One of the biggest problems facing writers who wish to describe the fall of Antioch College is the lack of a straightforward narrative. The lurid and overly simple idea that, essentially, anarchists and hippie students and teachers ruined the college with their “toxic culture” has proven immensely popular. For example, one of the earliest theoretical frameworks was provided by alumnus Michael Goldfarb, author of a New York Times op-ed about the decision to close the college in which he blamed the college’s excessive liberalness. That piece, of course, went national. In a follow-up a few months later, he told The Antioch Record that “the reason why the college ultimately closed is because this idiotic university,” and that he had been a member of the Antioch Independence Fund. That interview stayed local—this was not the story that the New York Times wanted to convey.
Attempts to find a moral cause for the college’s collapse have become a common sight. Goldfarb’s more publicized theory, that the left-wing politics associated with the college pushed it over the edge, has proven seductive. Antioch College makes a fairly easy target, to be fair. Its nickname was not the “Antioch Huskies” or “Antioch Tigers” but rather the “Antioch Radicals.” It had a history of civil rights and anti-war activism beyond even what’s normal for college campuses. And Antioch, after the 1970s, was most well-known for its “Sexual Offense Prevention Policy,” or SOPP. The national media discovered the policy in 1993, and turned into an object of debate and ridicule (including a Saturday Night Live sketch1). The policy, known primarily for a clause expecting students engaging in sex to ask for and receive verbal approval for each new level of intimacy, did represent a certain form of feminism and left-wing politics. It also became a model for similar policies in colleges across the country. The toxic culture theory is ideological on the surface, but moral just below—the students behaved unethically, while the faculty and administration lacked the moral fiber to stop the students’ orgies of sex and graffiti.
Conservative columnist George Will, building on Goldfarb’s piece of a few weeks earlier, cited Antioch’s downfall as a story of moral decline, focusing on the SOPP. Many pre-1990s alumni cited the SOPP and other on-campus controversies as examples of how Antioch had declined from their time, and couldn’t be salvaged. “Toxic culture” even dominated discourse at the college before the closure. President Steve Lawry, appointed in 2005, arrived with an apparent mandate to crack down on overly left-wing college culture. It was an easy narrative, with out-of-control students and non-centrist politics destroying a once-proud institution. Media loved it.2
There is just one minor problem with the “toxic culture” narrative: it doesn’t connect with to the financial collapse of Antioch College. Any student—myself certainly included—will have memories and stories of on-campus controversies. They’re virtually guaranteed given the small number of students, the high amount of stress and turnover from the co-op program, and the school’s tendency toward activism embodied in the “Be Ashamed” motto. These controversies stick in the mind because they fall outside expected political behavior—Antioch’s “bad” public student behavior, like tense community meetings about institutional racism, seem bizarre and toxic—nothing like normal public misbehavior, like disorder after big football games, which is just “kids being kids.”
Three simple facts demonstrate the flaws in the “toxic culture” narrative. First, there are dozens of left-leaning schools across the country, like Reed, Oberlin, Hampshire, and Evergreen, which have avoided total collapse despite their politics. Second, the data doesn’t support the idea that students left at such a high rate that this caused the college to close: Even making the assumption that students who left were paying full tuition3 of around $40,0004 per year, 25 students would have to leave in order to reach $1 million worth of lost revenue. Meanwhile, depreciation, an expense transferred to the college’s budget in 2001–02, knocked the college back $1.5 million–$2 million every year (more on this later).
Beyond anecdotes, the “toxic culture” reading simply doesn’t hold up looking at raw data. Enrollment during and after controversial terms tended to remain steady. Eric Miller, the former college professor who provided his research into enrollment numbers, noted that the school years between 1983–84 and 2003–04 saw an average of 545 students, which held true across both the 21-year span and virtually any five-year grouping within those years. Neither the implementation of the SOPP in 1990–91 nor its media firestorm in 1993 correlate with a mass student exodus—numbers drop slightly, but quickly rebound.
On the other hand, there’s much more correlation between enrollment drops and significant administrative upheaval, especially long-lasting upheaval. The tumultuous 1970s, following the strike until stabilization in the 1980s, saw the sharpest decline in numbers, with students dropping at a rate of 150 per year until 1983–1984. And the two biggest falls in enrollment numbers toward the end of the school’s existence occurred during the most dramatic changes in the school’s structure: the 2005 Renewal Plan and the announcement of Antioch’s closure in 2007 each coincided with enrollment drops of roughly a hundred students. The 475 students in 2004–05 became 212 in the final year of 2007–08.
Yet the 475 number itself was a drop of almost a hundred students from the year before. There was no specific, easily-timelined board-level decision that directly accounts for that. What threatened Antioch College so much in the early 2000s?