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?