Old College Try? Meet New College Try

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On a typical college tour, an enthusiastic undergraduate guide will show off the sleek fitness facility, bustling student center, and comfy new dorms. Those are the features at the top of many prospective students’ priority lists. Visitors to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, though, see a very different kind of campus.

The iconic Main Building sits shuttered and dark, ravaged three years ago when frozen pipes burst and flooded it. The gym is functional, though barely, and the science labs need renovation. Just seven of the 25 buildings on the 100-acre campus are up and running, and there’s a large crater in the front lawn where a geothermal system is being installed. The campus is, in short, a work in progress.

So is the college itself. Antioch College shut its doors in the spring of 2008, a victim of dwindling enrollment, physical neglect, and a protracted battle with the board of trustees of Antioch University, a multi-campus system that grew out of the college and eventually ran it. Alumni stepped up to organize, fund-raise, and physically repair the school, and last year the storied institution reopened with 35 students. The class of 2016 will arrive on campus later this month and start coursework in October, bringing the student population to around 100 on a campus that once served 2,400.

When the 75 members of Antioch’s Class of 2016 arrive, they will find a village thrilled to have students in their midst again and a faculty that has doubled in size (from six to 12) since last year. They’ll also find a liberal arts curriculum that has been combined with a Big Idea—the premise that the way human beings live now is unsustainable—and that urges them to find solutions to monumental problems in areas such as health, energy, food, and water. The new curriculum pays respect to Antioch’s legacy as a small liberal arts college with an outsized reputation for producing scholars and progressive activism. It also doubles down on the idea of traditional liberal arts education at a time when dozens of liberal arts colleges are closing or redirecting their mission toward career-oriented programs.

While the school remains unaccredited, the campus under construction, and the financial outlook precarious, the reborn Antioch offers compelling advantages to this handful of students. For one thing, at a time when a college education can run $40,000 a year or more, these Antioch students will attend school tuition-free for four years. They sit in classes of five people instead of auditoriums with hundreds of others. The president of the school, Mark Roosevelt, knows them all by name, and hour-long conversations with faculty are the norm rather than an exception. They alternate semesters of study with work, and by the time they graduate each student will have four semesters of employment experience. Most important, they have a say in nearly everything that happens at the school, from the visitor policy to class schedules to the hiring of new faculty.

“We tell incoming students, ‘We don’t have everything right now and that’s challenging, but it also makes it great,’” says Rachael Smith, a 20-year-old from northern California who’s returning for her second year. Case in point, the gym: the current one is marginal at best, but students are busy designing a new one. “We’re going to figure it out and make it exactly like we want it,” Smith says. “We know that in order to get what we need out of life we need to reach for it and go out and make ourselves heard, communicate and work very hard for it.”

The college has comparatively short time to see if that opportunity is enough—enough to convince prospective students and their parents to pay tuition in a few years; enough to convince alumni to continue to support the school with donations, time, and advice; enough to see if the school can preserve its passion for social justice while shedding its reputation for ideological rigidity. Antioch, in these first years of its rebirth, is both a grand experiment and a gamble. If the administration, faculty, alumni, and students fail to create something that is truly sustainable, they risk seeing Antioch crumble all over again.

 

To be a student at the new Antioch is to be a minor celebrity in the village of Yellow Springs. Located about an hour northeast of Cincinnati, Yellow Springs is a quintessential college town, the kind of place where one can get a tattoo, a tarot-card reading, a vegan meal, and a Peruvian shoulder bag all within a short stroll. Enrollment at the college, which is a few blocks from the heart of the village, had been contracting for years when it finally closed, so the businesses had had time to adapt. But not having Antioch was a psychological blow to the community.

“We all missed the youth and the vitality of the students, and all the activity the college provides,” says Lisa Goldberg, a Yellow Springs native and alumna whose parents taught at Antioch. “The college makes the town much more vital and alive.” Since Antioch reopened, the village has organized potlucks and hung welcome banners; religious students are matched with residents who host them for holidays; and most of the co-op positions held by students so far have been in the community.

When the first students arrived on campus last fall, they found themselves with an unprecedented amount of influence over what Antioch would be. Administrators had set up a schedule that included intensive study of one subject over a few weeks; what that meant in reality was that students had mid-term exams about two weeks after starting a course. They complained, and in a major change that affected class sequences and faculty, the school dropped the schedule in favor of a more traditional one. Another adjustment: The school had planned to offer Portuguese to help with co-op positions in Brazil, but students persuaded administrators to replace it with Japanese. Students also sit in on faculty interviews and help write visitors’ policies, which is not a common practice at most colleges.

That kind of influence is possible because Antioch, despite its rich history, is essentially a start-up, with all the opportunities and challenges that go along with a new venture. Money is a constant concern; the school’s endowment, which helps pay for current students’ tuition, is $44.5 million, far smaller than most liberal arts institutions, which means it can’t afford to spend the $75,000 or more per student that high-end liberal-arts colleges do. That’s led Antioch officials to focus on a narrow mission and do it well, acknowledging what they are not and what they cannot do.

The start-up nature also allows the college to tackle some of the typical challenges of academia in atypical ways. For instance, to bridge the divide that traditionally separates administrations and faculty, many Antioch administrators teach classes (Roosevelt himself hopes to teach courses soon). And faculty participate in budget discussions to better understand how costs affect what the college can do. It’s a new way of operating for everyone, and it takes some getting used to. “When you come into a large department [at other schools] you’re given your classes, your schedule. Here we are everything to everybody,” says Spanish professor Anneris Conia-Navia. “I do wonder maybe what will happen when there’s 40 of us, but if we create that kind of culture I believe that will permeate the entire culture.”

A number of Antioch students have come here because the conventional college experience left them wanting something different. Maryann Otuwa, an incoming sophomore, transferred from a larger university, where she felt overlooked. “I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I was paying all this money and I wasn’t learning anything,” says Otuwa, a petite woman who grew up in Pittsburgh. “I didn’t really know anything about Antioch but the other school was so horrible I just had to get out. Then I got here and I realized this place actually is for me. I fit in.”

There are, of course, some drawbacks to Antioch for these students. Otuwa hopes to become a physician, yet for now she’s got those outdated science labs to contend with. And her current co-op job is in the alumni office—not exactly a pathway to medical school. Two of the original 35 students quit Antioch, leaving just 33 students roaming campus. Otuwa concedes it’s not a conventional college life. “Sometimes we don’t get that experience of wild, crazy frat parties, that kind of thing,” she says. “And when we do try to do something like that, students here aren’t into that. They’d rather sit around and have intellectual conversations about governance.”

Still, that decidedly sober atmosphere didn’t deter applicants for this year’s incoming class. When news of Antioch’s free tuition went viral it prompted more than 3,100 applications, crashing the school’s website. The small staff needed to recruit volunteers to read them all. Administrators boast that Antioch had one of the most selective rates of admission in the country last year, admitting just 5.1 percent of its applicants, compared to Harvard University’s rate of 5.9 percent. The resurrection of Antioch—like so much in its 160-year history—has gotten off to a radical start.  

 

Mark Roosevelt is not one to shrink from a challenge. The great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, he’d been a state legislator in Massachusetts, where he introduced one of the first gay-rights bills in the nation and sponsored massive educational-reform legislation. After his career in politics he took the reins of the beleaguered Pittsburgh public school system, where successes included establishing the Pittsburgh Promise college program and receiving a $40 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

But the Antioch situation would give anyone pause. An animated man, Roosevelt sits perched on the edge of his chair in his book-lined office and ticks off in rapid fire the arguments against coming to Antioch: closed college; physical campus with an enormous to-do list; small endowment; fractious alumni groups emerging from a protracted legal battle. There’s a photo of Roosevelt with President Bill Clinton near the office door, and pictures of Roosevelt’s wife and 6-year-old daughter hang above a desk piled high with books and papers. Roosevelt pulls articles from the stacks to help explain another difficulty: the challenge of recreating a liberal arts college at a time when American liberal arts colleges are closing. “But it was Antioch,” he says, “and in my generation, Antioch meant something pretty resonant.

“I was 55 and I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve had three wonderful work experiences, and I felt like I had one left in me.” And so at the end of 2010 he cast his lot with the soon to be reborn college.

Roosevelt is not the first Antioch president to face drastic financial difficulties and uncertainty. The college’s history is a cycle of booms and busts, closings and triumphs. It opened in 1853 with a woman as a member of its original faculty; women and minorities were welcomed as students long before other institutions of higher learning opened their doors. Antioch’s lofty motto comes from its 1859 commencement speech by Horace Mann, the educational reformer who served as its first president: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” But finances were always a difficult issue, and the school closed three times in its first decades—in 1863, 1882, and 1920—because of insolvency.

By the second half of the 20th century, though, Antioch had found its footing and emerged as a hotbed of student activism; a place that schooled future leaders to be attuned to social justice issues. Coretta Scott King was a graduate, and her husband Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the school’s 1965 commencement address. (Other well-known alumni include The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, U.S. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and two Nobel Prize winners.) During the civil rights movement Antioch students traveled to the South to register voters and protest discrimination. Not surprisingly, Antioch became shorthand for radical youth culture during the Vietnam Era, and the enrollment peaked at around 2,400 in 1972. The turning point came in 1973, when there was a bitter—and sometimes violent—strike over minority student issues. It lasted six weeks; the following year enrollment plummeted, and it never really recovered.

 

During the early 1970s, the college embarked on a ground-breaking effort that would, ironically, sow the seeds for its eventual demise. The school was establishing other campuses across the country, in places like Santa Barbara, California; Keene, New Hampshire; and Seattle—a system of schools (today there are five campuses) that came to be known as Antioch University. The missions of the university and the college diverged, with the university serving older commuter students interested in career-oriented studies, while the college remained focused on younger students and a traditional liberal arts education.

The university system eventually became larger and more profitable than the college, and the perpetually struggling college was seen as a drag on the endowment they shared. Many alumni maintain the university’s board of trustees neglected the college and deferred enormous maintenance needs on the campus as the student body continued to shrink. In 2007 the board announced it would close the college the following year.

Over time, many alumni had drifted away from the school—one told me he’d tried a few years earlier to speak with university officials about the future of the college and was brushed off—but true to their activist roots, when the closure was announced they sprang to action. One group responded by opening the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute in Yellow Springs to continue offering courses. Others opened their wallets (since mid-2007, the school has seen nearly $28 million in donations), and alumni began difficult negotiations with Antioch University to buy the campus and the adjacent Glen Helen nature preserve and to acquire the school’s endowment. In 2009 the $6 million purchase was finalized, and the work of reopening the school began.

Alumni continue to remain committed in sometimes extraordinary ways. Dozens showed up in June to refurbish wood cabinets in the science building, paint the amphitheater, and install eco-sensitive waterless urinals in the main administrative building. The Alumni Work Week preceded the Alumni Reunion, and for many it was a chance to reconnect with the school that helped form them. Though many are retired, others, like Jay Williams, took vacation days to wash light fixtures in the library. “When the college crashed, I felt like a very important part of humanity was lost,” says Williams, a Corryville resident who works as a primate keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo. “And the fact that we’re all working together to bring it back brings hope.” Williams is 60—a veteran of the school’s firebrand era. And when she talks, she still seems to be carrying that fire. “This is revitalizing to work in a community,” she says, “and it’s very important for the spirit to do things like this.”

Roger Husbands, a management consultant who attended Antioch in the early 1960s, had stopped contributing to his alma mater when he decided the university system was no longer interested in the college’s success. But when the alumni took control in 2009 he began donating again, and in May 2011 he told an alumni representative that he could volunteer some time. Husbands made the cross-country trip from his home in Berkeley, California, figuring he’d spend three weeks. He stayed four months, refinishing doors and rewiring light fixtures, trying to bring the campus back to life. He was back again in June for Work Week, and he plans to continue his efforts as long as he can.

“At Antioch I was taught to think, which is different than learning how to take tests,” says Husbands, who was an actuarial consultant and a music producer before going into consulting. “The kids I see today are at a loss because they don’t know how to figure things out. Our country used to be a place where people looked at what was going on in life and figured out how to address our problems, and we’ve lost that.”

There is an alternate theory behind the demise of Antioch College that has little to do with divergent priorities, mismanagement, and neglect. Some believe the school became a victim of its political reputation, trapped in a set of radical ideologies it was unable to shed even as the country’s direction shifted.

Two incidents convinced many critics that Antioch was hopelessly outside the mainstream. The first was its 1991 sexual conduct policy, which required explicit verbal consent (“May I touch your breast now?”) from both parties for every increasing level of intimacy—a regulation that made the college the butt of late-night comedy monologues. The second was the invitation issued to convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal to be its commencement speaker in 2000. There were cheers in some corners when Antioch closed; Washington Post columnist George Will called an Antioch education “repressive liberalism unleavened by learning,” and found the school’s closure “heartening.”

Even with the school reopened, there remains some tension between the Antioch of old—remembered fondly by the alumni who are donating their time and money—and the new Antioch, which seeks to honor the past but not be held hostage by it. Roosevelt chooses his words carefully as he expounds on the tension.

“In truth we’re very proud of Antioch’s long history of being involved in social justice issues, unequivocally,” he says. “Perhaps at times the campus wasn’t as diverse, ideologically and intellectually, as a liberal arts college should be. Perhaps at times it was not a place where exploration was given to alternative ways of looking at the world other than the one on the left. That being said, we’re not neutral on some things and we don’t pretend to be.”

One example: the college’s focus on sustainability. “We want students to understand multiple points of view on the use of oil or drilling, but we begin with the premise that the way we live in America today is not sustainable and we believe Antioch is a place where people come together to explore new and better ways of living,” Roosevelt tells me. “Where we want to be completely nonjudgmental is how you put meat on those bones. Founding for-profit enterprises that both employ people and produce green technologies is a spectacular thing. We’re equipping our students to be problem-solvers and we would like them to go out and problem-solve on some of the biggest problems we face.”

Clearly, the new Antioch isn’t running short on idealism. And it appears the newest students have come to appreciate Antioch’s history. But they say the college is a different place now, with room for people of all political persuasions. Guy Mathews works in the admissions office and says he wants to persuade conservative, moderate, and liberal students to come to the school. “It’s not about liberal and conservative, it’s about finding the best solution,” he says. “Antioch has a history of liberalism, but we’re not the same school coming out of the ashes, and we don’t want to be the same school.” Adds second-year student Rachael Smith: “We want to keep those connections [to the old Antioch]. The history is so rich, and we’re all really thankful for that rich history, but the school closed before. We don’t want that to happen again; we want it to be an environment that’s challenging and we need diversity—ideological diversity, diversity of opinion.”

And of course, setting the right political tone is only one item on a long list of Antioch’s to-do list. There are students to recruit for the Class of 2017; classes to develop and instructors to hire; co-op jobs to line up across the country and around the world. There is money to raise and accreditation to earn, which first requires that the school graduate a class. Above all there is the physical repair to the campus; the college anticipates doing more than $40 million in capital improvements over the next five years, with more to come after that. Antioch has pledged to renovate with sustainability in mind, and North Hall, at the age of 159, is believed to be the oldest building in the country that meets Gold LEED standards. But sustainable renovation is an expensive process, and the costs must be balanced against the college’s other needs.

There is also the stark issue of demographics and the race against time it creates. Antioch’s heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s means that its largest, most committed alumni classes are in their 60s and 70s now. They are well-positioned to donate both the money Antioch needs to fulfill its mission and the time to refurbish cabinets and paint classrooms. “I don’t know of other places where that kind of thing happens,” says Roosevelt. Without their dedication, he maintains, the school wouldn’t exist. 

The alumni who gathered in Olive Kettering Library in June to clean and rewire light fixtures said they planned to be back again next year to continue work on the school. But they won’t be around forever. Roger Husbands, who drove cross-country last year and spent four months helping out on the campus, figures there is a five- to 10-year window to get the school back on its feet; after that the essential support from alumni will drop precipitously simply because the numbers are so much smaller.

Husbands and other alumni say they hope next year—and for many years after that—to find a school that has increased both its enrollment and its educational offerings, repaired its campus, and restored its financial stability. They hope to avoid a wrenching repeat of the crisis four years ago, when they thought their alma mater might be gone forever. They hope as a legacy that they can win this “victory for humanity”—that the school where they learned to think and live can continue to teach others for decades to come.

And if the effort fails? The loss, they maintain, would echo far beyond the bucolic village of Yellow Springs.

“What we’d lose,” says Husbands, “is what’s going on in the whole educational system, where we’re losing liberal arts colleges. There’s something that happens in small liberal arts colleges like Antioch that produces another way of thinking and addressing the issues in our lives.” As a culture, he says, “We’re training people to do specific tasks and removing so much of the creativity from education.” And Antioch is nothing if not creative.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue.

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