Liberal Education after Antioch

The story of the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute suggests a radical alternative to corporatization.
By Jean Gregorek

In its deepest and richest sense a community must always remain a matter of face-to-face intercourse. . . . Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community. —John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (1927)

When the Antioch University board of trustees announced in June 2007 that it was suspending the operations of the historic Antioch College as of June 2008, the college’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni mourned. Then, as Mother Jones recommended, we began to organize. Our goal was to reclaim the college and its progressive educational mission from decades of dysfunctional governance. This is the story of Antioch College in Exile, the project that became the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, an unusual one-year experiment in higher education and one of several strategies employed to save Antioch College from extinction— strategies that, as of this writing, appear to have been successful.

Antioch College operations were suspended after an intensive year-long struggle by its faculty and alumni to save the 155- year-old institution, known for its influential innovations in American higher education. In the late 1960s, the historic liberal arts college had become the flagship campus of an extended network that included adult education centers across the country. By the 1980s, this network was known as Antioch University. In March 2007, Tullisse Murdock, the university chancellor and a former president of the Antioch University unit in Seattle, armed with a consultant’s report that characterized the college’s tenured faculty and its staff union as obstacles to the creation of a more flexible, marketoriented institution, informed the board of trustees that the college’s continued deficits could soon jeopardize the entire university system. The consultant’s report therefore recommended suspension of operations at the college; suspension was also explicitly identified as the option “preferred at this time by the university’s management team.” That June, without having turned to alumni for help, without having consulted with the faculty, without having consulted with other key parties involved in the fate of this historic institution, the board of trustees voted to put the flagship Antioch College to sleep.1

For an entire year following the 2007 action of the Antioch University trustees, a coalition of outraged college faculty, staff, students, alumni, and concerned local citizens of Yellow Springs fought hard to persuade the administration and board to reverse the decision to suspend operations. This stage of the struggle involved multiple fronts, including a massive alumni campaign that raised $18 million in cash and pledges in five months; a lawsuit filed by tenured faculty seeking to prevent the closing of the college and the seizing of its assets; the formation of dozens of new alumni chapters; numerous petitions and letter-writing drives; protests from former trustees; town meetings in Yellow Springs; and letters of concern from the AAUP. Efforts to rescue the college soon focused on obtaining a separation from its parent university. But over this period Antioch University turned down repeated offers by alumni to purchase the college. One group of wealthy alumni and former trustees, the Antioch College Continuation Corporation (ACCC), offered $12.2 million for the college, with $6 million down and the remainder to be paid over the next few years. At the last minute, however, the university balked, and the college was shut down as planned.

In June 2009, after the campus had been shuttered and deserted for an entire year, the college alumni at last succeeded in negotiating an agreement to regain the campus and the rights to the name Antioch College. Keys to the campus buildings changed hands September 4. This time, Antioch and its history would sell for $6 million.

To Save a College

The decision to dispose of Antioch College was one that faculty, staff, students, and alumni simply could not accept. In winter 2007–08, frustrated at the university’s intransigence, Antiochians began to contemplate taking Antioch College off campus if the new round of negotiations between the college alumni and the university board of trustees did not yield a more positive result. An ad hoc group of about thirty faculty and staff members, students, and alumni met over a weekend in March 2008 and brainstormed about how to move forward, developing a Plan A, in which instruction would resume on campus at a reduced level in the following fall term if the ACCC obtained a separation from the university, and a Plan B, in which we would continue to hold classes elsewhere if the university closed the campus. That weekend, the alumni board voted to commit financial resources to the proposed project, and the faculty sketched out a budget for a college-in-exile that we desperately hoped we would not need.

In April, we were crushed to learn that the university board turned down the ACCC’s final offer for the college and was proceeding with the closure. The members of the ACCC disbanded in disgust. Plan B it was, and preparation for what became Nonstop Antioch began in earnest. Faculty and students stopped attending meetings of the Administrative Council (AdCil), the now hollow shell of community governance, and created their own governing body, named ExCil, or AdCil-in-Exile. In May, following the termination of negotiations, eighteen Antioch College faculty members—most of the tenured faculty at the time— committed to teach with Antioch-in-Exile. These faculty members then worked without pay from May through August to develop a curriculum, admissions and tuition policies, and a detailed budget. An executive collective, a group of three faculty members who would divide the leadership tasks of the new institution, was elected by the faculty.

As we mournfully moved out of our offices on campus, we were simultaneously starting to piece together a college from scratch. We searched for usable classroom spaces in Yellow Springs. Churches, coffee shops, arts spaces, and the senior citizens’ center opened their doors to us; local residents offered their living rooms. We found surplus chairs, desks, and blackboards at a sale at Wright State University, while computers and even a high-end server were donated. A nearby bookstore agreed to sell textbooks, and the Yellow Springs library agreed to handle reserve readings after the university administration denied Nonstop faculty access to the still-open Antioch library. After rescuing the Antioch Women’s Center’s collection of books from the dumpster, where it had been discarded by university staff, we put together our own library-inexile, which soon comprised approximately four thousand donated and saved books and materials. Staff and faculty joined Local 768 of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, obtaining a health-care plan through the Steelworkers Health Fund.

Antioch-in-Exile was eventually renamed the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute in response to a threatened lawsuit from Antioch University that sought to prohibit us from using the Antioch name, logo, or even the letter A in any way that could evoke the memory of the college. Taking our name and our vision from one of the slogans of the past year— “Nonstop Antioch”—we saw ourselves as part protest movement, part educational think tank, and part holding tank for the progressive traditions and institutional memory of Antioch. We often described ourselves as the carriers of Antioch’s DNA; we also used the metaphor of a lifeboat or raft that tries to salvage as many bits of the sunken college as possible. With little money but abundant human capital, we forged ahead, believing that the knowledge, experience, and energy of the faculty and staff (many of whom had invested thirty or forty years at the college) were our best resources.

Our vision was nothing if not ambitious. We intended to keep Antioch’s professional educators together and to continue pursuing the meaningful educational work we felt called to do. We also wanted to apply ourselves more deliberately to the creation of a democratic, intellectually and artistically rich community. And we were motivated as well by the opportunity of experimenting with new educational directions that would combine critical thinking and the multiple perspectives inherent in the liberal arts with hands-on, community-based learning. Equally important was the need to minimize the impact of the loss of jobs and economic activity on Yellow Springs—the college had been the town’s largest employer. And what better way to show, as former trustee Paula Treichler reasoned, that the college did not, after all, need to be closed, “that there was sufficient money to pay the faculty, that students would find Antioch appealing, that the physical plant need not have been so fraught and immediate an issue”?

A Social Mission

Central to the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute’s educational philosophy is the assumption that learning is an inherently social process with an inherently social mission. Here is an excerpt from the first description of the Nonstop curriculum, written in summer 2008:

In response to the tragic and unwarranted closure of the historic Antioch College campus by the Antioch University Board of Trustees, Antioch College faculty, staff, students and alumni are creating The Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute in the Village of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Carrying forward Antioch’s long tradition of educational innovation, this enterprise re-imagines education for the twenty-first century as progressive liberal arts for life. Our goal is a liberal arts education dedicated to the core values of Antioch College and articulated succinctly in its Honor Code as “the search for truth, the development of individual potential, and the pursuit of social justice.” The Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute takes these Antiochian ideals into “exile” with the intent of reinvigorating them in new contexts and environments.

The Institute is based in the Village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a place with a long legacy of forward thinking, openness to diversity and tolerance. Significant aspects of our educational curriculum are inspired by the interests and needs of the immediate community and its environment. Indeed, the curriculum of the Institute is distinctive in its historically unprecedented level of integration into, and collaboration with, the surrounding community.

Nonstop’s nurturing of a relationship with the Yellow Springs community and its careful stewardship of the college-in-exile were designed to provide a marked contrast to the university’s indifference toward the historic campus and its environs. We consciously embraced the concept of a turn to the local, asking, What would it mean to join the insights of “relocalization” movements to the goals of a liberal arts education? How can we build upon existing local specializations and strengths and highlight local distinctiveness? What partnerships can we develop with local groups and organizations? With whom can we share facilities, spaces, and resources? What contributions can we make to the solving of particular local problems? What contributions can we make to the cultural and intellectual life of the area? What would it look like to create an “educational commons”? Our small size and shoestring budget pushed us in these new curricular directions, but we were also inspired by the challenges facing Yellow Springs—the need for an environmentally safe power supply, clean water, smart growth without sprawl, affordable housing, sustainable food sources, and support for diversity in a small Midwestern town.

Yellow Springs is fortunate to be home to nationally known individuals working in the field of environmental sustainability; it is also a community blessed with a large population of artists, including filmmakers, painters, poets, and artisans. So the Nonstop Institute incorporated the knowledge and skills of talented local experts, inviting them to invent workshops, give presentations, read or show recent work, and create community art projects. Our faculty, supplemented by Antioch College emeriti, were able to offer a wide range of courses in familiar disciplines and areas, including chemistry, research methods in the social sciences, Spanish, and film history, as well as weekend workshops on such topics as personal finance and the history of jazz. In addition, we developed new interdisciplinary courses that we hoped would appeal to the interests of town residents of all ages: among the courses offered were Community Economics and Environmental Sustainability, Visions of Suburbia, and Queer Theory and Environmental Philosophy.

One of Nonstop’s most successful new courses, Local and Sustainable Agriculture, proved an exemplary collaboration with environmental leaders and local organic farmers. The course consisted of a series of workshops that covered seed selection, soil preparation, permaculture practices, and strategies for raising and preserving affordable food. The workshops were located at nearby farms and gardens, and students across generations contributed by volunteering manual work. (For more about this course, see http://nonstopinstitute.org/ns-dispatch-3.)

Another particularly effective Nonstop initiative was the cultural series we called “Nonstop Presents!” which we deliberately tied to the agendas of the town and to the major themes of the curriculum. Each month we produced a calendar of eclectic events—film screenings, scholarly lectures, artists’ talks, performances, and panels on political issues. The series highlighted the abundant talents of well-known Antioch College alumni from all over the country (most of whom donated their honoraria back to Nonstop), and we again drew upon regional resources—and upon our own students. “Nonstop Presents!” was designed to enhance certain Nonstop courses and also to provide opportunities for students to exhibit and discuss their in-class projects with a wider audience. Our intent was to “give back” to Yellow Springs through the creation of multiple public occasions for the sharing of art and ideas; all in all, “Nonstop Presents!” hosted more than a hundred events and attracted more than 1,400 attendees.

Antioch’s small size required that its faculty become generalists, whether or not they started out that way, and we are therefore a flexible group of academics open to new directions and experiments. And a heavy contingent of Nonstop faculty came from the arts, a fact that may help to account for our overall willingness to take risks, to live with chronic uncertainty about the immediate future, and to improvise constantly. When the residential space we had rented to house our registrar and student services office proved unworkable, we immediately set about to build another and within a few months had converted an old plastics factory into a new energy-efficient space we came to call Campus North. Everything we did had a vibrant aesthetic quality. Fall semester was launched by a parade with a marching band. Colorful pennants declared that a Nonstop class or “Nonstop Presents!” event was in session, wherever it happened to be taking place. We all pitched in to paint and decorate the walls of Campus North. Projects in dance, theater, photography, graphic design, and installation art expressed our vision of community, while the process of making art enacted it.

Because the Nonstop Institute’s faculty had suffered the consequences of having been excluded from decision making and subjected to topdown management, we were committed to bottom-up governance processes and a “flat” administrative organization. There was no president, no dean. Partly in response to entrenched faculty pay inequity at the college, Nonstop took the unusual step of leveling pay scales so that all were paid roughly the same salary. We reconstituted Antioch’s bodies of community governance but expanded them as well, regarding them as vital to the cultivation of critical leadership and civic skills. Organized into various committees, faculty, staff, and students regularly sat down together to discuss issues and obstacles, to hammer out policies, and to make decisions about the direction of the project.

Nonstop’s innovative information technology system deserves its own article, but it is worth noting here that the creative use of all opensource Internet technology was integral to our ability to build and sustain a far-flung community as well as an immediate one (for more details, see our multimedia Web site, http://nonstopinstitute.org). We used the Internet to share information, to gather ideas from alumni across the country, and to thereby support collective decision making. Listservs, a sophisticated online student newspaper, and the live streaming of meetings kept interested Antiochians constantly informed and engaged. With regard to teaching and course design, class Web sites were handy supplements to, but not substitutes for, face-to-face interaction. To explain ourselves to a wider public, we deployed multiple modes of outreach across the media spectrum: we sent e-mail petitions, posted videos on YouTube and messages on Facebook, appeared on public-access and local television, produced pamphlets and flyers, invited newspaper reporters to our classes, made presentations at conferences, and networked with academic labor movements across the country.

Education in Action

Rewarding as we found most of our work at Nonstop, the challenges were often daunting. Our biggest problem was that we did not have enough time to become an accredited academic institution. The Nonstop Institute’s unaccredited status reduced our potential pool of students, but the even more unfortunate consequence was that students who did come could not receive student loans. Students were forced to support themselves through paid work, savings, or parental contributions. Tuition, although drastically subsidized, remained difficult for some. And, not surprisingly, the course of community governance “never did run smooth”—consensus-building meetings went overtime, and students did not always feel their contributions were valued by the faculty.

The timeline of our existence was unclear, as was our funding. These facts made advance planning and therefore accreditation impossible and severely hampered our efforts to recruit students. Even so, Nonstop’s accomplishments were impressive. We enrolled a total of 124 multi-generational students, including a cohort of traditional-aged students, most of whom had previously attended Antioch College. We offered more than thirty courses and workshops each semester. During the dark period of the college’s closure, we created twenty-one decent-paying, full-time jobs and a number of parttime jobs in recession-stricken southwest Ohio. We were able to mobilize incredible levels of in-kind donations to the Nonstop Antioch project; local supporters of many professions, from architects to lawyers and from artists to restaurant owners, donated time, services, materials, and space. The discounted and volunteer labor of many alumni and supporters amounted to more than half a million dollars. While relying on volunteerism and donations (and our own self-exploitation) was obviously a short-term survival strategy, these exchanges also strengthened the project in many respects, producing an energizing sense of interrelatedness and mutual striving toward a common goal. The high level of donated labor meant that our total expenditures for the year came to only $1.4 million.

Some measure of our success in deepening the partnership of Antioch College and Yellow Springs can be gauged by the many enthusiastic letters and editorials in the Yellow Springs News. Reporter Diane Chiddester described Nonstop as “the little educational engine that could.” In an editorial summarizing our first semester, she wrote, “Nonstop reminded us that the magic of learning has little to do with expensive buildings or high-tech equipment, and everything to do with dedicated teachers and passionate learners, engaged in exploration and critical inquiry. . . . Most of all, Nonstop enriched the village by inspiring us with their example of audacity, perseverance, and the glory of winning a victory for humanity.”

Today, we are witnessing a clash of values between the conception of higher education as a public good and the conviction (which takes varying forms, from wistful resignation to entrepreneurial zeal) that higher education must be abandoned to market forces and consumer trends, that educational institutions are best run like other forprofit corporations. While its anomalous position under the university’s umbrella made our college particularly vulnerable to draconian measures, the impact of free-market ideology on U.S. higher education in general has been proving increasingly dire, most immediately for those who work and learn there.

As a response, Nonstop Antioch sought inspiration from the networkorganization models pioneered by bioregionalist and slow-food movements. Instead of seeing the college as an isolated entity, we grounded Nonstop in the existing resources of Yellow Springs and, at the same time, worked to make connections with other nearby colleges and similar movements in progressive higher education around the country. These connections, and our constant influx of alumni, kept us from becoming insular and narrow, one of the possible downsides of localism. Yet perhaps the most important lesson of our endeavor is that surprisingly satisfying educational results can emerge when more attention is paid to the common interests of small colleges and the small towns they frequently inhabit. Underexplored potential may exist for collaborations and the sharing of facilities between small colleges and local civic and environmental organizations, artists’ collectives, churches, parks, and community centers. Another lesson is that expensive consultants may too often push to make colleges more generic than distinctive and that colleges may be better served by acknowledging their own roots in the particularities of place.

While these new partnerships will never be sufficient on their own to combat the many serious challenges American liberal arts colleges currently face, there are practical as well as environmental reasons for turning to the local. Local economies are threatened by many of the same forces that are undermining small cultural institutions of all kinds, including small colleges: forces that push for continual expansion and needless development; forces that tend toward the imposition of economies of scale and their accompanying homogenization; forces that undermine community self-determination, citizen participation, fair labor practices, autonomy in the workplace, and a reasonable quality of life for all. Nonstop’s temporary experiment in community-driven education is now over, but we hope that at least some of our creative synthesis of the liberal arts and the local will live on in a newly revived Antioch College.

Note

1. For an extensive discussion of the closing of Antioch College, see the report of an AAUP investigating committee. An archive of primary documents relating to the recent history and closure of Antioch College is available at http://theantiochpapers.org. Back to text

Jean Gregorek is currently a Morgan Fellow at the newly independent Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and is working toward the reopening of the college in 2011.

 


Comments

Thanks for this. Alumni, for one, will benefit from the conciseness and clarity with which the story is told.

K.M..

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