the struggling college to the tune of $3 million a year.” This might be what the University told Allen, but the University campuses are hardly “barebones”. Antioch McGregor just built a $13 million building in Yellow Springs, Seattle owns its own campus, Antioch New England has a thriving and well appointed campus in Keene, N.H., and the two southern California campuses are hardly sparse or struggling. The “adult” campuses were, until 5 years ago, required to provide “overhead” to subsidize the College, as franchises of the flagship institution. Antioch focused on building adult campuses during a period of time when peer institutions were building their endowments. The subsidies to the College — going back to 1985 — were intended to substitute for endowment, until such time that the College was able to build its endowment to the level of its peer institutions. In effect, the adult campuses WERE the endowment of Antioch College. In their adolescence, however, the adult campuses wanted to be released from their obligation to the elderly parent, and in fact, participated in the “smothering” of that parent in order to collect the annuity (campus, real estate, endowment, library, brand), to continue to grow, and to collateralize borrowing.
    The actual contributing factors in the demise of Antioch College include:
    -The University harassing until they left, or firing the last 3 presidents of the College;
    -The University removing the CFO and seizing control of the operating finances of the College;
    -The University mysteriously losing $5 million through an accounting error;
    -The University withholding the College’s endowment growth;
    -The University Board imposing a curriculum on the faculty — which cut enrollment in half in just two years — and guaranteeing funding for this labor-intensive “innovative” program for five years, but pulling the plug after two;
    -The University Board’s giving to the College (as part of their stewardship and fiduciary responsibility) diminishing from approximately $1m a year to approximately $25K a year in just three years.
    No, the demise of Antioch College was more of an Enron/Bear-Stearns/AIG/Merrill-Lynch kind of organizational failure, rather than a casualty of the demon PC. A friend once described Antioch as “the cockroach of modernism”, and as the anti-intellectual times fade away, it’s a pretty sure bet that Antioch will once again be on the landscape of higher education.

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