The FBI’s Plot to Discredit Antioch

In the late ’60s, J. Edgar Hoover signed off on a plan to infiltrate Antioch University, spy on its alumni, and use this intel to discredit Antioch in the eyes of the public. A decade later, documents describing this plot came to Antioch’s president—only to end up hidden deep in an archive. Now, newly-discovered documents show why the plot failed.

Authority is granted for you to discreetly determine the present whereabouts and accomplishments of individuals who were militant leaders during their college days at Antioch. After this has been determined, you should submit the material which you wish to furnish friendly news media to the Bureau for approval. [redacted] – FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s June 18, 1968 memo to the Cincinnati Field Office

It’s for the archives that Antioch University librarian Asa Wilder gets on a plane from Los Angeles to Dayton, Ohio, and then drives to Yellow Springs. The archives are why he’s spending a long weekend in the cold company of old cardboard boxes that, until recently, no one knew existed. These sixty-four boxes—the papers of Antioch University’s presidents going back seven decades—haven’t been opened in many years, and no one else seems particularly interested in their contents. But Wilder is passionate about archives. 

“They’re latent possibility,” he says. “Potential energy just waiting for someone to give life to it.” 

No matter that the initial task in these four days in early 2022 is mostly clerical: assessing the archival documents for physical well-being and possible threats, then carrying out a quick survey of their contents. For this second task, he takes a picture of the front of the box, lifts the lid, takes a picture of what’s inside, and closes the lid. One by one, Wilder works this way through some fifty boxes. 

Editorial Archive Box
Editorial Archive Box

While he works, he thinks about archives as memory. Here he is, faced with Antioch’s memory. The room is quiet, but he feels the importance of this task, undertaken during a short foray from his regular job helping students at the Los Angeles campus find resources and conduct research. He’s here to take on some of this memory.

“If you lose your memory,” says Wilder, “you lose who you are.” 

He takes a picture of the next in the succession of boxes: Box #14. Office of the President: William Birenbaum. Status: Unprocessed. He opens the lid. Takes a picture. Then he notices something. A folder sticking up above the rest, labeled FBI PLOT. Bold, all-caps—an archivist’s dream. 

But there’s not much time. He still has to process another thirty-six boxes and then catch a flight home. Quickly, he snaps pictures of each piece of paper inside the slim folder. He’ll read them all later, but for now, he glimpses enticing words: counterintelligence, New Left, FOIA, communist, slander. When he’s done, he replaces the file. Closes the lid. Moves on to box #15. 

Force Antioch to defend itself as an educational institution. Force attention on activities on the Antioch campus by the parents who are sending their children to the college for an education. Force the Antioch administrators to curtail the activities of those students who spend most of their time engaging in anti-social activity, protest demonstrations, and affiliation with subversive groups. –THE CINCINNATI FIELD OFFICE’S JUNE 3, 1968 MEMO TO THE FBI DIRECTOR 

Back in Los Angeles, there’s time to look at the scans of the file labeled FBI PLOT. It contains internal Antioch communications, news clippings, correspondence with the ACLU, and two heavily redacted memoranda from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. One memo, from June 3, 1968, proposes a plot to discredit Antioch, or as the field agents who wrote the memo put it, “Counterintelligence action be taken to expose the pseudo-intellectual image of Antioch.” The other memo—from the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover—gives official approval to put the plot in motion. 

So what was this plot? It was part of the wider COINTELPRO initiative of the FBI, a program where from 1956-1971, the FBI undertook covert and illegal activities in order to surveil, infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt the activities of a range of organizations it viewed as extremist. These were, for the most part, justice-oriented groups like the Black Panther Party, Students for a Democratic Society, the American Indian Movement, and many, many more. Including, it turns out, Antioch University.

The FBI in its own files says that it began targeting Antioch because its students were “dirty” and had a “beatnik look.” The agents wrote that while Antioch “prides itself-greatly on a ‘highly intellectual’ and ‘academic, scholarly environment,’” it in fact was “most often run by 3 small groups of militants that are permitted by college authorities to attack every segment of American society under the semblance of being “highly intellectual.”

To say that the justification for plotting against Antioch is lightly-sourced is understatement. The memo relies on insinuations to the sinister nature of college students, of student organizations, and on an anecdote about a Cincinnati rally “during which large numbers of participants brazenly defied law and order,” where Antioch students and Yellow Springs residents were supposedly “represented by numbers exceeding their enrollment and population.” 

The most specific example of wrongdoing at Antioch, however, is not something done by students at all. It’s an administrator’s call to decriminalize marijuana. 

As an example of [Antioch President Jim] Dixon’s attitude during 1967, two Antioch College students were arrested attempting to smuggle marijuana into the U.S. On public disclosure of these facts, DIXON held a convocation at the college during which as a medical doctor, he attacked narcotics control laws in general, and challenged the idea that use of marijuana was harmful. -The Cincinnati Field Office’s June 3, 1968 memo to the FBI Director

In response to this horrifying indifference to anti-narcotics policy, the FBI decided to discredit Antioch—in a somewhat roundabout way.

  1. Review files at Cincinnati to identify 30 to 40 former students who were militant campus leaders.
  2. Set out leads to other offices to discreetly determine the achievement of these individuals since leaving Antioch.
  3. Continuing this method, identify a significant number who have attended Antioch, and have a low achievement record as shown by public source material.
  4. Furnish results to [redacted] “Cincinnati Enquirer,” a newspaper of general circulation at Cincinnati, Ohio. [Redacted] is also an SAC contact. Agreement would be made with [redacted] to use this material in an article questioning whether Antioch is in fact “highly intellectual” and whether students are actually receiving a quality education there.

Following publishing of the [redacted] article, give wide anonymous circulation of copies to parents of current students identified from student directories. Also circulate copies of the article to members of the Board of Directors of Antioch and to the personnel directors of all businesses that are a part of the Antioch co-op plan. –THE CINCINNATI FIELD OFFICE’S JUNE 3, 1968 MEMO TO THE FBI DIRECTOR 

It was a bold strategy, and if it all went off according to plan—including having a friendly journalist place a long hit piece in a major newspaper—the plotters hoped it would lead to the complete discrediting of Antioch.

Now, this was hardly the first time that the Federal Government of the United States had targeted Antioch over suspicion that it was harboring leftists. No, that was over a decade earlier, when former communist party member Harvey Matusow became an FBI informant and then a paid witness to Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Matusow accused Antioch of Marxist allegiances, claiming that 25% of Antioch Undergraduates were affiliated with the Young Progressives of America, the youth arm of the communist Progressive Party. That accusation led to negative coverage in both local and national media. Robert Metcalf, Antioch’s Professor of Art and Aesthetics, ended up testifying before a HUAC subcommittee. It even led to Antioch President Douglas McGregor giving testimony to Ohio’s state-level HUAC that included an impassioned defense of academic freedom.

I believe a college campus should contain people with what we call at Antioch, ‘Happy diversity of idea.’ … We have some people on the campus whom some people would re­gard as unduly liberal. I believe the important criterion in this whole area is the person’s honesty, integrity and willingness to play within the democratic ground rules that we all observe and believe in. I believe as long as a person will operate on that level, openly, honestly, and with integrity, we have nothing to fear.
– Douglas McGregor’s May 19, 1952 testimony before the Ohio House Un-American Activities Committee

A few years later, it was revealed that Matusow had fabricated all of his accusations. In his 1965 book False Witness, he confessed to his perjurious testimonies. In one section he detailed how the United States government hired him to investigate Antioch not to convict it but to destroy it. “Antioch was a school set up by Abolitionists, and now the modern investigators were trying to abolish it,” Matusow wrote. He explained how he built his invented conspiracy through half-truths, innuendo, lies—and the fact that there was one “real” communist on Antioch’s campus. Who was that? Gwen Struik ’54 (Antioch College, BA). 

While Wilder is reading the FBI PLOT file in Los Angeles, Gwen Struik is half a world away in New Zealand, talking to her daughter about love. “What is it?” The question is on her mind because a local high school student making a documentary asked her the same question on camera. Pondering it now, she feels frustrated with that clumsy word “love,” so overburdened and overfull. “English, so very depauperate,” she says, a bit ironically. She envies speakers of Maori, Ancient Greek, French—languages with a multiple words for love that can encompass its specificities and complications. That’s what she’s thinking about when she’s asked to recall Antioch and the way a paid informant used her own name and family to discredit Antioch. “Matusow,” says Struik, a bit befuddled. “You know, I only just found out last week about his book, that he had named me and my father.” 

But she’s able to give the story of growing up with her beloved father during the Red Scare like it happened yesterday. Struik’s father, Professor Dirk Struik of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a Dutch-born mathematician and Marxist theorist. He never gave up his beliefs, even during the height of McCarthyism, when he was dragged before HUAC and accused of being a spy. It was a curious world to grow up in, especially when an anti-communist tried to burn down the family house, or when an overzealous district attorney indicted her father for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That indictment led to her father spending a single night in jail. “Everyone should go to jail for something they believe in,” she says today. “Don’t you think?” (She herself went to jail over a peace demonstration.)

It was in fact Struik’s father’s indictment that led, indirectly, to Antioch being accused of being part of a communist plot. Struik had circulated a petition on behalf of her father, and Matusow capitalized on it to manufacture his claims of subversion at Antioch. But Struik had no idea about any of this at the time she was an undergraduate. “Just part of the milieu at Antioch,” she says. “The Red Scare hardly even registered.”

Back in the file labeled “FBI PLOT,” a few questions remain unanswered. For Wilder, the most interesting part of his rediscovery of the plot to discredit Antioch isn’t that it happened. “Look around you,” he says, “stuff like this happens all the time.” His surprise is that Antioch’s knowledge of it only amounted to 37 sheets of paper, tucked inside a manila folder, buried in a box. 

The people who originally assembled the documents seem similarly frustrated. There are copies of three separate angry letters to the FBI, demanding the rest of the file pertaining to Antioch. “I would appreciate your immediate response to this request, as is required by law,” wrote Acting President of Antioch University Morris T. Keeton on November 24, 1975. “As the administrator of the campus that was so attacked,” wrote the Chancellor of Antioch College, F. X. Shea, via telegram, “I request full disclosure of all FBI documents and records relating to this campus be made immediately available to me.” Clarence J. Brown, the Member of Congress representing Yellow Springs, wrote to the FBI director on Antioch’s behalf. Matching these requests are several letters from the FBI explaining that there’s a backlog, and they just can’t get to it quite yet. 

Keeton shared this frustration in correspondence with the American Civil Liberties Union, the President of Harvard University, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and any journalist who was willing to listen. Several stories were placed in locations such as the Washington Post (which incorrectly said it was the CIA that had spied on Antioch) and the Dayton Journal Herald, which ran the headline, “Antioch Believes FBI May Not Be Telling All.” Keeton’s desire was to make a big publicity push, calling out the FBI and demanding justice. However, his successor as President of Antioch, William Birenbaum, made the decision that it was time to move on. 

You recommend that I pursue full disclosure of the record … undertake the education of Federal law enforcement officers to prevent future invasions of individual and institutional rights; and, pursuant to what the records may disclose, determine damages done in the past to our College and presumably seek redress through the courts.

There is certainly enough in our file to provoke outrage. 

Given our current agenda, however, I am not persuaded that the pursuit of these historical matters can now enjoy high priority, or that practically, reopening the case will serve best the present interests of our institution.

– Antioch President William Birenbaum’s October 25, 1976 letter to Morris Keeton

Birenbaum’s memo makes clear that he thought the university should move on, and so Antioch did. But Keeton did keep pushing for justice. He filed more requests for the remaining FBI files and met with Edgar Cahn of Antioch Law School to discuss a possible lawsuit. He updated Birenbaum several more times. Eventually, though, the file was closed and tucked in with Birenbaum’s papers. The full story of what the FBI did or did not do in its plot to discredit Antioch never made it into the file.

On the FBI website, there is a section called “The Vault.” It’s a searchable database of all records that the FBI has released in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act. On that website, anyone can download the file called “COINTELPRO New Left Cincinnati Part 01 of 01.” And right there, out in the open, is the last chapter in the story of the FBI’s plot to discredit Antioch.

It turns out that the FBI gave up on the project almost as soon as they started it. Their goal was to discredit Antioch by feeding a journalist a dossier of washed-up leftist alumni, but all they managed to do was to come up with 26 names and have “their current location determined through review of Antioch College Alumni Directory.” At that point, a development occurred that caused them to abandon the plot entirely.

On 1/31/69, an article appeared in “The Record” Antioch College campus newspaper announcing that Antioch would be featured on 2/4/69, when the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) produced a 15 minute segment about the college on its “news magazine of the air” entitled “First Tuesday” 

The program showed the campus to be a place occupied by a large number of the ‘hippie type’ individuals with males wearing shoulder-length hair and dirty clothing and otherwise reflecting the Antioch campus to be anything but a place for acquiring culture.

The program continued by showing this type of individual to be completely in control of the society at Antioch College. One administrator appeared on the program to defend open housing on the campus while pictures were being shown of male and female students freely visiting each others rooms at odd hours. One scene showed a ‘hippie type’ girl sleeping in her room in a hammock. The dean defended the housing situation by stating that a friend of his from an eastern college explained to him that it was better to have the students on campus than to have the situation which occurs on his campus where ‘all the students’ leave the campus on the weekend and ‘shack-up’ at nearby hotels and motels.

The program concluded with a scene wherein the militant type leaders of Antioch student government held a meeting to further challenge the administrators but were actually unable to find anything to base additional challenge on because they were in complete control of the campus.

During this meeting one of the members of this group set off a smoke bomb which disrupted the meeting for some time and the point was clearly made that the Antioch students had nothing further to revolt about and were, therefore, now revolting against themselves.

– The Cincinnati Field Office’s March 4, 1969 memo to the FBI Director

While you might assume this would be a moment of glory for the FBI agents—this damning footage had been shown nationwide—the memo concludes on a glum note. While the program, they wrote, “amounted to a complete exposure of the varied conditions at Antioch which Cincinnati desired to expose through following the achievements of some of the previous militant leaders,” their ultimate goal of discrediting Antioch had not materialized. “There was absolutely no reaction. There was not one letter written to the editor of any of the newspapers nor was there any news comment of any kind made concerning the deplorable situation on this campus.” In light of this experience, they came to the conclusion that “individuals in this area have become dulled to the conditions at Antioch and could not be aroused. Cincinnati, therefore, feels this counterintelligence proposal should be discontinued.”

But they were wrong in another way, too. The documentary did have an effect on Antioch’s fortunes. Just not in the way the FBI agents had imagined it would. Instead, it seems that high school seniors across the country saw the film and thought, That’s the kind of place where I’d like to study.

How do we know? You see, when Asa Wilder found the folder labeled FBI PLOT, these final FBI documents were not included. But there’s one piece of evidence that suggests the Antioch administrators must have finally received them at some point. How else to explain the specific mention of NBC’s First Tuesday made by the Provost of Antioch College in his final saved letter about the case?

The NBC First Tuesday film worked almost a doubling of admissions inquiries for about a month.

– Morris Keeton’s February 18, 1977 letter to Antioch President William Birenbaum

Additional reporting was provided by Sarah Haas.