Search the Site

When a College Dies

One of my favorite people from graduate school (a writing program at Columbia) was Peter Temes. He worked incredibly hard, writing and teaching and raising a family all at once, which meant that he kept his head way out of the clouds, which couldn’t be said of all of our peers. He has gone on to write some books (including The Just War and The Power of Purpose), teach at some universities, and is now the president of the ILO Institute, a consortium of 60+ global companies and NGOs focused on innovation in large organizations. For three years, he was also president of the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, N.H.

We were talking recently about the closing of Antioch College, and what it says about the state of higher education. Peter had some interesting thoughts on the subject, so I asked him to write up the following guest blog post. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

When a College Dies
by Peter Temes

While many colleges and universities are living through a golden age of student demand, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, known for its social-justice politics and its extensive work/study “co-op” programs, recently announced that it’s going out of business for lack of students.

So what makes one college more appealing than another?

A dozen years ago or so, as a working-stiff graduate student at Columbia and later as a (very) junior faculty member at Harvard, I sometimes found myself simultaneously teaching at a couple of the most selective colleges in the country, and at a couple of the least selective. For several terms, I taught at both Columbia and the New York Institute of Technology; later, I taught simultaneously at Harvard and Northern Essex Community College.

One lesson that leaped out at me was that the students at NYIT and Northern Essex needed their degrees, and whatever they managed to learn in class, much more than the students at Columbia and Harvard did. If you had locked the Ivy League students out of higher education entirely, they still would have prospered. The smarts and discipline that got them admitted in the first place primed them for success. Meanwhile, the community college and technical school undergrads were going to cling to their sheepskins for dear life.

There’s some center of value here that comes not from what the elite schools pour into you when you attend, but from their validation of who you already are when you are admitted. The validation and commemoration of ability are a big part of what a management consultant might call the Ivy League “value proposition.” And your local community college can’t do that, not at all. Therefore, in some ways, the local college has to pay more attention to the change it creates in students, given that the value of affiliation with the school, beyond what you learn there, is pretty close to zero.

One-hundred-and-fifty-year-old Antioch is rolling up its sidewalks because it lacked the ability to validate budding young geniuses by putting the word “Antioch” on their resumes, and it lacked the kind of skill-and-knowledge value that a good community college focuses on. (The study of gender was perhaps the most visible strand of learning in recent years — hardly a waste of time, but neither is it a useful tool to raise your income or your status among most people.)

I was the head of Antioch’s sister school, the Antioch New England Graduate School, for a couple of years not long ago, and joined an earnest group of administrators on a couple of committees dedicated to fixing the college and forestalling total collapse. The struggle of the college, I came to believe, had less to do with things like the physical state of the campus (not great, because of deferred maintenance) or the average number of piercings among the student body (off-puttingly high, according to some), than with a lack of clarity about what the college taught and why.

Recently deceased Antioch alum Theodore Levitt (no relation to Steve Levitt), a long-time distinguished professor at Harvard Business School and former editor of the Harvard Business Review, was famous for teaching that people did not buy goods or services because of what those goods and services were, but because of the jobs they did. No one wants to buy a quarter-inch drill, he would say; people really want to buy a quarter-inch hole.

Similarly, no one wanted to go to Antioch College because of how shiny the campus might be or how its system of classes might work (and it happened to work in quite a distinctive and interesting way). That is, students would not go to Antioch because of what Antioch was. Instead, it would be because of what Antioch could do for a student.

Another Antioch alum, its most famous and perhaps most important, was Coretta Scott King. Not long before her death last year, she noted in an interview with Tavis Smiley that many people underestimated her effect on Martin Luther King, and that, in turn, many underestimated the effect that her four years at Antioch had had on her.

Antioch College was useful to Coretta Scott King because of the hard work of reading, writing, and talking that she found there, the core work that creates the hard-to-grasp thing called academic quality. Antioch did great things for Ms. King and, through her, for the world.

I began to think that Antioch College would not in fact survive after a chance encounter with an influential member of one of those “save the school” committees I served on. As we were talking, I shared my opinion that the only long-term competitive advantage in higher education is academic quality.

He made a thoughtful face, paused a moment, and then said, “No, no, I don’t think so.”