From The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/29/07
After years of ignoring financial realities, Antioch College failed while its more-commercial branches survived
On a recent Friday morning, the grounds of Antioch College were littered with white body bags. The campus was ghostly quiet. Men with guns, in full SWAT gear, crept around the college's crumbling buildings, looking for imaginary terrorists. Actors, covered in fake blood, writhed on the ground and wailed for help.
The disaster drill came three days after the college said it would close. The coincidence wasn't lost on Antiochians. Signs posted on buildings read: "This is a mock event to test local first responders, and in no way is to be confused with the recent announcement of the suspension of operation at Antioch College."
Once a prominent countercultural institution, Antioch is a wreck today. The campus looks almost abandoned. Bricks on buildings are spalling, steel-cased windows are decades old and rusting, and weeds push through cracks on buckling asphalt walkways.
Antioch has been hemorrhaging money for years. Its Board of Trustees has decided to shutter the college by July 2008 and lay off most of its 160 staff and faculty members. Although the administration has vowed to reopen the college in 2012, the challenges to do so will be immense.
Antioch has given the world an innovative and much-imitated educational style, based on unabashedly progressive politics and hard work. Its alumni include prominent and daring figures — people like Rod Serling, Stephen Jay Gould, and Coretta Scott King. The college breathes life into Yellow Springs, a jewel of a bohemian community.
So the question is: While so many other poorly financed, little-known liberal-arts colleges stumble on, why has Antioch crashed to the ground?
Over the decades, Antioch had many opportunities to secure its financial future. But raising money and building an endowment were never given the attention such activities get at other elite colleges. A full-time development office was established at the campus only in the past year. Antioch's missionary zeal also diffused the institution's energy and focus. At the height of the college's influence, it established satellite campuses across the country, where graduate students and adult learners attend classes in rented office parks.
If Antioch returns in 2012, people wonder if it will be anything like the Antioch College of old, or more like the programs of Antioch University, which specializes in adult education and hires nontenured faculty members.
In any case, the Antioch that alumni, professors, and others in academe knew may be gone for good. "I mourn the loss of a school that was willing to buck the trend of a unifying, commercially driven, consumer-driven model of higher education," says Colin S. Diver, president of Reed College, which also appeals to nonconformists but is financially secure, with a $385-million endowment.
For Antioch, money has always been a problem.
There is a story among Antiochians that around the 1920s, the industrialist and engineer Charles Kettering offered the college a fortune to establish an endowment. But Arthur Morgan, a much-loved past president, turned him down, saying that the college would be sharper if it relied on tuition generated from student work.
The story is apocryphal, but Morgan did play down the importance of raising an endowment in favor of other projects on the campus, says Scott Sanders, Antioch's historian and archivist.
"There is this endemic thing with us and money," he says, going way back to the early days of Horace Mann, the founding president. "He would take IOU's for his salary, get paid lecture fees all over Ohio, and put them into the college coffers."
The college has been bailed out numerous times in its history. A sign in the main building honors the many good deeds of the timber magnate Leo Drey — among them, his lending the college $3.2-million from 1977 to 1982 to keep it from closing.
Steven W. Lawry, who has been president of Antioch College for little more than a year, says there was never a solid focus on fund raising among the board members or alumni, and no momentum in building an endowment, which now totals $36-million. Instead, he says, the college relied on tuition and contributions from Antioch University campuses for its income — which proved an inherently unstable model.
Antioch has also always run counter to mainstream attitudes. It was one of the first colleges to enroll women and African-Americans, a history that was cause for celebration.
But in recent years the political climate on the campus had become toxic, Mr. Lawry says.
Mr. Lawry, who came from the Ford Foundation, says that by the time he arrived, the college was in the grip of radically leftist students, intolerant of other views. "It chased off students and had a deleterious effect," he says. "The adults were looking the other way."
When Mr. Lawry interviewed at Antioch, he met a student who was Asian and gay, who had come to Antioch from Hamilton College, in New York, seeking a more welcoming environment. "He said, 'There is a narrow range of political opinion that I'm able to express,'" Mr. Lawry recounts. By the time Mr. Lawry started as president, that student had returned to Hamilton.
The student paper accepted announcements containing anonymous, menacing threats against other students for their political views. Students claimed the announcements were unedited and a form of free speech, Mr. Lawry says. He stopped the practice. One student was roughed up for wearing Nike shoes, Mr. Lawry says, because his assailants assumed they were made with sweatshop labor. That student left. So did a young woman who told Mr. Lawry that she couldn't handle the pressure of the campus's politically correct climate. "They all think they are so different, but they are just a bunch of conformists," she told him.
News-media attention to such radicalism could not have helped the college's public image and efforts to grow. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row for the killing of a police officer, had been a commencement speaker, via audiotape, in 2000, which angered some alumni and the public. A sexual-offense-prevention policy in the mid-1990s, which required specific "verbal consent" for every step of intimacy, became a butt of jokes.
Decaying and Divided
If the political attitudes did not scare off students, the decrepit facilities did. Over the years, the college could not keep up with maintenance of its buildings. The residence halls, with group showers and inconsistent Internet access, are a generation behind buildings at other colleges. Many point to the cafeteria as the nadir of the Antioch experience — resembling a school lunchroom, it is open at limited hours with terrible food, current and former students say.
But perhaps the most damaging element was a confused and contradictory identity: Antioch was a house divided.
Mr. Sanders says that in the 1960s, when Antioch's enrollment and influence were at their height, administrators believed that the liberal-arts college was a dying institution, and decided to establish various campuses focused on adult education and graduate programs. Many alumni believe that was the beginning of the end. "There was a diffusion of energy, without question," says Art Zucker, chairman of the Board of Trustees.
The network of campuses grew to more than 30, but then shrank to the five nonresidential programs today in California, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Washington State.
Those campuses grudgingly used their profits to support the college, a financial structure Mr. Lawry finds untenable. "What is this, McDonald's?" he says. "This is not a way to finance an institution."
To see the contrast between the old Antioch College and the new Antioch University, one need look no farther than across the street. Antioch University McGregor, one of the campuses for adult learning, more or less competes directly with Antioch College, preventing it from offering adult-education programs.
The two campuses missed many opportunities to help each other. Recently, McGregor borrowed money to expand and build a new facility. That facility could have been built on the college's campus, where there is ample room. College students could have used it during the day and McGregor students at night and on weekends.
Instead, despite outcry from faculty members at both institutions, the facility was built in a cornfield on the edge of Yellow Springs, on land that the town offered McGregor to keep it from moving toward Dayton, 20 miles to the west. The new building resembles a Courtyard by Marriott and has little connection, aesthetically or otherwise, to old Antioch College.
Antioch College has long been a trailblazer in higher education. Students do not get grades, but a thorough evaluation of their class work. The college was one of the originators of cooperative education, in which students alternate between class work and employment in paid jobs.
But in recent years the college has ridden on reputation alone. It has gone through five presidents since 1994. In 1997 it set an enrollment goal of 800 students, which it did not meet. In 2003, with enrollment at 571 and the college having run annual deficits of up to $1-million for a decade, the Board of Trustees set up a "renewal plan." Part of that plan included revamping the curriculum to focus on "learning communities" — a trendy, team-teaching approach that was to increase the student-to-teacher ratio. (The plan would have raised the ratio to 15 to 1, from 7 to 1.)
Faculty members doubted that a curriculum change was needed, but they worked hard to redesign courses anyway. Board members said they expected to be able to endure five years of deficits to let the plan produce results.
But projections were off. Enrollment dropped to 377 in 2005, with only 60 freshmen entering and no students transferring in. Then enrollment dropped again to 330 in 2006, and to 307 this fall. Deficits proved to be more drastic than expected, Mr. Zucker says. Two years into the new curriculum, facing a deficit of $5.4-million, the board pulled the plug on the college.
Those who work at Antioch College are fiercely devoted to the place and to its mission, and have sacrificed to work here. The 40 or so faculty members are among the lowest paid in the country, and their pay ranks at the bottom within the Great Lakes Colleges Association, which includes 12 Midwestern institutions, such as DePauw University, Oberlin College, and Wabash College.
Antioch professors have sacrificed opportunities, too. Christine Smith, an associate professor of psychology, was granted tenure 28 hours before the college announced it would close. "If I'd known it would be so short, I would have celebrated more," she says. In 2003 she left a job at Minnesota State University at Moorhead to come to Antioch, where she had always dreamed of working.
"I had wonderful students at Moorhead, but a good percentage of them were there to get a degree," she says. "My students at Antioch were there because they love to learn."
In 2005 she saw the college's slide and went back on the market, landing offers at Chicago State and Nova Southeastern Universities. But she could not bring herself to leave. Now she is back on the market again.
As a young professor, she is more fortunate than others. Some older Antioch professors feel that they are not marketable, yet they cannot afford to retire. Some have teenage children and were counting on a benefit that offers free tuition at any of the 12 institutions in the Great Lakes Colleges Association.
"We're screwed," says Denise Eagleson, an associate professor of photography. "There are a lot of faculty who are about six years before retirement who have been here many years and have made the place the center of our lives. It's the kind of place that demands a lot and doesn't provide a lot of time for faculty development."
Support-staff members at the college wonder about their future, too. Nancy M. Wilburn, executive assistant to Mr. Lawry, cannot hold back tears when she contemplates her life in a year. "I'm a single woman with a mortgage, I need health insurance, the whole nine yards," she says. "And I love this place. I don't want to see it go."
Faculty members held a meeting recently to discuss their options. Some brought up the possibility of legal action against the board and the college. David LaPalombara, a professor of art at Antioch, says some of his colleagues turned down jobs based on the assurance that they would have years to make the new curriculum work.
Mr. LaPalombara did not wait around. Before the closing announcement, he landed a job as the director of the School of Art at Ohio University. He and his wife, Catherine, who is a professor of management at Antioch, will move to Athens, Ohio. They hope they can sell their house before a glut of homes hits the market.
'Running on Fumes'
The closing of Antioch may hurt the bohemian community that surrounds it.
Antioch is the largest employer in Yellow Springs, a town of about 3,500. Vernay Laboratories, a manufacturer of rubber products that was started by an Antiochian, laid off 200 people and left town in 2003.
Yellow Springs stays alive by attracting shoppers and tourists from all over Ohio, who come to bask in the avant-garde atmosphere. It has upscale shops, a wine bar, an art-house theater, two stores that sell an array of hookahs and bongs, and lots of places where you can buy bumper stickers with slogans like "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries."
Josie Inslee, who manages a boutique that sells women's apparel, says students and faculty members are not part of her customer base, but she still worries about how the closing might harm the town. "Springers," as locals are sometimes called, have barely passed tax levies to keep basic services open.
"We're running on fumes," she says. "We can't pay our cops, we can barely maintain our roads. What worries me is that we are going to have derelict buildings in the middle of the community. The village needs Antioch College."
Some people in the town have always expected Antioch College to go on, despite its obvious problems. Corinne Pelzl, a local alumna who is a descendant of one of the founders of Antioch, is adamant that the college will reopen. "At many, many other places, in my view, making money is valued ahead of creativity in service," she says.
But Antioch must make money to reopen. Tullisse A. Murdock, chancellor of Antioch University, says the college will try to raise $50-million, although it's not clear how. Past campaigns have fallen short of their goals — a recent $60-million campaign raised only about $45-million. If the college raises the money, part of it will be used to knock down buildings on the campus. They may be replaced with updated facilities, a conference center, or moderately priced housing, which would provide income for the college, Ms. Murdock says.
She vows that the college will return, but the shape it will take is unclear. She says that the college and the university programs will work together more closely and share faculty members. Professors within the Antioch University system do not have tenure; professors at the college have worried that it will follow suit. Faculty members at McGregor would not talk to The Chronicle about the college's closing or its future, fearing that to do so could put their jobs in jeopardy.
Ms. Murdock doesn't know if tenure will be offered at the reinvented Antioch. "I think we'll do what's best for the longevity of the institution," she says.