Wednesday, June 20, 2007

RIP: Antioch College

There is no rule that a college or a university has to last forever, but I find the closing of Antioch College a little sad. Signs indicate that the expansion to a university with satellite campuses that will survive the closing of the original residential college may have been overambitious, which only makes the loss of this radical educational vision even worse, in my view. A liberal arts college will disappear leaving a cash-driven degree mill in its wake. Antioch alum Cary Nelson (the other Tenured Radical) has this post at Inside Higher Ed, and there are a variety of comments attached to it, many of which seem to be saying "good riddance to bad rubbish."

The view that Antioch's time had passed seems to follow two strains of thought. One is that Antioch's radicalism and out-of-the-box educational philosophy was so retro, noxious and impractical that its loss should be celebrated. A commenter cites as proof of this a diversity mural at the college that (shockingly!) had no white men in it, although some of us might argue that this might have been an ironic point the artist was trying to make -- that you notice when the white men have been removed from a visual representation, and your outrage tells you something about what you are privileging as an artistic or social vision. And I am curious about whether these angry white men ever get it that the only time they seem to be ripshit about the failure of diversity is when they are left out, and that the loss of Antioch, as Nelson suggests, is probably a larger blow to diversity.

The other premise draws on the marketplace theory of education that has given us vouchers, charter schools, for-profit public schools and No Child Left Behind, ideas that have failed to transform secondary education a jot except by turning it over to the testing industry. In other words, if students or their parents don't want to buy it in sufficient quantities to ensure a healthy profit, it's no good. If Antioch failed, it failed for a good reason related to mismanagement or its own lack of vision. The people have chosen.

I have very little to say about Antioch that is knowledgeable about the institution, but I've known some amazing people who went there, a number of whom were older women of color who had gotten involved in community organizing and parlayed that into an opportunity to go to college. However, assuming that Antioch's demise represents some higher education version of Lani Guinere's "canary in the coal mine," I would argue that there a few things we need to fear.

The first is that higher education is becoming more homogenous. It is harder and harder to put together a list of colleges or universities and claim that they are really distinct from one another, except in terms of location, size, fees, specialties that they may offer in the arts or sciences, and/or the reputations of particular departments in their fields. Schools that used to be distinct in their outlook and pedagogical philosophy have either gone out of business (Antioch); become a business (Bennington, the Union); or have consciously moved to the middle (Zenith, the New School, Pitzer.)

The second is that we cannot continue supporting private or public education through tuition payments, whether that tuition is paid fully by those who can afford it or by loans, grants and scholarships for those who can't afford it. Higher education is a necessary resource, not a luxury or a business. Whether it is an Antioch -- a school that must have been heavily tuition-driven -- or a Zenith, where full payers who are paying close to 45K a year are still not paying what it costs to educate them, education is in a perilous place if we keep expecting it to pay for itself and respond to what the "market" demands. The market usually demands a certain kind of conformity of thought, whether you are talking video games or publishing; and sure, a new idea can shift that paradigm, but the outcome is often a new conformity that is sustained by those who want to profit from it until yet another new idea causes it to be abandoned.

A great society creates an atmosphere where creativity is valued for itself, and where ideas, and the institutions that sustain critical thought, can sustain their traditions whether they are on the margins or on the mainstream. As David Palumbo-Liu once wrote in an article called "Universalisms and Minority Cultures" (differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 7:1: 188-208), margin and mainstream ought not to be seen as competitive with each other, but rather as in productive tension, in which each is necessary to the other and the circulation of ideas from majority positions, to minority positions, and back again, is a sign of a healthy political culture.

I don't know whether these issues will be addressed any time soon, but we needed Antioch, and there should have been some way to sustain its vision of multi-generational, pragmatic, radical undergraduate education.


Susan said...

I've been thinking a lot about Antioch for the past week, for all the reasons you mention, but also because I teach at what was once a progressive student centered institution in Ohio. I mention the state because the Ohio Board of Regents conducts strict oversight of institutions within the state, and I'm increasingly convinced that it is impossible for a progressive institution to survive in that state. The forms that are required to be authorized to operate in Ohio all assume (and require) a "banking" model of education.

I'm sure it's not just the state, of course, and many of the other issues you mention are part of it. One of the problems with educational experiments is not all of them work. I am told that the branches of Antioch U.suffer from having to pay heavy fees to the central institution to use the name: faculty have heavy teaching loads and relatively low pay.

But I think one of the dimensions of education that many faculty do not pay attention to is how state regulation -- not just accreditation or federal policies -- enable or disable certain kinds of educational experiments. I don't know how my home state functions in this sense. It's one of the more invisible dimensions of government. The homogenization of higher ed (and all education) is fostered by narrow conceptions of accountability. This is the larger political and institutional context in which we work. And it falls more (needless to say) on the less elite institutions. What I haven't figured out is what frameworks/groups exist to take on this dimension of the attempt to eliminate experimentation.

Thanks for reminding us about this.

squadratomagico said...

I will be thinking for a long time about the comments you make regarding the homogenization of education. I am sorry to hear, from you and others, that Zenith is becoming more middle-of-the-road, and I fear to see all undergraduate education increasingly conform to one bland model. (One I know intimately: I don't call my own employer "Office Park University" for nothing.) One of the most powerful experiences of my life was leaving my boring suburban high school and finding, once I entered college, a true sense of community for the first time. Moving, as you put it, from the mainstream to the margins was empowering for me. What sorrowful things will happen to a culture with no margins?

Tim Lacy said...

TR: Great post. Ditto. Since learning of Antioch many moons ago, I haven't experienced any "I wish I'd gone there!" moments, but it still pains me - personally somehow - that the institution has struggled and is on its way out. As you said, we need to really think about more public funding for struggling, unique institutions. - TL

Anonymous said...

Antioch was seen by many in pacific NW as an alternative to going to Reed or Evergreen. I am sure for them, as for me, it will be missed.

anthony grafton said...

It's true, a great convergence is taking place, accelerated by the passion so many schools clearly have to climb up the US News Ladder, to steal one another's star scientists and scholars, and to reject as many 18-year-olds as possible. And the loss of Antioch, alma mater of Clifford Geertz and so many other wonderful people, is a heartbrakingly big step towards

This process really is happening, and at a lot of places. In my 32 years (32 years!) at Princeton, it's changed from a very strange but very distinctive place, focused on undergraduate teaching--a place where teaching loads were heavy, salaries were modest, and senior faculty regularly ran discussion sections in junior colleagues' courses, to a research university focused on producing new knowledge--a place much more like other research universities.

We retain some peculiar institutions, like the senior theses required of all arts and science graduates. But the scale and feel of the place are much less unusual than they used to be, and I'm sure colleagues at many other schools have witnessed similar changes.

Zach said...

Thanks for writing about this, TR.
I grew up not too far from Yellow Spring, Ohio, and Antioch heavily recruited me when I was in high school. It seemed like a pretty cool place, but I did want to go to "the best cool place," also known as "the best academically of the places that are weird enough for me to consider attending." That was Zenith.
I did one of Antioch's study abroad programs, though, with many of the other students coming from Antioch College. I heard horror stories about dorms closed because of toxic mold, and other, in-use dorms that were also moldy. I heard about uncertainty over the school's future and very low graduation rates. I also heard about amazing opportunities to go off and learn by working and the large percentage of students receiving financial aid to attend.
Antioch's study abroad programs are unlike any other that I've seen, valuing work by academics, artists, and activists equally. We were given huge amounts of independence, and the Antioch students seemed to take this for granted. I, used to more structure, had a harder time, and I remember wishing for more guidance in my research.
The independence I learned from Antioch helped me when it came time to write my thesis. Yet I needed the advising support that some at Zenith are so great at giving and that Antioch didn't see as its role.
Nu? Antioch had some terrific attributes, and I'm sad, though unsurprised, that it's going. I hope Zenith can pick up a few of those attributes and become a little more like what we're losing.

Margaret said...

Beautiful post. You've given me much to think about.

Anonymous said...

Antioch can bounce back, if her alumni will pony up. Unfortunately, not too many of them have what are commonly known as “jobs.”

Anonymous said...

As a proud graduate of Antioch College, I take offense to Adena's comment that our alumni do not have "jobs".
I can assure you that the educational program at Antioch, which includes an alternating sequence of class room and "co-op" work experience, prepares students for successful careers in a variety of fields.
Our founder, Horace Mann, left us with a legacy, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
As a result, Antiochians make substantial contributions to our society as doctors, lawyers, authors, film makers, scientists, politicians, teachers, journalists, social workers, community organizers, artists, etc. For myself, I have worked for the last 10 years as an advocate and community educator/trainer at an agency serving domestic violence victims.
Adena is correct however, that Antioch College can "bounce back" with alumni involvement.
At our recent reunion (two weeks following the announcement of the closing), the Antioch College Alumni Asssociation established an indepedent "College Revival Fund" for the purpose maintaining uninterupted operations of Antioch College. In addition, the Alumni Board was instructed to negotiate with the Antioch University Board of Trustees for the establishment of an autonomous Board of Trustees for Antioch College.
In a little over a months time we have raised over $625,000 and there are expressions of interest in contributing to a revived, self-governed Antioch College that are in excess of $2 million.
In addition to fundraising, our very skilled alumni are engaging in research, developing business plans, working on public relations and a variety of other areas necessary to support our goal.
I am honored to be associated with such dedicated, creative and talented (and employed) group of people.

Please take a look at for more information about our efforts to continue this historic and vital institution in higher education.

-megan (class of 1997)

Anonymous said...


gosh megan could you have been any more typically antiochian? hahaha. (I apologize to anyone who didn't attend antioch in the 90's, for the above.)

Yes it is true, Antioch College can bounce back, although apparently hitting up us 'jobless' former students for 50million dollars was the best idea the university could come up with. Or so a recent fund raiser extorting me to 'be ashamed' to not pony up my 'share' of said 50 million would have led me to believe.

Even way back in the distant days of the early 90's it was apparent that a strategic campgain of financial mismanagement, and adminstratorial abuse was underway, with this as the inevitible outcome. We were all pretty darn sure that the university was trying to kill the college, but hey, what did a bunch of punk kids know?

As one of the legion of antioch dropouts, I have violently mixed feelings about what has gone down. On one hand I have such love for my fellows, and comrades such as we were, no matter our youthful delusions about how to change our world. On the other hand... the closest I can come to describing the experience of attending antioch over a decade ago, is to recommend watching the entire run of "The Prisoner" on DVD straight through, all 22 hours with no breaks.

I couldn't imagine having wanted to attend any other school at the time, and all the same I was quite relieved to have been quit of the place.

I apologize for the rant, in what seems to be a lofty discussion of the effect of antioch's closing on the rest of progressive educationdom, you'll just have to be 'offended'

some guy

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