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Published: Saturday, 6/30/2007

A liberal education

THE closure in 2008 of Antioch College, a bastion of liberal arts education in Yellow Springs, Ohio, is in a very real sense one of the final casualties of the Vietnam War.

Long a center of social and cultural activism, the college was rife with protests during the Vietnam era. A six-week strike at the school in 1973 was a pivotal point in its history. Alumni giving diminished, fewer students applied for admission, and faculty drifted away. The cumulative effect was a death spiral that culminates with the school's announced intention to shut down next year.

From its heyday in the 1960s, with an enrollment of more than 2,000, Antioch had just 400 students this year.

It may be premature to write Antioch's final obituary, however. The college says it plans a redeveloped undergraduate campus to reopen in 2012 with a class of at least 300 students.

This is not the first time that the school has closed its doors because of financial constraints. Founded in 1852, it ran at a fiscal deficit almost from the start, and closed from 1862 to 1865. It reopened, but the financial picture at the college did not improve. It closed again in 1881 but reopened after two years.

Despite the state's conservative underpinnings, Ohio has a proud history of private liberal arts schools within its borders, including Oberlin College and Kenyon College in Gambier.

In these times when student activism has taken on an almost quaint, do-you-remember-when quality, Antioch has stayed true to its principles and values. It doesn't grade classes and in 2000 created controversy by having a taped commencement address from Mumia Abu-Jamal, jailed for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer.

Such activism is rooted in the college's past.

It's motto, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity" is taken from the 1859 final commencement speech by the college's first president, Horace Mann.

Original faculty member Rebecca Pennell was the first female college professor in America to enjoy equal pay and stature with men, and the school prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex or race by the mid-1860s.

It is not Antioch's values but the deteriorating state of its facilities that gets much of the blame for the school's enrollment slump. With a $30 million endowment insufficient to bring the campus up to modern standards, and with a dependence on tuition revenue compounding the problem, the college was left with little choice.

In a time when "liberal" is a term viewed by many as an insult to be hurled, Antioch stands proud on its heritage, noting in an announcement of its closure that the school is "long known for its commitment to educational innovation and social justice."

Antioch is not for everybody, but for the sake of diversity in educational opportunities in Ohio, we hope Antioch's closing is temporary, as its officials insist, and that it can once again open its doors to students seeking its distinct brand of college experience.



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