Despite the efforts of its alumni, and the indignation of its students, Antioch College is closing its doors next summer. The college’s board of trustees voted to “suspend operations” next July in hopes of reopening the school in four years. Remaining students will be allowed to finish their degrees at an adult-education facility in Yellow Springs.
Antioch has had a reputation for being progressive since its founding. Its first president was Horace Mann, who provided the school with its motto (“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”) and directed that the school admit women and, roughly one hundred years before the civil rights movement, blacks. In recent years, it has been known for less noble manifestations of liberalism.
In the 1990s, the school made headlines with its oft-mocked “Sexual Offense Prevention Policy,” which mandates that consent be given at every stage of sexual activity and includes helpful guidelines such as “silence is not consent” and “a person can not give consent while sleeping.” According to the Antioch Survival Guide, a college manual distributed to incoming students, “the spirit of the [sexual offense] policy is YES… This spirit is about a fully affirmative YES. Not an ambiguous yes, or a ‘well-not-really- but-ok-I-guess yes,’ certainly not a ‘silent-no ‘yes,” or an ‘ouch’ or ‘yuck-but-I’m-afraid-to-hurt-your-feelings yes.’ This is about YES, UM HUM, ABSOLUTELY, YIPPEE YAHOO YES!” The Survival Guide also provides step-by-step, heavily illustrated instructions for what the writers refer to as “safer sex,” topics ranging from condom use to dental dams.
Antioch more recently gained infamy for choosing death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal as its 2000 commencement speaker. Jamal, who was sentenced to death for killing Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner, delivered his address via video recording. On campus, identity politics thrives: the Queer Center, “open to self- defined lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgendered, and queer people”; the Jew Crew (“to provide a safe space for self-identifying Jewish students”); the Third World alliance (dedicated to the “organized and committed struggle” against “colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism”; and the Women’s Center whose office, Womenspace, is closed to men unless “open hours for the larger community are established.”
The burning question is, of course, why is Antioch closing? There’s been a fair amount of finger pointing, notably on the college’s message boards, where posters are murmuring darkly about poor leadership and “crass money-grasping and corporate marketing.” In a question and answer session posted on the college’s website, the expected enrollment for the 2007-2008 school year was 302 students, in contrast to the 577 enrolled in the fall of 2002. In response to questions about the cause of falling enrollment, the document stated, “Some people would point to the condition of the College’s facilities, some would point to the poor results of fund-raising, some would point to the difficulties imposed by the Renewal Plan, and some would point to the campus culture.”
Antioch suffers more than a dearth of students. Despite the alumni’s last-ditch efforts to raise money in recent weeks, the school has stated that alumni giving has not increased in several years. Antioch’s endowment is around $32 million, compared to almost as liberal Oberlin’s $700 million. If Antioch is so relevant, so permissive, so downright hip, why aren’t students and dollars flocking to the campus? Isn’t the Antioch experience what young America wants?
This is the problem that no one at Antioch wants to admit: What the college offers is not, in fact, what most of young America wants. Antioch provides an infinitely customizable education with low standards. Students create their own majors, spawning such degrees as Community, Self, and Body, Harmony and Peace through Music, and Gestural Arts. These individualized majors include at least a year’s worth of work experience instead of more traditional schooling.. There are no grades, only narrative evaluations where professors are responsible for “considering their students’ work and responding to it” and “students are responsible for setting their priorities.” Activism in the form of protests is openly encouraged. The Survival Guide devotes an entire section to advice on conducting a successful protest, ranging from writing important phone numbers in permanent ink on your body in case of arrest to submitting a list of the names and numbers of all protesters to the Antioch College Community Government office. Antioch provides a world of boundless choices and little or no consequences, and students are voting with their feet.
In its quest to be inclusive and relevant, Antioch has made itself irrelevant. Students looking to acquire marketable skills go elsewhere. Those interested in a chance to rigorously explore classical thought can seek out the growing Great Books programs at other campuses. But these programs are academically serious, while in Antioch’s permissive environment, there are no right or wrong answers, only interesting ones.
Perhaps the students and friends of Antioch should bear in mind the words of William Wordsworth, whose poem “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room” explores the seeming paradox of freedom within confinement. The poet muses that nuns, hermits, weavers, and, yes, even students “with their pensive citadels” find freedom and joy within the strict limits of their craft. Wordsworth himself finds this contentment within the strict confines of the sonnet and remarks that he will be pleased “if some Souls (for such there needs must be)/ who have felt the weight of too much liberty,/ should find brief solace there, as I have found.”
We work the hardest for those that ask the most of us, and, to those who ask for little, we respond with less. In the end, it seems that Antioch tried so hard to maintain political correctness and eschew academic standards that it became uninteresting to thrill seekers, who can easily find a wilder experience elsewhere, and irrelevant to earnest students, who are looking for something a little more substantial. Perhaps students oppressed by the weight of too much liberty are shunning the hallowed halls of Antioch’s Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus and seeking more disciplined shores.