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Archive for June 14th, 2007

Farewell Antioch

Posted by metaphorical on 14 June 2007

“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Horace Mann, Antioch College’s first president

As graduating classes go, consider 1860 one of Antioch’s finest. That year, out of a class of 28, Antioch produced among others four ministers, four teachers, four business owners, three lawyers, two college professors, two physicians, a banker, a newspaper editor, and a railroad official. By far its most interesting member was Olympia Brown, a Universalist preacher and a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement.

Olympia Brown was born in Michigan in 1835. Her parents took an active interest in her education, and she had a powerful example in her mother, Lephia Brown, a highly independent woman with a strong belief in the equality of the sexes. At fifteen Olympia began teaching school in her hometown of Prairie Ronde. She wished to attend the University of Michigan, but that institution did not yet admit women. She then enrolled at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, but found its strict orthodoxy in conflict with her already progressive ideas. She subsequently came to Antioch in 1855 and her family moved to Yellow Springs with her.

Olympia developed strong moral, religious, and political beliefs at Antioch. She became an ardent abolitionist, took in the anti-slavery atmosphere prevalent on the campus, and coupled it to her familiarity with the Underground Railroad station her aunt operated in Michigan. Her experience at Antioch tempered an earlier evangelistic fervor she had felt at Mt. Holyoke, and influenced her to become a minister. She came to not believe in the doctrines of endless punishment and predestination that she felt kept so many congregations in thrall. She chose instead to lift up the spirits of Christians by rejoicing in their God.

After graduation she spent three years searching for a seminary that ordained women. Many rejection letters later, she entered the Theological School of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. In 1863 she received her ordination at a meeting of the Northern Universalist Association in Malone, New York. At twenty-eight she became the Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman in America to be ordained by a regularly constituted ecclesiastical body.

In 1885 Wisconsin passed a half-hearted suffrage law that provided in part that every woman over twenty-one had the right to vote in any election pertaining to school matters. Olympia reasoned that in a sense all elections pertain to school matters and this interpretation thrust her into the national spotlight in one of Wisconsin’s most celebrated court cases. In a spring 1887 election she and about twenty other women showed up at the polls intending to vote for officers in no way connected with educational matters. Their votes refused, Olympia and the WWSA filed suit against the election inspectors, and won. This landmark decision essentially enfranchised Wisconsin women, but the State Supreme Court overturned the ruling just two months later. Olympia refused to share her colleagues’ bitterness about the defeat, turning her energies to a monthly suffragist paper she started, The Wisconsin Citizen.

J. H. Willis died in 1893, and by that time owned part of the Times Publishing Company in Racine. Olympia bought his partners out, and for the next seven years managed the Racine Times-Call. In 1914 she moved to Baltimore to live with her daughter Gwendolyn Willis, a teacher at Bryn Mawr preparatory school. Six years later the Nineteenth Amendment finally passed, and Olympia Brown, at 85 one of the last survivors of the suffragist leadership, cast her first vote.

Antioch College is closing, the school announced on Tuesday. Inside Higher Ed reported:

Antioch University announced Tuesday that it would suspend operations of its main undergraduate college — which has played a historic role in American higher education — at the end of the next academic year. All of the approximately 40 faculty members teaching at the college will lose their jobs. Antioch’s other campuses, which focus on graduate programs and nontraditional students, will continue.

Antioch was founded in 1852, with Horace Mann serving as its first president. The college played a role in the abolitionist movement and was an early institution to admit students who were women or black. In the 20th century, Antioch was among the pioneers in “co-op education” in which students alternated positions of work all over the country with their education at the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus. Antioch was particularly notable in that the education was focused on the liberal arts, and the college was known for turning out graduates who went on to play major roles in intellectual life and social activism, people like Clifford Geertz and Stephen Jay Gould and Coretta Scott King.

As it turns out, there’s lots of Antiochs to Antioch University. The school’s About page lists them:

Antioch College, founded in 1852, is part of Antioch University, which includes the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire; Antioch University Seattle in Washington; Antioch University Southern California in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara; and Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

U.S. News puts the school’s size at 464 but Inside Higher Ed says,

Low enrollment and a small endowment were blamed for the decision. For the coming fall semester, 125 new students had been expected, which would have brought total enrollment to just over 300.

More recently, however, Antioch’s history has been more troubled and sometimes controversial. The campus — designed for 2,700 students — has seen fewer and fewer students. The college’s long association of liberal politics attracted more students in the ’60s than the ’90s, when a policy requiring explicit verbal consent before any sexual act made the college a favorite target of pundits seeking to mock political correctness.

While the university has created campuses from California to New England — boosting total Antioch enrollment to around 5,000 — that development has worried many supporters of the undergraduate liberal arts college. These supporters felt that the attention of the board shifted too far away from the undergraduate institution that once was Antioch.

Essentially, the school invested in all those other campuses instead of increasing its endowment, which is a miniscule $30 million. U.S. News puts the school in its third tier and says tuition is $27,212.

Eli Nettles, assistant professor of mathematics and associate dean of of the faculty, was among the 15 or so faculty members who were on campus Tuesday (during a between term period) and who were told in person that the college was being shut down and that they would lose their jobs.

Even as she faces unemployment, Nettles said that she does not blame the current leadership of the college or university. “We didn’t use our money well 30 or 40 years ago,” she said, and so the college never saw its endowment or fund raising base grow as it needed, leaving the current leaders without any good options. “You cannot be a small liberal arts school that is this tuition-driven,” she said.

Chad Johnston graduated in 2001 and is among the alumni who have been worrying about the college closing and monitoring the situation through a group called Save Antioch.

During his time at the college, Johnston said, he saw the student role in governance diminished, and more authority shifted from the college to the university — changes he said paved the way for Tuesday’s news. “It’s been a downward spiral of college autonomy,” as the university focused more on its far flung campuses, which he acknowledged brought in money. He said it angered him to see the university focus on these regional campuses for financial reasons, while still using the Horace Mann legacy, prominently using a Mann quote — “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” — on those campuses’ Web sites, while letting Mann’s legacy in Yellow Springs disappear.

Antioch is about social justice, he said, not making money, so the college should have stayed the institution’s top priority. “Of course it’s a struggle” for the college to manage financially, he said. “But it’s always a struggle to be a liberal arts college and to do some radical things for education.”

Perhaps we no longer need Antioch itself. There are plenty of other small colleges in beautiful, wooded rural areas in America. There are schools that do co-op programs, and ones that let students define their own major. We have, perhaps, enough other places for the next Stephen Jay Gould or Coretta Scott King or Olympia Brown. But if schools like Antioch lose their way, where will all our Chad Johnstons come from?

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