Revolution #98, August 19, 2007
Who’s Afraid of Antioch College…and Why Are They Trying to Shut It Down?
By a former Antioch student who attended the college during the late 1960s and early 1970s
In late June, Antioch College’s Board of Trustees announced their decision to close the college in 2008. Antioch is well known—and, in the halls of power, hated—for a progressive, open-minded approach to education. Its academic program combines classroom learning with work experience and community involvement. Founded by progressive Christians as a secular college in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Antioch from the beginning sought to include Black people and women among students and faculty. A saying by founder Horace Mann became the school’s watchword: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
I was outraged to hear about the attempt to shut down Antioch. The move to close Antioch is part of the assault on the rebellious legacy of the 1960s—and part of attempts to shut down critical thinking and dissent on campuses today.
Antioch’s influence and significance far outweigh its small size. Among its well-known graduates are scientist Stephen Jay Gould and Coretta Scott King. From its radical anti-slavery roots in the 1850s until today, Antioch has been a school where the emphasis is not on individual career advancement in the corporate world but on service to society.
Antioch’s liberal and critical atmosphere led the House Un-American Activities Committee to scrutinize the school’s faculty during the anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s. In the early- and mid-1960s many Antioch students became involved in the growing civil rights movement. And Antioch students organized campus protests against the Vietnam war. In the late ’60s, radical critiques of capitalist society, including a revolutionary trend, had a big impact among students and teachers at Antioch, and in turn what was going on at Antioch helped spread intellectual and activist ferment in society. In 1970, Antioch students shut down the campus in a strike that was part of a national wave of protest in response to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the murder of student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi.
A campus strike at Antioch in 1973 is often pointed to by critics as “the beginning of the end” of the college. So it is important to set the record straight on what that strike was about. In the spring of 1973, Antioch administrators used government cutbacks in education aid in an attempt to drop the New Directions program that enabled working class and Black students to attend Antioch, along with the grants and loans needed to pay their tuition. Students struck to win back the tuition aid for New Directions students, and they were supported by many faculty and campus workers. The college administration called in state police and sheriff’s deputies to attack the strikers and to forcibly open buildings. Twenty students were expelled and 7 teachers fired. Those students and teachers were eventually reinstated.
Even as the ’60s ebbed, the commitment to social responsibility and critical thinking continued among the faculty, and the school continued to attract students looking for the combination of theory and practical work experience historically associated with Antioch. In 2000 Antioch’s graduating class invited political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal to give the commencement speech (via a pre-recorded tape). This gave rise to a national mobilization of reactionaries who protested at the commencement, calling for Mumia’s execution. In that case, the administration did not back down in the face of reactionary attacks. However, when students chose University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill as the commencement speaker in 2005, then-College president Rick Jurasek intervened to disinvite him. The campaign to go after Churchill had begun earlier that year, led by arch-reactionary David Horowitz. Not only did Jurasek wipe out the Antioch graduates’ choice for speaker, he set a political precedent of “avoiding controversy” and contributed to the witch-hunt against Churchill.
In 1993, the Antioch community adopted a Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. This was a result of campus-wide discussion about “date rape” and how to best handle situations that could lead to date rape. The policy was an attempt by the Antioch community to publicly promote standards that included verbal consent among sexual partners at each stage of intimacy. While date rape is widespread on college campuses, this attempt by students at Antioch to stop it became the subject of ridicule by reactionaries.
Who Is Trying to Close Antioch?
Last year Steve Lawry was appointed as Antioch’s new president. Lawry’s immediate actions were opposed to the historic practice and philosophy of the school. The Yellow Springs News reported last year that Lawry described the student culture on campus as “toxic” (“Lawry challenges campus culture; students troubled,” 9/28/06). He began cracking down on drugs and alcohol, directed the censoring of the student newspaper for the first time in Antioch’s history, and oversaw the suspension of a student for using profanity against an administrator on an Internet forum.
The Board of Trustees couched its closure decision in terms of lack of financial resources and low numbers of student admissions, while Lawry pointed his finger at the students themselves as the cause of the college’s lack of funding. He was quoted in a June 23 New York Times article as saying that the college “became less about intellectual rigor, than a political and social experience… The boot camp of the revolution became the model.”
Recent research into enrollment figures provided to me by an Antioch faculty member shows that Antioch had the highest student enrollment precisely during the most radical years of the late ’60s and early ’70s. And there was a stable and steady enrollment of between 500 and 600 students every year between 1983 and 2003. In 2003 the College announced a “Renewal” plan that imposed changes in the curriculum and work-study programs. And that, in fact, is when the real decline in enrollment began.
The Yellow Springs News reported that in making its decision, the Board of Trustees hired a consulting firm to evaluate the viability of the school. The report by Gateway Consultants Group said the Trustees wanted to suspend school operations in order to give time for a “cleansing of the ghosts that have plagued Antioch’s recruitment efforts since the 1970s.”
Why is it that Antioch cannot be allowed to exist any longer? The spontaneous workings of capitalism do in fact act against institutions like Antioch. The school is not a magnet for programs like the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley sponsored by the global oil monopoly BP. That, in itself, is an indictment of this society. And there are now “facts on the ground” that indeed do pose great challenges to keeping Antioch alive. The Trustees say that some $21 million is needed to maintain the existence of the college.
But there are more fundamental reasons why the powers-that-be want Antioch shut down or drastically redirected. The talk about “toxic culture” and “cleansing of the ghosts” shows that this is about a lot more than the financial bottom line. One question that bears further investigation is the connections of some members of the Antioch Board of Trustees to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies (see sidebar, “Antioch Trustees and the Military-Intelligence Connection”).
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Antioch alumnus Michael Goldfarb took aim at virtually all the supposed excesses and misdeeds of the radical ’60s (“Where the Arts Were Too Liberal,” June 17). Goldfarb attacked (while greatly exaggerating the scope of) affirmative action programs at Antioch that recruited Black and other oppressed nationality students from inner-city schools and ridiculed a roommate who was agonizing over his sexual orientation. He complained that “For the increasingly vocal radical members of the community, change wasn’t going far enough or fast enough.” He went on to blast the 1973 strike by Antioch students and faculty and the anti-date rape policy adopted in the 1990s.
In a commentary widely published on July 16, including in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, reactionary columnist George Will zeroed in on the 1973 strike that, he says, ruined the school. And he also attacked the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy.
I was inspired to become one of the “increasingly vocal radical members of the community” at Antioch in the late ’60s and early ’70s because the world needed radical change. A restless spirit of rebellion against all that was outmoded was combining with rich and ongoing debate and contention over what a different society should be like, bubbling into one of the most invigorating and innovative periods in the whole 20th century. That whole orientation of taking on what is reactionary with a method that merges a spirit of irreverent inquiry and concrete action actually was allowed some breathing room at Antioch in the 1960s and early ’70s. Antioch has been vilified and slandered by the powers-that-be because of that history, and because that history is still upheld by many alumni and current students and faculty.
But it is not just the history of Antioch that is being threatened with extinction. The fate and social significance of Antioch College have suddenly become big issues in the current “culture wars.” The ridicule and slander against Antioch and its students are taking place at a time when critical thinking and dissent on campuses are under broad and serious attack from those like David Horowitz, a right-wing ideologue with close ties to ruling class forces around Bush, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, co-founded by Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney. Using the banner of “academic freedom,” Horowitz has initiated witch-hunts against professors like Ward Churchill, who was recently fired by the University of Colorado. Similarly, Prof. Norman Finkelstein was recently denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago because of his opposition to Israel. In recent years, Horowitz has targeted Antioch on his web site.
These are not disconnected or random events. I urge everyone to read “Warning: The Nazification of the American University” in Revolution #81 (available online at revcom.us), which describes a systematic offensive to cleanse campuses of dissident thinkers, curricula, faculty, and students. The aim is to place severe limits on permissible discourse and to squelch thinking, inquiry, and debate that would challenge and refute the official narratives and explanations of U.S. history and present-day inequality and global lopsidedness. As “Warning…” points out: “If this reactionary program wins out, the university will be turning out students who will have had little, if any, opportunity to think critically, into a society qualitatively more severely repressive than anything seen in this country’s history.”
Antioch’s tradition of turning out students with a commitment to the betterment of humanity, as opposed to a “me first and screw everyone else” outlook, has always been viewed as subversive by those with the reins of power in America. And in the post-9/11 “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” climate, the rulers consider the kind of outlook represented by Antioch a threat to their “homeland” and global empire.
The Fight to Save Antioch
There has been a passionate outcry from alumni, students, and faculty against the plans to close Antioch. At an annual reunion at the end of June, some 500 alumni flocked to the campus to begin a challenge to the threatened closure. Board of Trustee members and top administrators were grilled over the plans. Alumni resolved to create a College Revival Fund and to demand that the Board reverse its decision. Almost half a million dollars was raised in pledges and donations on the spot.
Antioch professor and past Antioch president Bob Devine and another faculty member wrote to Lawry last year: “It is incomprehensible to us to think of our students as comprising a ‘toxic culture.’ The students we have taught, advised, and worked with on various committees, are some of the most caring, committed, conscientious, compassionate, and community-oriented individuals we have ever known.” Devine noted that “The most ‘toxic culture’ I have experienced in my recent years at the College has been the administrative culture of the College.” (Lawry announced in late July that he will resign as president at the end of 2007. It is not clear as of this writing what his reasons are.)
The Board of Trustees says it wants to reopen Antioch College in 2012 with a new financial base and curriculum. But there is great disbelief among alumni, students, and faculty that a “new” Antioch would continue its mission. Alumni are forming committees across the country to mobilize public opinion and financial resources to enable Antioch to stay open with its values intact. At the same time, the Board of Trustees has reiterated that its decision to “suspend” Antioch College operations is “irreversible.”
It would be a huge setback for the people if an institution of higher learning like Antioch College were allowed to be shut down. On the other hand, a vigorous counter-offensive by Antioch alumni, faculty, students, staff and supporters could not only stop the closing but draw greater numbers of people into the crucial society-wide battle to defend critical thinking and the very ability to dissent on campuses and beyond.
For more information, go to www.antiochians.org/, the alumni website that is focused on preventing Antioch’s closure.
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