Present at the demise:
Antioch College, 1852-2008
Nearly two decades ago, my wife and I left Philadelphia and fulfilled a fantasy by returning to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where we went to college, met and got married. In addition to our fondness for the town itself, we hoped to be of service to our alma mater, Antioch College. Muriel worked there in various capacities. Outside her office window she could see the Friends meetinghouse where we were married in 1965. I took part in programs for prospective students, spoke to classes, and helped organize events for alumni. Coming back to Antioch and Yellow Springs felt like a dream come true.
I recalled Antioch in the ‘60s as a lively, demanding institution, full of contentious students and professors. Many, including myself, were ardent left-wingers. Others stood elsewhere on the political spectrum. As we understood it, one's political convictions were beside Antioch's point. Its emphasis was on thinking for one's self and keeping an open mind.
In its not-too-distant past, Antioch's strong academic program, well-administered campus, and unique work-study plan appealed to applicants with a wide range of outlooks and lifestyles. In its late-‘60s-early-‘70s heyday, the college's enrollment rose to nearly 2,500.
"Re-evaluate your basic assumptions in the light of new evidence" was a campus cliché. I felt constantly challenged to justify my points of view. But I didn't assume that reassessing those views would move me left. It might move me to the right, or toward the center, or nowhere at all.
Pierced and tattooed
Yet by the time we returned, Antioch had changed dramatically. Its student body was now heavily pierced and tattooed. Antiochians seemed consumed with gender issues and boundary testing. In the student union I saw a flyer posted for a workshop on "fisting," the insertion of one's fist into a vagina or anus.
Soon after we arrived, Antioch's vaunted ask-before-touching sex policy was enacted. When "Saturday Night Live" did a hilarious sendup of this policy, few on campus laughed. Like many, I found my alma mater's approach to sexual activity somewhat absurd, but defended it nonetheless as a well-intentioned attempt to cope with the serious problem of sexual abuse.
If I'd dared to risk looking like a disgruntled alum, I might have paid more attention to things about Antioch that raised my eyebrows. By the early 1990s, its once-packed library was nearly deserted. The campus itself was beyond seedy. Some buildings were crumbling, others were vandalized, and many walls were spray-painted with edgy graffiti. Beer bottles and cigarette butts littered the grounds. Antioch's president at the time told me that nearly half of its students smoked cigarettes, twice the national rate. Stories of rampant substance abuse could be heard, if one chose to listen. But Antioch and its students have always lived dangerously, so I tried to be tolerant, to look away from things on campus that made me uneasy.
The collapsing library
After we'd lived in Yellow Springs for several years, my son David and I visited half a dozen colleges that interested him. While David attended classes, I visited libraries, assuming they could tell me something about an institution's intellectual atmosphere. Upon our return, I noted that Antioch's own library was literally collapsing, even as administrators' offices were being renovated. Bricks that had popped from its walls lay outside the library's entrance. Weeds grew through cracks in its front steps. Some sections of the ceiling inside were water-stained, and linoleum tiles were loose underfoot.
The library's collection was sparse and dated, rich with pre-1970 books and serials, poor on materials thereafter. All of this had less to do with negligent librarianship (library employees are among the hardest working and most conscientious at Antioch) than with the fact that its library was so low on Antioch's resource-allocation ladder.
The Camille Paglia question
Compared with students David and I had seen on our college tour, Antioch now struck me as more bizarre than Bohemian. It no longer emphasized the kind of open inquiry that Muriel and I remembered. The assumed endpoint was always to one's left. As a result, Antioch's emphasis had gone from searching for the truth to propagating the truth, from asking questions to teaching answers. One alum told me of asking a women's studies professor at Antioch if she ever assigned Camille Paglia. The professor recoiled, "I wouldn't!" Why not? "Because she's the enemy."
In promotional pieces, Antioch billed itself as a "progressive" institution. Accepted applicants were invited to share notes on an online message board called "Radical Chat." Inevitably, Antioch's appeal narrowed to an increasingly esoteric group of progressive-alternative students. When a longtime history professor reminded colleagues that Antioch was a college, not a "boot camp for the revolution," students began wearing “Boot Camp for the Revolution” T-shirts. Eventually this line became a campus credo.
Antioch was now for those who "got it"— the faithful. Antioch gave an increasingly cool reception to anyone— townspeople, alumni, parents, even trustees— who wasn't considered one of us. It made little attempt to communicate with the world beyond its borders.
Antioch's indifference to outside concerns could be seen in the commencement speakers invited by graduating seniors. Those speakers included the convicted police murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal (attracting hundreds of demonstrators, including current and former police officers, as well as widows of slain officers), the former Black Panther Bobby Seale, and— until the interim president intervened— the poseur-professor Ward Churchill. Antioch's commencement speaker this year was Cynthia McKinney, the former Congresswoman best known for wondering aloud if members of the Bush administration had advance knowledge of 9/11 and for slugging a U.S. Capitol police officer.
Wary, secretive and suspicious
The atmosphere on campus grew wary, secretive, and suspicious. Antioch had come to resemble a cult more than a college. Faculty and staff members and students were warned not to discuss sensitive internal matters with outsiders. A highly critical accreditation report was put under lock and key with only a scrubbed précis being circulated on campus. This was stamped INTERNAL DOCUMENT— NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION. Journalists could visit Antioch only when accompanied by a minder, as if this were Moscow University circa 1949.
Antioch's administrative approach could best be termed "management by wishful thinking." Budgets too often were based on anticipated donations that didn't always materialize, and on projected rather than actual enrollment. That approach created internal pressure to manipulate data to conform with desired outcomes. During several years as a financial-aid counselor, Muriel watched fanciful enrollment figures being tossed about. Young Antioch graduates and dropouts who staffed the admissions office worked short days and didn't always return phone calls. Financial-aid awards were often mailed long after competitive colleges had mailed theirs.
Contempt for ‘The pinstripe option’
Even as huge corporations such as IBM and General Electric recognized the need to change their organizational culture in response to painful assessments, Antioch did not. A group of alumni I organized, some of whom were ex-employees, met with one of Antioch's recent presidents to express concerns about the college's management. We were treated like interlopers. During the discussion, this president said that one of the main jobs of Antioch's chief executive was to meet with alumni around the country and "counter" their criticisms of the college. In the midst of an earlier gathering convened to consider how to choose a new president, I suggested that Antioch search outside academy walls — in government, say, or NGOs, or even corporations — for an enlightened, capable executive. This was quickly dubbed "the pinstripe option" and referred to that way throughout the discussion.
Turnover was constant at all levels of Antioch's administration. "Acting" and "Interim" became virtual job titles. In 2006, as Warren Wilson College inaugurated its sixth president in a century, Antioch installed its sixth in barely a decade (including an interim). A trustee told me of observing how little emphasis the college put on job performance, how much on fitting in. After a year of employment, a dean of students returned to the University of Kentucky, having been unable to implement minimal standards of deportment on campus. Students felt this dean did not "understand" Antioch's ways.
On calling Inuits ‘Eskimos’
At a meeting on campus, I got a taste of those ways. Even in the midst of routine discussion, students interrupted each other with angry outbursts. Presumably this was part of "calling each other out," a popular campus pastime ("I'm calling you out as a product of privilege," "I'm calling you out for wearing Nikes," etc.).
After getting called out for calling Inuits "Eskimos," an exchange student from Poland conducted a survey of language taboos among Antiochians. He and a colleague found that anyone thought to have used inappropriate words was liable to be ostracized. One student described being verbally assaulted after she innocently addressed a gay student as a "guy." Many told the surveyors how fearful they were of saying the wrong thing. "If you say something wrong," explained one Antiochian, "other people will have no mercy."
Students were not the only ones being called out. Soon after he arrived on the campus, in early 2006, President Steven W. Lawry received an e-mail message from an Antiochian that said, "Fuck you, asshole." This was not untypical of campus discourse. When the student newspaper asked readers what they would say to a "narc," answers included "Stop snitchin' snitches get stitches," and "Die motherfucker Die."
Granted, that type of gangsta posturing was simply a variation on "Mommy, I said 'Doody!'" Still, it made for a hostile, intimidating campus atmosphere.
The liberal psychologist blanched
One summer I showed a friend from Colorado around my alma mater. When we reached the second floor of Antioch's student union, with its crack-house décor, my friend"” a liberal-minded psychologist"” blanched. What was he thinking, I asked? "That I want to jump on a plane and go home to protect my daughter," he replied.
High-school seniors determined to become Antiochians applied to the college despite its uneven academic program, trashed dorm rooms, graffitied walls, crumbling library and student union that looked as if it had been decorated by John Belushi. Antioch's appearance may have said, "Beware" to parents, but to a certain type of prospective student it said, "Awesome. Anything goes!" Those whom Antioch attracted reinforced and amplified its nihilistic culture, shrinking even further its institutional reach.
I came to see my alma mater as akin to an overspecialized organism that can survive only in a narrow, protected ecological niche. Antioch College had become the snail darter of higher education. By 2007, even as enrollment soared at comparable liberal-arts colleges, Antioch's had fallen to about 300 students.
Fitful attempts by me and others to call attention to problems we considered potentially fatal routinely came up against an attitude familiar to anyone who's raised a teenager: "If you want to help, just send money and butt out." Eventually I came to feel that donating to my alma mater was a form of enabling, like giving spare change to a drunk in the hope that he'll spend it on a bus ride to AA. (For a long time, Muriel and I designated our donations for the library, until we discovered that even funds so earmarked sometimes got used for general operating expenses.)
A ghost campus
I began to have less and less contact with Antioch. Visiting the campus was just too demoralizing. On rare visits, I was struck by the sparsity of human bodies. Occasionally a student would amble from one building to another, or a small clump could be spotted outside a doorway surrounded by clouds of smoke. Other than that: nothing. Antioch had become a ghost campus.
That was what greeted the current president, Steven Lawry, when he came to Antioch from the Ford Foundation last year. Lawry made a concerted effort to right Antioch's ship, to restore some civility to its discourse and coherence to its management. But by then it was too late. The college was already in its death throes.
Most dismaying was how few of those involved were willing to acknowledge Antioch's dysfunctional condition: not the administrators, the faculty members, the trustees, nor local journalists, who swallowed whole Antioch's repeated assurances that things were in hand and on the uptick. As recently as September 2005, Antioch's interim president told a reporter that the college was "on a straight road toward fiscal vitality." That's why so many were so shocked when its board of trustees announced in June that Antioch College would suspend operations in a year's time.♦
To read responses, click here and here.
To me, Antioch's slow-motion decline felt worse than its sudden collapse. When loved ones age and fail over an extended period, their departure can come as a relief. That's how Antioch's actual demise felt: less a shock, more a relief.♦
Ralph Keyes, Antioch Class of 1967, is author of The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life (St. Martin's, 2004) and, most recently, The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (St. Martin's, 2006). This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Chronicle of Higher Education/Chronicle Review.