Countercultural and Alive

Demise of Antioch College points to challenges facing progressive colleges -- and strategies used by some to thrive.
June 18, 2007

With enrollment falling and unstable, professors fearing for their jobs, and a lack of broad public understanding over what the college is all about, its trustees convene. To the dismay of students and alumni -- who say the trustees are selling out this proudly radical college's values -- the board decides to eliminate the undergraduate residential program. Instead the college will focus on its growing graduate programs, which aren't offered on the main campus or taught by the faculty there.

That could be last week's story about the closing of Antioch College. But it's also what happened in 2002 at Goddard College. It may discourage Antioch alumni to know that the main undergraduate program that Goddard killed never came back. But the college -- plagued at the time by deficits and faculty-administration warfare -- is in the black and professors and administrators get along.

To be sure, there are plenty of ways that Antioch and Goddard's situations are different. "Every nontraditional college is nontraditional in its own way," quipped Ralph Hexter, president of Hampshire College, who was quick to note that despite his play on Tolstoy's words, he wasn't implying that these colleges are like unhappy families. (Antioch alumni these days might beg to differ and find the metaphor apt).

But what progressive colleges do share are a particular set of challenges. They tend to be small liberal arts institutions that pride themselves on low student-faculty ratios and individualized instruction -- qualities that may be great for education but that don't yield economies of scale. These are colleges with an explicitly progressive agenda, graduating far more social activists and teachers and artists than potentially big-gift contributing moguls. They are places known for educational innovations -- many of which have been adapted by more mainstream institutions. And they are places where everyone has an opinion and expects to be listened to.

The vulnerability of nontraditional colleges worries not only their students and alumni, but many in higher education who know that places like Franconia College (1963-1978) or Black Mountain College (1933-1957) -- institutions that helped shape their students' lives and intellects -- died.

Many of those saddened and worried about what Antioch's closure means are educators at institutions with curriculums that would never fly at an Antioch, but who see as crucial to American higher education the existence of colleges with unique philosophies. "Any time somebody is trying to provide a distinctive educational program and such a school goes under, it causes the rest of us a great deal of sadness for the loss of something that is interesting, distinctive, and needed by a number of students," said Chris Nelson, president of St. John's College, the great books institution in Annapolis.

Richard H. Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said, "I believe strongly in preserving diversity among types of institutions -- that is the strength of American higher education. We've got to preserve the mix and institutional autonomy."

Ekman and several others who have been watching the Antioch situation see the current push by the U.S. Education Department for comparable measures of student performance as a sign of how too many powerful people don't understand that comparability of statistics shouldn't trump educational missions. "That's what's so scary about the actions coming out of U.S. Department of Education -- this push for regimentation."

Given that many educators revere these institutions and their alumni have passion for them, why do some of them fail?

Ekman, whose organization includes private liberal arts colleges of a variety of missions and sizes, said that these institutions as a sector have little margin for error on finances. "The main drivers for a small college thriving or having financial difficulties are related to scale and size of endowment," he said.

Nelson said: "Every small college survives or falls on the ability to meet its enrollment projections. It's about admissions. It's about how well the college gets its message out, how well it's heard and how broadly and whether it can persuade enough people that the curriculum it has to offer is a good one."

Indeed the final decision at Antioch came as enrollment continued to fall -- with just over 300 students projected to enroll this fall on a campus designed for 2,700. There is no magic enrollment figure for viability for a college and there are many fine small colleges, not all of which have large endowments. But in an era when many liberal arts colleges of 1,200 or even larger are deciding that they will be better off if they expand by a few hundred students, there's no doubt that being under 1,000 creates real difficulties. Hampshire College, which is in much stronger shape than Antioch, despite being founded more than a century later, has 1,400 students.

The combination of being small and distinctive also can remove a traditional base of enrollment for private colleges: local students. "The smaller the school, the harder it is to be visible. The most distinctive the curriculum, the less likely you can rely on a local audience," Nelson said.

Being Small and Liberal

But if some issues facing progressive colleges relate to their size, others relate to their philosophies. The values that endear them to some make them targets for conservatives. Franconia alumni consider it a badge of honor that The Manchester Union Leader devoted considerable editorial space to bashing their fledgling experiment. A famous headline was "Bare Debauchery at Franconia College: Sex, Liquor, Drugs Rampant on Campus," although it was never clear if the debauchery would have been more acceptable had everyone been clothed.

Hostility in some quarters remains -- and can have a real impact in an era when relatively few philanthropists or parents of would-be freshmen want a controversial college. The image of Antioch was defined by many as the ultimate in political correctness -- an image set not by the college's role promoting civil rights, but its rules requiring explicit verbal assent before any sexual act. The image is such that news of Antioch's demise brought analysis that was almost gleeful from some observers.

Another problem facing progressive colleges is that many of their greatest successes have been copied in various degrees by hundreds of colleges -- even if most them have not embraced these ideas to the same degree. Take interdisciplinary work. These days, the idea that much of the most important work to be done in academe can't be boxed in a single department or problem is hardly radical. Everyone says it, and boasts about interdisciplinary efforts.

In such an environment, will a prospective student or donor distinguish general rhetoric about interdisciplinary work at colleges with the commitment that led Hampshire, for example, to never have traditional departments and to organize itself into broad categories instead? Antioch's co-op program, in which students alternated periods of study with periods of work in jobs all over the world, is an option at plenty of colleges these days (although generally not those with a liberal arts orientation).

Mark Schulman, president of Goddard, asked about the unique values the college has today, cites its commitment to diversity of students, to educating students for a diverse society and to promoting environmentalism and a global identity. As if realizing the problem while answering, he added that he didn't mean those things "the way they are bandied about by everyone" in higher education these days, but in "a more radical way."

Hexter, of Hampshire, doesn't hesitate to frame his college's approach in comparison to those that copied it. "In a way, Hampshire is the original honors college," Hexter said. Some institutions boast about their top students get to design their own special programs, but "our central idea is that we don't have off-the-shelf majors."

Talking about Hampshire as the model for an honors college is also important for another reason to Hexter. He doesn't shy away from the fact that the college is "quite radical" in the role it gives students in designing their own programs. But this isn't "flaky" the way some think, he said, but "very rigorous and demanding."

A part of the story that people don't understand is that requiring students to design their own programs doesn't mean that any idea can or should be approved, he said. Professors "permit some things and push back on others," he said.

Turning Out Teachers, Not Brokers

Given the progressive colleges' explicitly activist orientation, their graduates are well represented in the nonprofit world, as well as education and the arts -- not necessarily the demographics that make development officers salivate.

Hexter acknowledged that this is an issue. "Our alumni are committed to social causes, and we compete with their concern to give money for immediate use, whether it's for health care or environment or some other issue," he said. "We don't have a large proportion of investment bankers who are motivated to make sure that football remains strong." (That's good news for Hampshire, as there is no football program.)

But what's important for a college like Hampshire is to cultivate donors wherever it can do so. As a relatively young college, it had to recruit non-alumni as trustees and today only half of the board is made up of alumni. Parents of students have been a key source of gifts, as have people connected to Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which collectively created Hampshire.

While Hampshire has built its endowment to $44 million, other colleges have adopted (or had no choice to adopt) models that don't rely on endowment funds. Goddard's endowment is less than $1 million, and its budget is 97 percent from tuition -- a financial situation that would represent many a college president's worst nightmare.

Some fans of progressive colleges think that what they need is to be a little tougher on themselves from a management perspective. Jane Jervis retired in 2000 as president of Evergreen State College, a Washington State institution founded in 1971 as a public equivalent in some ways of the kinds of values promoted at Antioch and similar institutions. Jervis served on an advisory commission for Antioch, was on an accrediting team that slammed the quality of Goddard before it made the changes it enacted in 2002, and served as an interim dean there. Her brother worked at Franconia and she has ties and respect for the goals of all of these institutions.

"These small progressive schools have been the nurseries for the cultivation and exploration of new ideas in higher education," she said. "These institutions have perhaps never been more important than now, when the forces of centralization and standardization and nationalization of higher education are getting stronger and stronger. If we are going to end up with a national system of regulation of higher education, it will be the end of the leadership of higher education" by the United States, she said. "Survival of these experimental, progressive institutions that test new ways of education is essential."

But Jervis said that at least some of the problems facing some of these institutions are of their own making.

"It seems to me that one of the problems Goddard had with its residential program and Antioch had is that they became enclaves for traditional age students whose primary agenda in going to an unconventional institution was to resist authority," she said. "An education institution, no matter how progressive, can't abandon its authority," she said and that there have been times that some have done so. "Progressive has gotten confused with permissive," she said.

Reality checks are needed even at progressive institutions, she added. Jervis said that she thinks Hampshire has been well run historically in part because of its connection to the colleges that founded with it and collaborate with it. And she said Evergreen State's status as a public institution has meant that it has a "very diverse student body," with traditional age students educated side by side with community college transfers 10 or 20 years older. Those transfer students are very serious about their studies and focus on their degrees, not campus politics, Jervis said.

As a state institution, Evergreen State also has to answer to legislators and state bureaucrats. "The budget was always balanced and ruthlessly audited," Jervis said.

The challenge, she said, is to keep progressive ideals and democratic participation, without making the institutions impossible to run. "All of these institutions are economic entities, and when fundamental rules of running an establishment become challenged and undermined on a daily basis, and the people who run these institutions get confused about authority, and think authority is necessary punitive and evil, then they fall apart," she said.

Where presidents have used authority decisively, the results haven't always been praised. At Bennington College, a series of changes pushed by President Elizabeth Coleman resulted in many faculty members losing their jobs and the tenure system being replaced with multiyear contracts. The college is considered to be on much more solid financial ground now -- yet it is also on the censure list of the American Association of University Professors.

At Antioch, many believe that the board over the last few decades managed the move away from inclusive governance and made poor financial decisions. A frequent criticism in alumni discussions in the last week is that as the university placed its hopes on the far-flung branch campuses, it ignored the needs of the college, placing it at risk of the closure that was announced last week.

Watching the developments at Antioch has been both fascinating and sad for Schulman, the Goddard president. He is a graduate of Antioch College and taught there and also ran a regional campus of Antioch in California before coming to Goddard.

Schulman arrived at Goddard in 2003 and played no role in the decision to shut down the residential undergraduate program. He said that based on what he learned about it, he believed that as well intentioned as the program was, it couldn't be assured of educational "integrity" and that the board's vote to close it allowed the college to focus on programs that do have such integrity.

The challenge has been to do so while keeping ties to Goddard's social justice roots and idealism. A review of Goddard's offerings shows that it has hardly followed the money to create M.B.A. or Microsoft certification programs. Offerings are relatively few, and include several writing, teaching and environmental programs, plus consciousness studies, a program in nature, culture and healing, and a psychology concentration on sexual orientation issues. The closest you can get to an M.B.A. is a master of arts in socially responsible business and sustainable communities.

The programs are offered via distance education, with a faculty -- almost all part timers -- working all over the country. But Schulman said that every program includes eight days a semester with students and faculty in residence in Plainfield, Vt. (with a few new programs meeting at a branch in Washington State). Schulman said that the residency on the main campus -- something Antioch never did -- is quite intentional.

"It's important that these folks who have a connection to Goddard develop a strong sense of place and build a learning community together in ways that I don't think have occurred in Antioch's campuses," he said.

Enrollment is now 650, and the college has a budget -- balanced -- at $10 million. New programs are being created, generally as offshoots of existing ones, reflecting faculty and student interests in various college strengths. With stability has come an end to strife between the administration and faculty.

Before Schulman arrived, no confidence votes were frequent. He's never had one.

"I would say that we've come a long long way, and I think Mark's leadership has been really fantastic in bringing stability to the college, and that's what we needed," said Jim Sparrell, president of the faculty union, a chapter of the United Auto Workers. "When we had so much turnover at the top, there was in that chaos a lot more freedom [for faculty], but also a lot more miscommunication and conflict and chronic tension."

With stability has come the ability to improve faculty working conditions. Sparrell said he is particularly proud of provisions in the new contract that extend health insurance benefits to those working half-time at the college. There's more that can be done, but the trends are positive, he said.

Schulman said that he believes Goddard has now reached a point where its survival is assured. "We're continuing the experiment," he said. "We try full-fledged programs for adults, have no grades, and focus on what students want to do and on social justice," he said.

It's a "great tragedy" that Antioch College will be shut down, Schulman said. He does not think the branch campuses ended up draining funds from Yellow Springs, as many alumni charge, Schulman said. But he added, "I think there is something to the question of where energy went. In this university leadership structure that existed while I was there, the question of the board's attention, and whether enough attention was going to Antioch College, was a major question."

Of course all of this raises the question of how he views Goddard's survival in relation to the decision to abolish a residential undergraduate program beloved by many for the same reasons alumni like Schulman so loved the Antioch of their day.

One way to look at it, Schulman said, "is as a balance sheet and I don't know that Goddard could have survived if it didn't make that decision."

But he also said there is a deeper philosophical question about what was lost.

"I think it's important that the values survive, especially in dire times for our educational and political philosophy. The fact that Goddard has survived as an independent institution with our values is on the plus side," he said. "But there was an experiment in democracy in people living and learning here together for 30 weeks a year -- we did lose that. And it's something I think about."


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