Why did Antioch College fail? The announcement that the celebrated college in Yellow Springs, Ohio would be closing its doors in July 2008 sent a collective shudder through the academic establishment. Corporations go bankrupt, automobile manufacturers and commercial airlines go bankrupt, but not prominent colleges—and certainly not one founded by Horace Mann (1796-1859), the “Father of American Education.” In all the speculation about what went wrong at Antioch runs a distinct current of apprehension: it can’t happen again—or can it?
A consensus has already emerged that Antioch was the victim of its own progressive agenda. And indeed, from its inception in 1852, Antioch has been assertively progressive, accepting female students and—after 1863—black ones as well. During the 1920’s it established an innovative cooperative education program, giving students practical work experience. Later it was one of the first schools to abolish traditional letter grades in favor of “narrative evaluations.” It was this varied and intense liberal-arts education that produced such alumni as Coretta Scott King, Rod Serling, and Stephen Jay Gould.
Over the past decade, however, Antioch’s progressive politics became something of a national laughingstock. Accounts of its closing invariably cite its notorious rules for sexual conduct, which mandated verbal consent at each stage of escalating intimacy (helpfully explaining that “A person can not give consent while sleeping”). Less amusing was the commencement speaker chosen by Antioch’s class of 2000, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death for murdering a Philadelphia policeman and who delivered his commencement address from his cell on death row. National outrage over this event clearly contributed to plummeting enrollments. Only 125 students were accepted this year out of an expected class of 309. These declining numbers, and its relatively small endowment of $36 million, spelled the end of Antioch.
Of course, Antioch is hardly the only school to launch a sexual inquisition or to open its doors to embarrassing speakers: liberal-arts colleges such as Oberlin and Swarthmore similarly pride themselves on their progressive politics and activism. Nor is it the only school to teeter along on a woefully inadequate endowment (one thinks of perennially troubled Bennington). But somewhere along the line Antioch crossed a threshold, its radical aura drawing an ever more radical student body, which radicalized it still further, until the process became a death spiral.
A poignant op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Goldfarb, a student at Antioch from 1968 to 1971, illuminates the beginning of that process. “[O]ut there in the middle of the cornfields,” Goldfarb writes, “the only ‘bourgeois’ thing to fight was Antioch College itself,” and a devastating student strike in the early 1970’s “trashed the campus.” A year later, enrollments had fallen by half. Those who remained became increasingly conformist and homogeneous:
In two decades students went from being practitioners of free love to prisoners of gender. Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came.
Perhaps that Essene sense of purity was there from the beginning. In a perceptive essay, Peter Wood of the Manhattan Institute calls attention to Horace Mann’s own verdict on the good inhabitants of Yellow Springs: “souls so small that a million sprinkled on a diamond would not make it dusty.”