Antioch College’s history defines it both internally and externally. It opened in 1853, with education reformer Horace Mann, father of American public schooling, as its first president. At the first Commencement, Mann gave the college its motto: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” It’s a straightforward manifestation of the college’s activist spirit, something that would remain consistent through the school’s history: Antiochians felt compelled to try to make the world a better place. For a 19th-century college, Antioch followed through as well—it was one of the first colleges to admit men and women, for example.
Having a calling didn’t always mean having money, though, and the college struggled to stay open, closing on multiple occasions. During one of those financially difficult periods immediately following World War I, Antioch trustees appointed Arthur Morgan its president. Morgan immediately set about implementing a “co-operative education” program, “co-op” for short, under which students would attend classes for a term, then work at a paid job (usually organized by the college) for a term, giving the students both practical education and money for tuition and living expenses.
Morgan departed for the Tennessee Valley Authority and national recognition in 1933, and was succeeded as president by Algo Henderson, a less nationally known figure, but one who was equally important in defining Antioch College through the 20th century. Alongside active students, Henderson helped implement “community governance” as an organizational ideal at Antioch. Explicit about not being “student government,” Community Government was a combination of students, staff, faculty, and administrators, working under the assumption that the people who would be most affected by decisions should be part of the decision-making process.
By the middle of the 20th century, these ideas had all become ensconced in Antiochian culture, and the college was flourishing. Enrollment grew steadily after World War II and into the 1960s, and famous alumni like Rod Serling, Coretta Scott King, and Stephen Jay Gould gave it a positive reputation. Antioch College was a unique educational experience, and a bastion of progressive politics. And while not every student embraced each aspect at the same level, most had some combination of the activism of the motto, the practicality of the co-op program, and the engagement with the community, making the alumni’s active rejection of the closure announcement more inevitable than surprising.