>>Earth Day, Antioch College, and Arthur Morgan

Earth Day, Antioch College, and Arthur Morgan

The Armchair Environmentalist 2008 editionI got the cover today for the new US printing of the Armchair Environmentalist. While I’m not exactly an armchair type and the title wasn’t my idea, I’ve come to like it. I have always wanted to be encouraging and not preachy about going green. Making people feel guilty isn’t very effective, and in any case I wouldn’t be much good as a moral crusader. I think about this a lot now, as Earth Day dawns tomorrow and it seems that almost everyone is ready to get on the climate change bandwagon, in words if not in deeds.

In addition to extensive magazine coverage related to Earth Day, the New York Times had an education supplement yesterday with a long story about the looming closure of Antioch College, “barring any last-minute rescue, soon after next Saturday’s commencement the 156-year-old campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio, will be emptied of students, faculty and staff, lose its accreditation and cease operations for at least a few years.”

I read wondering if they would mention the college’s earlier troubles and its rescue by Arthur Morgan, the iconoclast engineer who later created the Tennessee Valley Authority. I’ve written about Morgan a couple of times and find him tremendously interesting, and far less well-known as he ought to be. He ought to be well-known in part because he is a perfect reminder of how a person can squander his potential and talent, and of how complicated it is to lead social change movements—something else that was unquestionably part of Morgan’s effort in life. But his inability to compromise, and his ego, meant that even with remarkable and well-timed ideas he floundered, and failed to lead. “Morgan, who aimed at more than educational reform, saw his efforts at Antioch as the beginning of the moral regeneration of America.”

A little evidence of the weakness of Wikipedia: compare the article below with the stub in Wikipedia. The problem isn’t just paucity of information, but the lack of coherence, and analysis. And that’s not something that an anonymous, multi-authored work is simply unable to create, so there’s always going to be a lack of answers to the important questions: How? and Why?

By the way, the adult-education campuses mentioned in the New York Times article had a number of faculty members whom I came to know through work on the Encyclopedia of Leadership, so even though I’ve never visited Yellow Springs, Ohio, this closure touches Berkshire’s work in a number of ways.

Morgan, Arthur E.

(1878<N>1975) , American engineer, college president, and social reformer

Arthur E. Morgan was a dynamic and controversial leader in flood control, rural development, and community planning, and saw himself as an innovative social engineer. Widely known as a writer on education and social issues, he served as the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a public works project initiated during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Morgan founded towns and intentional communities, wrote prolifically, and started a small organization called Community Service Inc., which is still based at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Morgan served, during a contentious but financially successful decade, as president. He is still considered by many an inspiring leader and moral reformer, but the story of his life also demonstrates the risks of imposing a moral vision on others.

Morgan was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1878, and raised in northern Minnesota. He had only three years of high school and dropped out of college in 1900, after two attempts to attend classes in Colorado, where he is also thought to have worked as a ranch hand, miner, typesetter, and beekeeper. He returned to Minnesota and began to learn engineering by working with his father, constructing drainage and levee systems for flood controls and preparing plans for the reclamation of peat marshes. By 1910, he owned his own company and was developing a national reputation as a flood control engineer. Although in later life he complained of his health and attributed some of his difficulties to a physiological problem, a kind of brain damage, as a young man he was six foot two inches tall and strikingly vital.

In 1913 he was appointed chief engineer for a new dam project in Dayton, Ohio. Dayton had suffered a historic and devastating flood earlier in the year, in which three hundred people had died, and leading businessmen had raised $2 million to help fund a solution. Morgan set to work with characteristic determination. After extensive research collecting and analyzing data on floods in Europe and the United States, he offered a number of unorthodox flood control solutions, included creating “conservancy districts” and building large earthen “dry dams” (they look like huge Indian mounds) that served as reservoirs in case of emergency and as public parks the rest of the time. Social and Educational Reforms

But Morgan was interested in more than dams. His second wife, Lucy Morgan, whom he married in 1911, was a Quaker and an ardent reformer, who believed in “a proper diet and efficient, moral living” (Talbert 1987, 28). The Morgans committed themselves to the ideal of small town life and organic communities. These ideas had been in vogue during the progressive period and Morgan had also been strongly influenced by the utopian novelist Edward Bellamy. But it was his wife’s interest in social reform, particularly her practical proposals for improving workers’ lives, that influenced him most.

He showed skill, creativity, and an absolute determination in all his projects, and at that stage in his life he was particularly adept at engaging others<M> including those with considerable financial and publicity resources<M>in his efforts. He created model workers’ settlements, schools for children and new immigrants, recreational programs, workers’ insurance schemes, and town meetings. Supported by various Dayton business leaders, he was instrumental in founding the Moraine Park School in 1917. Like the famous educator John Dewey, Morgan believed education should not be separated from real life experience, and Moraine Park stressed student self-governance and participation in teaching. Growing national recognition led to an invitation from the Atlantic Monthly to write an article about his views on education. He was to write for the magazine regularly for the next two decades.

In 1920 he was elected to the board of trustees of Antioch College, a small Ohio school that was in dire financial straits. Morgan devised a plan for saving the college and overhauling its educational program. He became its president in 1921 and was given a free hand to reinvent the college. Lucy Morgan wrote that they planned to “[dedicate] our lives to embodying our dreams at Antioch College” (L. G. Morgan 1928, 100). Morgan’s efforts, which included removing almost all the existing faculty and administrators, were successful. Enrollment quadrupled within a year, and the “Antioch Plan” got widespread attention from writers and educators. Morgan’s monthly newsletter, Antioch Notes, was widely read.

But Morgan, who aimed at more than educational reform, saw his efforts at Antioch as the beginning of the moral regeneration of America. He used Antioch Notes as a pulpit, and his preaching would have been appreciated by the most fundamentalist of Christians. He was adamantly opposed to drinking, smoking, and gambling, immoral theater, sexual activity that wasn’t intended for home-building or procreation, and even, it seemed, recreation in general. It is not surprising that this perspective led to some difficulties with the faculty, and even less surprising that it put him in conflict with the students. What is surprising is the wide appeal Morgan had; he was for decades a popular and well-known writer.

While in Europe in 1931, he reflected on his ten years at Antioch: “I know I am and have been inadequate for such leadership. Lacking educational and cultural background, with unstable temperament and bad judgment, I did not expect that I should for long be leader of the enterprise” (Morgan 1931). Faculty members, in response, asked whether Morgan’s strict moral code did not conflict with other values he advocated, such as open enquiry. They also contended that the imposition of Morgan’s stringent moral standards, on students and faculty alike, was sometimes in conflict with democratic principles.

Even today, Morgan remains a much-admired figure at Antioch, and writings about him do not mention these considerable problems. The innovative programs that developed, or matured, during his tenure as president are still considered important developments in educational philosophy. They included entrepreneurial training (training for proprietorship and management rather than simply for employment); the cooperative method of education known as work-study; and on-campus industries to provide students with practical experience and a way to earn money for their education.

The Tennessee Valley Authority

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Morgan to direct the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was perhaps the most ambitious public works project ever conceived. The invitation was fortuitous, since Morgan was faced with a revolt of Antioch faculty and students, who were not willing to give him the absolute allegiance he demanded. He continued to hold the title of college president until 1936, but his focus from 1933 to 1938 was the integrated development of the Tennessee River Valley, an area of 41,000 square miles and a population of 3 million.

For Morgan, taking on the TVA was a matter of vision<M>moral vision. He believed Roosevelt’s promise to him that the TVA would be entirely free from politics and that it was a social experiment, not just an economic enterprise. In his memoirs, Morgan quotes Roosevelt as saying, “Haven’t I been reading Antioch Notes all these years? I like your vision” (Morgan 1957). Fifty-five by this time, dignified, highly responsible, and humorless, Morgan was made the TVA’s chairman, and his co-directors <M>appointed with his support<M>were Harcourt A. Morgan, an agriculturalist and president of the University of Tennessee, and David Lilienthal, a successful Chicago lawyer and a member of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Lilienthal and others referred to Morgan as “the old man,” and it wasn’t long before Morgan’s autocratic ways led to pitched battles<M>often reported in newspapers supporting the different directors<M>and accusations that ranged from interference with operations to political corruption.

In 1938 Morgan’s conflict with his colleagues erupted into a much-publicized battle that was embarrassing for Roosevelt, who was at the time facing a difficult election. According to James MacGregor Burns, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of FDR, The Lion and the Fox, FDR recognized that Morgan, in spite of his brilliance, was an immensely difficult person to get along with (personal communication, 25 June 2003). Morgan accused his co-directors of dishonesty, while they accused him of obstructing the work of the board. According to Lilienthal’s journals, President Roosevelt gave considerable thought to how he could get rid of Arthur Morgan with the least bad press. He decided to try an approach that had worked with James J. (Jimmy) Walker, the flamboyant and corrupt former mayor of New York. He would call the three directors into his office and hold a formal hearing. He would question them himself, forcing them<M>or rather forcing Morgan<M>to explain themselves in detail. He would force Morgan to stick to the facts only. With Walker, this type of questioning over several days had led to his resignation. Roosevelt was not so lucky with the chairman of the TVA.

Morgan characteristically refused to answer the president’s questions and demanded a congressional inquiry. He walked out of the disciplinary hearing and took the train home to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he was, it is said, greeted by a crowd of a thousand people. Roosevelt fired him two days later. Morgan was not friendless: In these disputes, he had the support of the New York Times and other papers, and was himself an active journalist. The story was at times an almost daily news item across the country. Morgan did get a congressional hearing in the end, which lasted from May to December 1938. Morgan failed to produce documentary proof of his claims of dishonesty, for reasons that remain a mystery to historians. The final report was critical of Morgan and supportive of his co-directors, who remained with the TVA for many years.

Lilienthal became chairman of the TVA in 1941 and five years later President Harry S. Truman tapped him to head up the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission, but in spite of his success he never quite got over his battle with Morgan. In his book TVA: Democracy on the March, first published in 1944, he does not once refer to Morgan and there is no reference to Morgan in the index. The book’s dedication is to “the memory of pioneers of the TVA . . . They built for the People of The United States.” In the dedicatory list of ten, Arthur E. Morgan is notably absent, in spite of the fact that his ideas are distinctly evident in Lilienthal’s story. These sentences, for example, seem to echo Morgan’s thinking: “The people and the experts: the relation between them is of the greatest importance in the development of the new democracy. . . . First of all, the experts and the people must be brought together. The technicians should live where the people they serve live” (Lilienthal, 121).

Morgan wanted to change the world, and he wanted to do it from a position of authority. But time and time again his grand plans were disrupted by personal disputes, often with those who ought to have been his allies and friends. He tolerated no difference of opinion. He considered anyone who disagreed with him as not simply wrong or misguided but corrupt or immoral.

The Founding of Celo

When he was ninety, Morgan told an interviewer about the vision of an ideal community that had come to him when he was sixteen. Enthralled by Edward Bellamy’s immensely popular utopian novel, Looking Backwards, Morgan had written a biography of Bellamy, Nowhere Was Somewhere, and later a book about Bellamy’s philosophy. In 1937, while working on the TVA (and battling with his co-directors), Morgan obtained enough financial backing to found an intentional community in North Carolina. Designed to be a practical demonstration of Bellamy’s vision and intended as an alternative to government-run programs, Celo (pronounced “See-lo”) was subsidized by W. H. Regnery, a wealthy conservative businessman who shared Morgan’s belief that self-sufficient farming rather than urban public housing and industrial jobs would revive the pioneer spirit of the United States. Celo was intended to be a model community, an example of how a group of families could live and prosper in rural self-sufficiency. Morgan’s relationship with the community was distant; he never lived there and rarely visited it. But he did spend the rest of his life<M>more than thirty-five years<M>in a small town, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he founded Community Service Inc., an organization that continues to promote his ’s ideal of the small community.

A Man at the Margins

Like many utopian thinkers, Morgan was a man of considerable and varied talents, who managed to influence others through both personal authority and public writings. He effectively marginalized himself, however, by his absolute conviction in his own beliefs on issues ranging from national politics to intimate relationships. Morgan’s intense need to be regarded as the ultimate and absolute authority in any organization he was involved in made it impossible for him to operate on a scale worthy of his talents. His self-righteousness in effect pushed him to the margins, and his ideas are, as a result, of far less influence than one might have expected during the early stages of his career.

Karen Christensen

Further Reading

Herr, S. R. (1997). Connected thoughts: A reinterpretation of the reorganization of Antioch College in the 1920s. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Leuba, C. J. (1971). A road to creativity: Arthur Morgan, engineer, educator, administrator. North Quincy, MA: Christopher Publishing House.

Lilienthal, D. E. (1953). TVA<M>Democracy on the march, 20th anniversary edition. New York: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1944)

Morgan, A. E. (1931, December 3). The Letter from Portugal [Letter to the Antioch faculty].

Morgan, A. E. (1957). The Community of the future and the future of community. Yellow Springs, OH: Community Service.

Morgan, L. G. (1928). Finding his world. Yellow Springs, OH: Kahoe.

Selznick, P. (1949). TVA and the grass roots: A study in the sociology of formal organization. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Talbert, R., Jr. (1987). FDR’s Utopian: Arthur Morgan of the TVA. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

By | 2008-04-22T04:49:05+00:00 April 21st, 2008|Berkshire Blog|2 Comments

About the Author:

Karen Christensen is the CEO of Berkshire Publishing.


  1. Mark Pomerantz 22 April 2008 at 1:21


    I’m writing an article on Leadership at Antioch for the Leadership Review. I’m wondering what you thought about Steve Herr’s book and his characterization of Morgan. I think it’s a bit unfair.

    Mark Pomerantz

  2. Karen Christensen 22 April 2008 at 17:21

    I haven’t seen Herr’s book, Mark, but I’m curious. I reviewed a book about the Celo Community a few years ago, for the Journal of Utopian Studies, and that was interesting. As you can see, I admire much about Morgan, but feel he failed miserably as a leader. Very much interested to see what you write!

    Cheers, Karen.

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