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As Progressive Education Fades, Vermonters Mobilize

Local Matters


Published November 28, 2007 at 1:35 p.m.

VERMONT — Throughout its 150-year existence, Ohio’s Antioch College has produced an eclectic group of graduates. The college’s best-known alum is Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Antioch is also the alma mater of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling. Then there are lesser-known names, such as Robert Manry, who sailed a 13-foot sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean.

But in the Green Mountain State, we’re more familiar with names such as Jeb Spaulding, the state treasurer; Elizabeth Skarie wife of Ben & Jerry’s Jerry Greenfield; and Casey Murrow, son of famed newsman Edward R. Murrow. These and other dedicated Vermonters who attended Antioch College are taking part in a national campaign to save the 155-year-old Yellow Springs-based school from closing, due to declining enrollment and an insufficient endowment. Two hundred thirty students attend today’s Antioch, compared to more than 2000 in the 1960s.

Local Antioch alums and dropouts alike say they’re moved to help rescue the college because of what they see as congruence between Vermont’s ethic of neighborliness and town meeting-style democracy, and Antioch’s commitment to participatory governance. They also say the school’s pending end marks a disturbing trend in progressive college closings.

“Antioch has an amazing spirit of community,” says Jill Wolcott, a member of the Class of ’74 and co-organizer of the Vermont/Upstate New York Chapter of Antioch Alumni. The Shelburne resident says her current involvement with Charlotte’s co-housing movement and with the Waldorf School in Shelburne can be traced to her experience at the unconventional college.

“Antioch does give people a belief in their own self-determination and their responsibility for their lives,” she adds.

Skarie says the college forms “part of my identity I’ll never shed” — even though she left Antioch in 1971 only a year and a half after enrolling. “I went because it’s a politically active school,” the Williston resident and philanthropist explains. Skarie runs a foundation with Greenfield. She eventually received a nursing degree from Cornell — and returned to Antioch for a Master’s in counseling.

At an October 18 meeting at the Burlington home of Robin Lloyd — a former Antioch student who is known in Vermont as a longtime peace activist, filmmaker and publisher of the progressive online journal Toward Freedom — local supporters mapped plans for fundraising on behalf of the college. Lloyd didn’t end up graduating from Antioch, but some of the roughly 160 Vermonters who did already have contributed to an $18 million pledge drive. Wolcott, head of the local alumni chapter, says she can’t specify the sum of these private donations.

The fundraising effort was enough to persuade Antioch’s trustees to shelve their June decision to close the school next year. But the trustees also warned earlier this month that at least an additional $45 million must be raised by 2010 if the college is to remain open. The college also operates a New England graduate school in Keene, N.H., as well as campuses in Seattle, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

Fundraising poses special challenges for a school whose graduates practice its ideal of social justice, Skarie notes. “It’s hard for Antioch to be financially viable because the students who become lawyers tend to work for Legal Aid and the doctors end up treating a lot of patients for free,” she notes.

It’s vital that the school continue to operate as “a bastion of progressive education,” says Amanda Calder, a Shelburne resident who graduated from Antioch earlier this year. The termination in 2002 of Goddard College’s residential undergraduate program acted as a “motivator” for her involvement in the save-Antioch campaign, says Calder. “We can’t keep losing these progressive institutions,” she adds, noting that New Hampshire’s Franconia College — a school with a similar philosophy — has been shuttered as well.

Lloyd says her life has been strongly influenced by Antioch’s pioneering co-op program, through which students leave campus to work in a variety of settings while continuing their studies. She recalls traveling to Africa with her father, anti-colonialist campaigner William Lloyd, as part of the co-op program while she was enrolled at Antioch in 1957 and 1958. She transferred to Brandeis University in Massachusetts after marrying a student there. She still remembers learning the Horah, an Israeli folk dance, in an Antioch campus gathering spot affectionately known as Red Square.