Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Antioch College's Lack of Leadership

We see failures big and small when we analyze leadership, but not many times do we see an organization failing to the point of closure. Last school year Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio closed its doors after 156 years. The college maintained a reputation of progressive liberal teaching and culture especially made famous during the 1960s. Since there have been many presidents and members of the Board of Trustees during the declining times of Antioch, this post will focus on leadership failure as a whole.

Antioch College began suffering in the early 1970s from lack of a cohesive vision, a lack of community and a true lack of leadership. After experiencing a period of growth, the college began to expand outside of its original focus of undergraduate education. The unofficial campus motto had been to “take education to the people”, but what no one was prepared for was the massive expansion resulting in four graduate campuses being opened in less than eight years. The name was legally changed to Antioch University, although the undergraduate campus was allowed to maintain college. The faculty and students on the undergraduate campus began to feel alienated from the mission of a strong liberal arts undergraduate-focused education. Enrollment steadily dropped and eventually fell under 200.

The theory that this most closely follows is Selznick’s outlined in “Leadership in Administration”. Antioch’s administration from the president to the Board of Trustee’s failed to set long term goals for the institution that were cohesive with the college’s image. I agree with Selznick when he said that when there is a failure at the institutional level it is “more often by default than by positive error or sin” (25). No one at Antioch wanted the institution to fail, but goals were not communicated. They hoped to expand the institution beyond the undergraduate sector and capitalize on the financial stability. Antioch fell victim to the pressure of opportunistic forces of grow, grow, grow. Selznick specifically uses university administration as an example of leadership misinterpreting success while “steadily growing larger” (27).

Selznick goes on to talk more about the values and goals of an organization as something that must “infuse the organization on many levels” (26). While the faculty was seeking structure and stability in the undergraduate education structure, the administration was expanding to graduate education that did not follow the mission of the school.

The closing of Antioch College is perhaps an extreme example because we often don’t see institutions closing. I would argue though that there are many other examples of organizations that are experiencing a lack of leadership. Do you think the positioning of a strong leader would have been able to change the course of Antioch College? On a side note, an independent organization has been moving to reopen the school with an entirely new administration. Do you think that the school will be able to reopen and find success?


  1. I think that this is a good example about the goal of "grow" can be catastrophic when its not defined. I agree that there were multiple failures on the part of various groups, does it seem like this could be a case of Groupthink? It looks like each group thought they had the answer but were not being challenged to face the reality that they could actually close. A strong leader may have been able to help, but only if they were able to reign in the growth, I do think that even the strongest leader would have had to close at least one graduate school to try and save the overall school. The idea of new administration could be a start in rebuilding Antioch but the history and the now alienated followers (such as alumni, students who were displaced when it closed, and those who use to work there) may not be so open to this. Whoever decides to try again has many leadership challenges ahead of them...

  2. So what would some of these leadership challenges be? My first thought was in response to what you said Nicole about the alienated followers. If leadership is a relationship between leader and follower, who is this new administration going to be in a relationship with? Alienated followers like alumni and displaced students and staff or an entirely new group of followers? Or both? My instinct is both so I think it would be interesting to think through how the leadership would have to approach the relationship with these two groups of people differently.

    As Selznick says “leadership is a kind of work done to meet the needs of a social situation"...this would definitely be work!

  3. I think another major challenge is the need to have a better business sense in education leadership. When are operating under the broad goal of providing high-minded education but you also need to make money, it's not surprising to me that the goals become unclear. I think it's one of the most complicated challenges leadership in educational institutions faces.

  4. I definitely think that the only way it can have a chance of rebirth is if it brings in the alienated followers and turns them into effective followers. Like Kelly said of alienated followers, they are " critical and independent in their thinking, but passive in carrying out their role" (143). An effective follower "who can succeed without strong leadership" is going to be necessary for the continuation.

    It looks like there are two independent groups in the mix. The Nonstop Liberal Arts institute is made up of alumni, former faculty and even residents of Yellow Springs that have seen a decline in the town's prosperity as the has college declined. Then the group that is buying the campus and the endowment is the Antioch College Continuation Corp, which is an alumni group.

  5. Wow, I am shocked that Antioch College closed! Just a few years ago it seemed the school was well in the ranks of other progressive liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Bard and Reed! From what I know about the "old Antioch," it seems they were trying to achieve too many things at once and became decentralized. "Old Antioch" was a close-knit intellectual undergraduate community that fostered progressive and independent thought in its students; this new "Antioch University" seems strictly aimed at providing a convenient, practical, application-based education. How can a college expect to sustain multiple education brands while remaining fully-integrated? Perhaps Antioch should have followed Bard College's more integrated & incremental approach when expanding and providing graduate education...

  6. Very interesting post, Haley. It is difficult to determine if a different leader would have made an impact upon the fate of Antioch. I completely agree with your alignment of Selznick and that sometimes leaders just fail by default, beyond the realm of their control and preventative measures are not an option.

    However, I have a hard-timing believing that a reputable instituion had absolutely no hope for survival. Something COULD have been done I believe. There aren't really any excuses for not having a clearly defined vision or not embedding mission to students and faculty. Because the situation is not obviously apparent who is at fault, it is difficult to point blame.

    Perhaps the college called for a more "transformational leader" and opting for change. If they were watching the decline before their eyes, why didn't someone step in and make drastic changes? Perhaps culture of faculty and administration did not allow, and thus there was no effective followership, thus losing the leaders vision?

    Great post, good insights!

  7. Great comments and I'm trying to find more information for your all's points. Something interesting that I found was that originally when they were expanding to new graduate sites, they were relying on faculty connections and help in establishing a campus. It looks like they spiraled out of control a little bit when they did not consider a cap on enrollments and in the late 1970s enrollment at the entire university hit 5,000. That is a mid-sized school operating on the structure of a small-sized college. I think it eventually left the hands of well meaning faculty and did become a profit builder. Like what Ann Candler said, it is a fine line to walk when dealing with an educational institution between a commitment to students and a commitment to profit.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.