Antioch College, a reflection

So, a bit more about me. A little before I turned twenty, I enrolled at Antioch College, a small liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Now, granted, I haven’t made a detailed study of American liberal arts colleges, but I feel pretty safe in stating that Antioch College was pretty out there. It had many innovative approaches to education which rejected the predominating model of inflexibility and scoring achievement against some arbitrary standard of performance. It also had an approach to governance which was significantly more democratic than just about anything I’ve come across before or since—with faculty, student, and staff representatives elected by the community serving on some of the most important administrative bodies on campus. And finally, it had a radical social justice culture which was as innovative in its own field as the academics—a culture which produced the much-maligned and misrepresented Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. (In an article published early last year, feministing cited the SOPP for it’s definition of sexual consent, which is not only good but, unfortunately, one of the few definitions of consent to appear in a US college’s sexual offense policy.) A lot of what I know about feminism, anti-racism, queer theory, economic justice, and governance theory, I owe directly to my experience at Antioch.

The college was not some democratic socialist utopia, though—far from it. We had our share of problems with sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classisim, and so on, and the ways the community engaged with these problems when they arose were often unhelpful, and sometimes even exacerbated the situation. On the governance side, top administrators often found ways to circumvent the democratic process and impose authoritarian decisions onto the community—perhaps more insidiously, the ostensibly democratic structures themselves often failed to meet the needs of the community or of certain community members.

In short, Antioch College was incredibly flawed, but even in its flaws it was so far beyond the comparatively reactionary US mainstream as to be completely off the map. Administrators often ran roughshod over democracy (as authority figures in top-down governance structures inevitably will), but the restrictions on their abuse of power and their accountability to democratic structures were significantly higher than most people in similar positions elsewhere in the US. The community had plenty of problems, but even at its lowest point it still operated several dozen steps above the cultural baseline in terms of feminism, anti-racism, queer positive, sex positive, anti-ableist, and other socially just, individually liberated, pro-community values. It’s like difference between a country like Sweden or Norway on the one hand, and the good ol’ US of A on the other. Both nations are packed with deep-seated problems which all-too-often subvert democracy, quash social justice, and make people’s lives unnecessarily miserable—but compared to the United States, both are benevolent, hyper-progressive, near idyllic societies. Antioch College probably wasn’t nearly as great (comparatively speaking, of course) as Sweden, but I’d say the college was closer to it than not.

In the summer of 2008, the Board of Trustees of the larger Antioch University system closed Antioch College despite a storm of criticism, serious allegations of improper conduct, and a sizable movement to keep the college open. Officially, the college has since been “reopened” independent of the Antioch University system, but the new administration has replicated the university’s hostility towards the people, culture, values, and educational and governance structures which defined Antioch College. They decimated the rightful faculty and students of the college, ground down the structures, and covertly and occasionally overtly undermined the culture, values, and strong commitment to social justice. Unlike the university, the administration of the New Antioch College (or Antioch University 2.0, to give it one of its many well-deserved derogatory pseudonyms) has succeeded in wiping out just about everything which made Antioch College uniquely valuable, and replacing it with a watered-down vanilla institution with nothing especially to recommend it except the history they pillaged from the previous Antioch College. Their PR is incredibly good, and bolstered by people’s natural wish to believe that things are going well, however, as I survey Antioch University 2.0, I can barely catch a glimmer of the democratic structures, the culture of social justice, and the commitment to innovative education which Antioch College exemplified (however imperfectly). All of which I think is rather unfair to the new students, as well as to the disenfranchised rightful students and faculty, and all the generations of Antiochians* who have gone before.

*(“Antioch” pronounced with a short “o,” but “Antiochian” pronounced with a long “o,” just FYI.)

As usual, my introduction has stretched out to become an essay all by itself. My purpose today is neither to eulogize Antioch College as it was nor to denounce the organization which usurped its name, campus, history, and legacy. My purpose is to commemorate the last year of Antioch College, the last gasp of a great institution—and what a year it was.

Officially, the college closed at the end of June in 2008, but that was not quite the end for Antioch College. Even before the closing, a dedicated core of Antioch faculty, supported by alumni, crafted plans to continue Antioch College “in exile,” if they failed to reverse the university’s decision. A prominent catchphrase at the time to denote the commitment to continuing Antioch, whether on-campus or in exile, was “Nonstop Antioch.”

In March of 2008, the alumni-led financial body behind efforts to save the college committed $1 million to Nonstop Antioch for the next year. In May, when the latest round of negotiations between alumni and the university broke down, Antioch-in-Exile moved to the top of the priority.

For months, committed faculty, staff, alumni, and other friends of the college worked to set up an alternative organization in the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’m not too familiar with this stage of the process, though it must’ve taken a great deal of doing. The organizers had the advantage though of an already proven core of faculty and staff who could also handle administrative functions, who could work together as a team, and who had long experience with Antioch’s unique governance and community structures to draw upon in adapting the Antioch model to their new circumstances.

When Antioch University threatened legal action over use of the name, the organization changed its designation from Nonstop Antioch/Antioch-in-Exile to the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute. At the time, some participants said this was a bad idea: that the university didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, and that surrendering the name “Antioch” meant surrendering some portion of our legitimacy as Antioch. In hindsight, these naysayers appear to have been right: it might have been harder for the new administration which eventually came in to destroy Antioch College if the college’s supporters hadn’t been suckered into believing Nonstop was not the same thing as Antioch, and relinquishing the name sure made that easier.

Sorry—I’m trying not to write too bitterly, but reflecting on the last year of Antioch, on Nonstop Antioch, is still a very bittersweet proposal for me. Sweet, because it was an incredible year in which the participants did some highly extraordinary things together—and the accomplishments of those days were not wholly in vain, as they taught a great deal to those who were there and touched the lives of many who were only peripherally involved, both of which will have positive ramifications well into the future. And yet, many of the achievements which we all assumed would last for years if not decades were bulldozed by Antioch University 2.0’s wrecking crew, and the vast majority of the people who defined Antioch College at that time were abused and discarded by the new administration, who continue to exclude most of these exemplary Antiochians even to the present day.

But anyway, despite the downer ending, Nonstop Antioch was something truly remarkable. In the end it had a yearly budget of under $1.5 million, approximately 15-20 full-time faculty and a couple of more adjuncts, and perhaps as many as 30 staff members. The numbers varied between first and second semesters, but at peak, the number of full-time students was generally agreed to be 25, with something like three times that number of part-time students.

Absent a campus, Nonstop Antioch initially leased the use of a house in town, but that became inviable in the first couple of months after classes began in September of 2008. So instead, the organization leased a space in a small, disused factory just outside the downtown area in a complex called Millworks. Over several months, the community cleared out, renovated, painted, furnished, and decorated the Millworks space into Antioch’s office space and community center.

This provided the college in exile with headquarters, but it was still not enough room to meet the organization’s needs. Classes needed space, as did events, as did council and committee meetings. For these needs, the people of Yellow Springs generously intervened, providing their living rooms and basements for collegiate use; several local churches also stepped up to provide space for participants. (Ironically enough, one of the main hubs of activity was the basement of one of the people who would go on to help orchestrate the destruction of Nonstop, and Antioch College along with it.)

Even at this stage, Antioch College was still wracked with conflict. Not only the outward conflict with a malignant Antioch University and an increasingly hostile Board Pro Tempore (which eventually grew into Antioch University 2.0), but internal conflicts both interpersonal and organizational—granted, these internal conflicts were likely exacerbated by the duplicity of the Board Pro Tempore, but to what extent is unclear. I believe that at the time, many participants (especially the younger ones) considered it the most grueling, debilitating experience they’d ever been through. At the same time, I think few would disagree that it was also one of the most amazing experiences they’d ever had.

As the fall 2009 semester drew to a close, and prospects for the future looked increasingly uncertain, the Community Council (ComCil) began discussing the idea of holding some sort of end-of-year event, which might double, if things went badly, as an end-of-Antioch event (which ultimately proved to be the case). From these discussion arose a proposal to have a Commencement ceremony, the first Saturday after classes ended (or maybe the second Saturday). It was not a graduation—nobody studying at Antioch by that point had accumulated sufficient credits to graduate, and anyway, Nonstop was not accredited—but it was a transition which needed to be celebrated.

Thus, on May 9th, 2009, three years ago today, Antioch College held its last ever Commencement ceremony. It was a fairly warm summer morning, and I believe the original idea was to have the event outside, but early showers convinced the organizers to move the festivities indoors.

Most of the programmed features of the event were filmed at the time and can be viewed for free on youtube, user NonstopComm. The bulk of the event consisted of short speeches by various community members, all of which I still find deeply moving even to this day. I hesitate to pick favorites, but I find Shea Witzberger’s performance of “Monument” by Mirah incredibly inspirational, and hardly a month goes by when I don’t revisit it at least once.

I think few if any of the participants at the time realized quite how momentous an occasion it would turn out to be. In retrospect, it was exactly the send-off Antioch needed. A last hurrah before being hurried along into that great good night. A chance to celebrate collectively the joy of community, the accomplishments of a year and of a century, the end of a great era and a great institution.

For all its faults, Antioch College—and particularly in its final incarnation of Nonstop—was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It gave me minuscule glimpses of possibilities and human potentials which I might never have otherwise encountered, and it empowered me to be a force for positive change in the world.

While I remain highly bitter about the shameful mistreatment of Antioch and its community at the last, and am constantly outraged by the present administration’s cynical deployment of the Antioch identity both to further its own aggrandizement and to stamp out almost everything which Antioch College stood for—even so, it’s fitting every now and again to stop and savor all the great things Antioch accomplished in its time, no matter the end result. Today, the third year anniversary of Antioch’s swan song, certainly one of those times.

So here’s in memory of an incredible school, an incredible community, and a fabulous group of smart, funny, passionate, committed, powerful, deeply caring individuals. I think it’s likely the world will not again see its like anytime soon, but the spirit it leaves behind will continue to touch people and hopefully continue to influence the world for the better long into the future.

In loving memory: Antioch College, 1850-2009.

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