Can Antioch College Return From the Dead Again?
The long corridors of Antioch Hall are dark. The fluorescent lights, perhaps 50 years old and never updated, do not work. The vinyl floor tiles are loose. There are cobwebs and puddles on the floor, and the whole place smells of mold. You have to squint, almost, to picture this four-story brick building as the birthplace of one of the most vaunted experiments in American higher education.
Antioch College held its first classes here in 1853. There were women among the school’s early students, as called for in the charter of the Christian Connexion, the church group that founded Antioch amid the cornfields and forests of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Blacks soon matriculated as well. And the college’s first president, Horace Mann, the Massachusetts-born education reformer, instilled a spirit of moral resolve that has lingered ever since. At the 1859 commencement, just weeks before he died, Mann exhorted that year’s Antioch graduates: “I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words. Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
In the decades that followed, Antioch flourished as a cradle of social activism and freethinking. It was the most liberal of liberal arts colleges. . . . Yet Antioch College has been on shaky financial ground for its entire existence. Four times — in 1863, 1881, 1919 and 2008 — it has had to close. Next month, it will reopen again. The college has been sending recruiters to college fairs nationwide for a year now, eventually hoping to draw brainy iconoclasts willing to pay $35,000 in annual tuition and room and board. The plan is to have 110 students next year and 1,200 students in a decade or so. But when Antioch kicks off the school year on Oct. 4, it will do so as a sort of nanoschool, having chosen to commence with just 35 freshmen from a pool of 145 applicants. This starter batch of students will enjoy four-year full scholarships, paid for with the interest earned from Antioch’s $25 million endowment. They’ll begin, according to Antioch’s promotional literature, “with the premise that the way we live now is not sustainable.” They will be enrolled in a series of “global seminars” — on energy, food, water and health — as well as more standard liberal arts courses like Drawing I and Existentialism. Following Antioch tradition, they will be expected to spend nine quarters on campus and six off campus engaged in “co-op” jobs (on organic farms or in chemistry labs, for instance) meant to reinforce their classroom work.
Antioch College is a private, independent liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio, United States. It was the founder and the flagship institution of the six-campus Antioch University system.
Founded in 1852 by the Christian Connection, the college began operating in 1853 with politician and education reformer Horace Mann as its first president.
Between 1921 and 2008, the college's educational approach blended practical work experience with classroom learning, and participatory community governance. Students received narrative evaluations instead of academic letter grades.
In June 2007, the University’s Board of Trustees announced that Antioch College would be suspending operations as of July 2008. Antioch University transferred the assets, including the college campus, a $20 million endowment, Glen Helen and the Antioch Review, to the Antioch College Continuing Corporation in 2009 for $5 million. Since then, the Antioch College Continuing Corporation has raised nearly $17 million from alumni in its quest to reopen in fall 2011.
Horace Mann, Antioch's first president, ran the college from its founding in 1853 until his death in 1859. In 1859, Mann gave his final commencement speech, including what became the college's motto: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
In the 1950s Antioch faced pressure from the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee and faced criticism from many area newspapers because it did not expel students and faculty accused of having Communist leanings. College officials stood firm, insisting that freedom begins not in suppressing unpopular ideas but in holding all ideas up to the light. The school, including professors and administration, was also involved in the early stages of the American Civil Rights Movement and was a supporter of free speech.
Antioch became increasingly progressive and financially healthy during the 1960s and early 1970s under the Presidency of Dr. James P. Dixon. The student body topped out at around 2,400 students, the college owned property all over Yellow Springs and beyond, and the college grew throughout the decade. It began to appear in literary works and other media as an icon of youth culture, serving, for example, as the setting for a portion of Philip Roth's novel, Portnoy's Complaint, and an S.J. Perelman satire, "To Yearn Is Subhuman, To Forestall Devine." At this time, Antioch became one of the primary sources of student radicalism, the New Left, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the Black Power movement in the region. The town of Yellow Springs became an island of liberal and progressive activism in southern Ohio.
In the early 2000s enrollment declined to just over 600 students. This combined with a declining economy caused Antioch University to institute a "Renewal Plan" in 2003. The controversial plan called for restructuring Antioch's first year program into learning communities and upgrading campus facilities. Many students and faculty stated that they were shut out of planning. Antioch University's Board of Trustees committed to five years of funding for the renewal plan but discontinued this commitment to the college three years into the plan.
Simultaneously with the announcement of the renewal plan, the University's Board of Trustees announced mandated staff cuts at the college, including the elimination of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Student anger over the mandated renewal plan and program cuts led to a student-initiated protest entitled "People of Color Takeover", which garnered negative media attention.
With the implementation of the controversial renewal plan, enrollment dropped from 650 students to 370 in two years, a decline that many feel was a result of the curriculum change mandated by the Board of Trustees. At an Antioch University Board of Trustees meeting in June 2007 the Board stated that while the college was only in its third year of implementation of the plan they had not raised the funds needed, and that the college would be indefinitely closed at the end of the 2007-08 academic year.
Many Antioch alumni and faculty, upset at the prospect of the loss of the college's legacy, began organizing and raising funds in an effort to save the college, keep it open without interruption, and gain greater transparency in its governance. In August 2007, the college faculty filed suit against the Board of Trustees, charging that the Board was violating various contractual obligations.
The college closed as promised on June 30, 2008. In early 2011 it began recruiting faculty for the 2011-2012 academic year; likewise, it started a campaign to attract a "pioneer class" of freshmen to re-open the college.
Antioch College's rebirth is taking hold
Antioch -- known nationally for its progressive approach to education and for individualistic graduates who made their mark on everything from Congress to Hollywood -- has been a big part of the identity of this southwestern Ohio village for nearly 160 years.
For Mr. Derr, the worst part about his alma mater being closed has been the depressing silence.
"I walk around this campus and I look at the sidewalks and not seeing faculty or students walking -- it doesn't feel right," he said.