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Activist history can't rescue Antioch

Financial woes to close college

YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio -- It was perhaps the last great protest at Antioch College.

The call to arms came last week, when the board of trustees announced that the school -- representative of the '60s counterculture and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements -- has run out of money and will close in July 2008.

The news came as a shock to students, local residents, and alumni. The latter descended on this village Friday with one goal: to fight "them" and save their alma mater.

The closure of Antioch College is seen as more than the end of a university -- it is another sign of the passing of an era when the search for knowledge brought greater rewards than a degree, a job, and a comfortable place in suburban society.

So the Antioch faithful came by the hundreds, from across town and around the nation. Some wore anti-Vietnam War T-shirts, others crisp linen suits. But all shared a connection to the liberal arts institution founded in the heat of the abolitionist era, in a place that was one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad.

"It breaks my heart," said Ralph Keyes, 62, a local resident who met his wife here on their first day of school in 1962. "It wasn't just a college. It was a cause."

On Friday morning, trustees and college administrators tried to explain what went wrong to an auditorium packed with more than 600 people, many of whom hissed and jeered as Steven Lawry, the college president, outlined how the school has come to rely almost completely on student tuition to cover operating costs.

Since the 1970s, enrollment has steadily declined from its peak of more than 2,000. Now, only a few hundred undergraduates are willing to pay $35,400 a year for tuition, room and board to attend this laboratory for American liberal education, where verbal assessment, not grades, measure academic performance.

While there is a long list of famous alumni, including Coretta Scott King and "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, the school became known for educating artists, activists, and nonprofit organizers instead of wealthy business leaders. The Antioch College of today is a pale shadow of the institution that took risks that many others did not dare. Founded in 1852, it was one of the nation's first co educational colleges and one of the first colleges to eliminate race as an admission requirement.

Last academic year, nearly 400 undergraduate students were enrolled. School officials are hoping to retrench and raise enough money to reopen the campus in 2012. It's not an impossible dream: The board has closed and reopened the school three times in the past, mostly due to financial issues.

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