When Fighting the Good Fight Means Decamping

Taking inspiration from past alternatives to traditional higher education.
By David J. Siegel

Machado de Assis’s whimsical nineteenth-century novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas introduces us to the eponymous hero’s “sublime law, the law of the equivalence of windows,” which holds that “the way to compensate for one closed window is to open another.” This deceptively simple dictum might have something to offer a beleaguered academy whose own windows of opportunity seem to be slamming shut at nearly every turn.

To say that higher education is under siege is an understatement. At a minimum, we are contending with a persistent and pervasive right-wing attack on academic freedom, a coordinated state legislative assault on tenure, a multimodal campaign against diversity, equity, and inclusion, and widespread dissatisfaction over campus responses to the war in Gaza. Hardly a day passes without news of yet another scheme to restrict, suppress, or otherwise control curricular content (and even conversation) at colleges and universities. In November 2023, conservative activists published new model legislation—called the General Education Act—that proposes giving state lawmakers nearly unchecked power to determine general education requirements at flagship public institutions, including the power to decide who will teach. Responding in Inside Higher Ed, John K. Wilson described the plan as “the most radical assault on faculty and academic freedom in American history.”

How might we oppose these flagrant attempts to subvert academic values and supplant systems of shared governance? As the walls close in around the entire education enterprise in an increasingly hostile political climate, let us consider the restorative potential of Machado’s metaphorical windows not only to ventilate the confined spaces of academe but also—in some instances—to vacate those spaces altogether by creating escape hatches to more genial climes.

This is, of course, a risky proposition. Exercising the power of exit can be easily mistaken for rank abandonment at a time when rank-and-file freedom fighters are needed on the front lines of the escalating battle for the future of higher education. To be clear, though, this is not about quitting academe in defeat or despair; it’s about building community for learning and the free exchange of ideas beyond institutional precincts.

It’s also a tactical maneuver with a long and surprisingly influential lineage. Three historical examples—Black Mountain College, the Free University of New York (FUNY), and the Antiuniversity of London—are illustrative. In each of these cases, disaffected academics decamped from institutional enclosures and ventured into uncharted territory to organize radical new education programs that they thought traditional institutions could not create or sustain on their campuses. Together, they remind us of the power we possess to reform higher learning through alternative spaces.

Black Mountain College

Black Mountain College was established in North Carolina in 1933 by the iconoclastic classicist John Andrew Rice, who had recently been dismissed from his faculty position at Florida’s Rollins College for being generally “disruptive of peace and harmony” on campus. This charge seems to have been code for espousing positions contrary to those of the college’s dictatorial president, a man who, as Martin Duberman writes in Black Mountain: An Exploration of Community, “commonly assumed powers exercised by the faculty.”

Following his dismissal, Rice, along with a small group of faculty coconspirators and sympathetic students, managed to secure the use of a piece of property in the Blue Ridge Mountains where they could launch a new venture, which would, as Eva Diaz writes in The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, staunchly “avoid the pitfalls of autocratic chancellors and trustees and allow for a more flexible curriculum” and would proudly operate “with the holistic aim ‘to educate a student as a person and a citizen.’” The experimental Black Mountain College put the arts at the center of the liberal arts experience. It was founded on the principles of progressive education articulated by the philosopher John Dewey, who was an informal presence on campus in its early days (unobtrusively attending classes and occasionally drinking beer with students in the evenings) and became a member of the college’s advisory board. 

Black Mountain became, in many respects, a center of gravity for highly influential artists and educators. Josef Albers, a German refugee fresh from the recently closed Bauhaus School, led the art program and served as rector from 1941 to 1949. He later became dean of the Yale School of Design. Painters Willem and Elaine de Kooning, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and designer Buckminster Fuller were among the college’s faculty. Artists Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, and Robert Rauschenberg; poet Robert Creeley (the central figure in a group later known as the Black Mountain poets); and social critic Paul Goodman also made appearances as instructors. Thorton Wilder, Henry Miller, and Aldous Huxley were among the college’s early visitors, lending their names and moral support to the cause. Students and faculty alike literally cocreated some of the campus infrastructure, supplying their physical labor to insulate existing buildings and clear the land, gather fieldstone, mix concrete, and pour the foundation for a new building.

Black Mountain College did not award grades or degrees, lacked an organizational structure typical of most institutions of higher education, and was not accredited. Enrollment was never more than a few dozen at any time; total enrollment over its entire twenty-four-year existence was no more than a couple thousand. Still, its contributions to the postwar and contemporary art world are widely recognized as monumental.

Black Mountain’s legacy as a college per se is less appreciated, although recent developments in higher education have sparked new interest in it as an alternative institutional model worthy of attention. It is, for example, the inspiration for AltLiberalArts, a new online nonprofit project organized by dissident former professors and students formerly affiliated with New College of Florida—the liberal arts college whose takeover by conservative politicians, covered widely by higher education and mainstream media outlets, resulted in AAUP sanction following a special investigation documented in the 2023 report Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System.

Free University of New York

Established in late 1964, the Free University of New York drew inspiration from liberation struggles in Vietnam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico and growing demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. FUNY’s statement of principles, published in its catalog in summer 1965, lamented the “emasculation” of the American university and the destruction of “its intellectual vigor, exuberance, and excitement.” The free exchange of ideas could “find no expression within the academic establishment,” necessitating the founding of the Free University as a place for such pursuits.

The founders of FUNY were described in a 1966 Life profile as “two rebels from the establishment.” Allen Krebs had been teaching sociology at Adelphi University when he was dismissed in 1964 after an unsanctioned trip to Cuba as a member of the Student Committee to Travel to Cuba. Jim Mellen had been dismissed from his teaching position at Drew University after making public statements in support of the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. Krebs explained that the idea for a Free University was incubated in a friend’s home in Queens, where Krebs held seminars after losing his position at Adelphi, noting, “Folks thought it would be a groovy thing to do.” 

FUNY officially opened its doors in July 1965, with 30 faculty members and 204 students. Those attending classes, conducted in a seven-room loft above a coffee shop in Manhattan, ranged in age from their teens to their sixties and were described as far more interested in ideas than in obtaining a degree. Many participants were enrolled at “establishment” universities. Students paid twenty-four dollars for one eight-week course and eight dollars for each additional course.

Writing in Humanist in 1966, Will Inman, a former student who later became a poet, described FUNY as “a small community of individuals, mostly intellectuals, who are united in profound disaffection with the society in which we live and who want to explore, at all necessary risk, possible answers and alternatives to those we are offered by those institutions which serve and cover for the essentially destructive operations of this system.” He praised the institution’s learning environment, in which “so many different individual experiences and points of view are being brought into vital confrontation, that the school becomes a kind of delta of new ideas.”

Antiuniversity of London

FUNY was the intellectual inspiration for the Antiuniversity of London, which opened in 1968 in London’s East End. Allen Krebs, a cofounder of both universities, explained at the time that one of the animating ideas behind its creation was “an attempt to bring together under one roof all kinds of things that are not permitted at established universities, or if they’re permitted at established universities aren’t accessible to ninety-five percent of the population.”

Antiuniversity’s first catalog, dated February 1968, referenced the “intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the educational establishment” and offered a radical experiment that would embrace the open spirit of inquiry alleged to be missing from mainstream academic institutions. Jakob Jakobsen, a Danish artist, educator, and activist who has curated an extensive online library of Antiuniversity materials, explains, “The aim of the Antiuniversity was to open up education to a wider social reality, which was contrary to the inward-looking traditional university, an institution mainly occupied with its own survival as an institution within the given society.”

The Antiuniversity offered thirty courses in the first quarter of its existence. Jackobsen provides a glimpse of the diversity of topics and instructors:

A group of teachers involved with the New Left Review was running various courses in political theory and revolutionary movements. Avant-garde artists such as John Latham and Cornelius Cardew were running courses consisting of collective and practical experimentation with making artistic work. A group of poets and writers such as John Keys and Lee Harwood offered (anti-)courses in poetry. The group of existential psychiatrists such as R.D. Laing, David Cooper, Leon Redler and Joseph Berke were running courses covering aspects of psychiatry and psychology viewed from a critical social perspective. Also covered were Black Power, experimental drugs, printmaking and underground media. Alexander Trocchi offered a course with the title Invisible Insurrection, referring to his key text of 1962 on the founding of a spontaneous university, which was one of the inspirations [for] the Antiuniversity. And the poet Ed Dorn just declared in his course blurb that he would “be ready to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me.”

The Antiuniversity exploded traditional hierarchical relations, requiring no formal qualifications for participation and awarding no academic degrees. Its first catalog proclaimed, “We must destroy the bastardised meaning of ‘student’, ‘teacher’ and ‘course’ in order to regain the original meaning of teacher—one who passes on the tradition; student—one who learns how to learn; and course—the meeting where this takes place.”

After the original Antiuniversity of London disbanded in 1971, its spirit was resurrected in the form of Antiuniversity Now, established in 2015 “with the intention to challenge academic and class hierarchy and the exclusivity of a £9K-a-year-degree by inviting people to organise and share learning events in public spaces all over the country.” According to its website, “Antiuniversity Now events are open to all to organize and attend, regardless of experience, background, age or qualification. All you need is an interesting idea and an openness to share it with others in a collaborative way.” Participants in Antiuniversity Now “create and sustain safe autonomous spaces for radical learning that follow, nurture and enact anti-capitalist, anarchist, feminist, anti-racist, de-colonial, anti-fascist, queer, trans and sex workers’ inclusive values through conversation and direct action.” The centerpiece of its ongoing program is an annual festival where educators, activists, artists, theoreticians, performers, and others are invited to come together for a week of events and happenings. Anyone can register online to host an event (as long as it doesn’t cause harm), and anyone interested in attending an event can simply show up. Its inaugural festival, in 2015, drew approximately twelve hundred people.


Although all of these educational initiatives have been short-lived by conventional institutional standards, each one has had far-reaching implications, supplying inspiration and even concrete organizing blueprints for later generations of scholars and activists, including some who are constructing alternative academic imaginaries now. Collectively, these examples are an invitation to rethink what is necessary for free inquiry to flourish in dark or challenging times.

Black Mountain College, FUNY, the Antiuniversity of London, and their offspring (including AltLiberalArts and Antiuniversity Now) attest to the idea that sometimes we must exit the academy—if only temporarily—to find the most fertile ground for the preservation of academic values in peril. If academic freedom is to be a target for the foreseeable future (and there is every reason to believe that it will be), we can at least make it more of a moving target by positioning and pursuing it in counterspaces beyond institutional confines, thereby effectively enlarging and extending notions of academic community and “enrolling” more actors and allies in the cause of free inquiry.

This locomotive spirit has been an animating feature of intellectual life since our earliest days. Many academics maintain a tenuous relation to the formal institutions that employ them. They are often more rootless than rooted, more cosmopolitan than local (as sociologist Alvin Gouldner famously described the distinction in a 1957 article), and more allegiant to what Iranian American author Azar Nafisi has called “the republic of imagination” than to bricks and mortar. Perhaps a bit of the peripatetic style is inscribed in our professional DNA, but institutional imperatives to strengthen community engagement, sense of belonging, and stewardship of place tend to override such instincts. To what extent do norms of place attachment begin to constrain our movement toward new ideas of reform? This is a question of growing importance as emboldened politicians, political action groups, and public demands infiltrate higher education, diminishing and delimiting the work we do.

Black Mountain College, FUNY, and the Antiuniversity of London—along with multitudes of additional small-scale ventures in the same mold—have served as vital sites of academic resistance and restoration over time. These formations do not suggest a comprehensive “solution” to the intersecting crises afflicting colleges and universities, but they do offer a kind of refuge to those in search of a vibrant intellectual life that is being eclipsed or eradicated by apparatuses of thought control. Their examples open up crucial windows of possibility in our fraught moment. 

David J. Siegel is professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University. His most recent book is The Interlude in Academe: Reclaiming Time and Space for Intellectual Life.